Monday, December 15, 2008

Italian rescued 65 miles short of rowing Pacific Ocean solo

By Bonnie Malkin in Sydney

Alex Bellini - Italian rescued 65 miles short of rowing Pacific Ocean solo
Mr Bellini set off from Peru 10 months ago but had to call on help just a short distance from the coast of Australia Photo: REUTERS

It was a rather ignominious end to a grand adventure. After 10 months of rowing alone across the vast Pacific Ocean, eating only dried food and with nothing but emails from fans for company, Alex Bellini was rescued by a tugboat, just 65 nautical miles from his destination.

Mr Bellini, 30, set off on his solo crossing from Lima, Peru, in February, and had planned to next set foot on land in Sydney on Saturday. His plan was to row across the great ocean in his 25-foot boat. For 99 per cent of the gruelling journey, success seemed to be within his grasp.

But, suffering from exhaustion and battered by fierce storms off the eastern coast of Australia, he was forced to call his wife on Friday and ask her to send for help. The New South Wales mid-north coast was just beyond the horizon.

Salvation came hours later in the form of an Australian search and rescue aircraft and a New Zealand-registered tugboat.

When a thin and heavily-bearded Mr Bellini was finally brought ashore at the Australian port of Newcastle, he had to be carried to the customs office. He weighed 30 pounds less than when he set off and his wife Francesca said he was "looking confused".

Mr Bellini, who averaged 30 nautical miles a day, had not walked more than a few metres since he set off from South America.

Despite coming agonisingly close to his goal, the adventurer was surprisingly upbeat.

Once ashore, he insisted he was not disappointed and was proud of his achievement.

He said it would have been foolish not to call for help when he did, with predictions of poor weather for the next two days.

"I didn't put the cherry on top of the cake. But the cake is very good, very big and I will never forget about it," he said.

"I did not fail," he said, but had merely "asked for a tow" for the last few kilometres.

The Italian, who has already rowed the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and walked across Alaska, twice, pulling a sled, said he would never forget the epic 10,000 nautical mile (11,500 mile) non-stop journey.

"I received more than 30,000 emails on my satphone. It has been not really a one-man adventure. I was alone at sea, but I was not completely alone," he said.

Despite his ordeal, Francesca Bellini, who helped organise the voyage, said her husband loved the sea and would have fond recollections of the trip. Although he failed to reach dry land, his wife said they still regarded it as essentially a full crossing of the Pacific Ocean.

He is not, however, the first person to row solo across the Pacific. Had he succeeded, he would have been the fifth person to complete the crossing in a row boat.

Mr Bellini has said he was inspired to cross the Pacific Ocean, which spans almost one third of the globe, because it makes him feel "100 per cent alive."

"I do it because, for me, it's extremely easy to do what seems extremely hard for others to even imagine."

However, he has promised his wife that he will not attempt the crossing again. His priorities now, he said, were to eat, sleep and spend time with his family.

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Klitschko KOs Rahman in seventh, retaining IBF, WBO heavyweight belts

MANNHEIM, Germany -- Wladimir Klitschko defended his IBF and WBO heavyweight crowns by stopping Hasim Rahman in the seventh round at SAP Arena on Saturday.

Klitschko hit the shorter, older and heavier Rahman at will throughout, and after landing a left-right-left combination against the cornered American, referee Tony Weeks stepped in to end the contest 44 seconds into the round. Rahman didn't appear upset.

"He knew this was his chance," Klitschko said, "I was surprised, but he was much slower."

Klitschko had knocked down Rahman in the previous round with successive left hooks.

The technical knockout in Klitchsko's sixth defense of the IBF belt -- and third this year -- improved the Ukrainian-born fighter to 52-3 with 46 KOs.

"He fought a very smart, intelligent fight," said Klitschko's trainer, Emanuel Steward.

Rahman, the two-time heavyweight champion who stepped in as a replacement opponent last month, struggled to get inside the taller Klitschko's reach, and dropped to 45-7-2.

Wladimir Klitschko

Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images

Wladimir Klitschko (right) methodically took down last-minute replacement Hasim Rahman in their heavyweight bout Saturday.

The fighters started out fast and light on their feet, but it soon became apparent that Rahman was struggling to overcome the 3½-inch height advantage enjoyed by the champion. Rahman had to lean in drastically, and Klitschko easily fended off his punches.

Rahman did little more than lean on the ropes for a time and guard his face as Klitschko sought his opening.

"Wladimir was very smart not to throw too many punches and to be very patient and to work behind his left jab," Steward said.

Rahman looked reinvigorated in the fourth round, using his whole torso to make ambitious attacks, often connecting with Klitschko's body.

But he rarely landed blows above Klitschko's shoulders, and the consequences were clear when Klitschko dropped Rahman early in the sixth with two hard lefts to the side of his head.

Rahman got up but spent the remainder of the round in the corner, taking a sustained beating.

Another flurry at the opening of the seventh ended Rahman's challenge.

Klitschko also retained the minor IBO belt.

He was originally scheduled to face Alexander Povetkin (16-0), but the Russian pulled out with an ankle injury.

Klitschko cited Povetkin along with fellow Russian Nikolai Valuev and American Cristobal Arreola as signs that heavyweight talent is improving.

He also mentioned British boxer David Haye, who monopolized the post-fight press conference with a challenge to Klitschko's older brother, Vitali.

"I want to fight him because he's the big one," Haye said. "He in my opinion is the best fighter."

Vitali Klitschko, who reclaimed the WBC heavyweight title in October by stopping Samuel Peter, said he might fight Haye in 2009.

"We'll see," Klitschko said. "I would gladly fight against him."

On the undercard, former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe made a modest comeback with an eighth-round decision over Germany's Gene Pukall. It was just the third fight in a decade for the 41-year-old American and his first in three years.

Bowe (45-1, 33 KOs) had been training in Germany since September in an effort to get his stamina up and his weight down. The work paid off in the ring, where he kept up with the 33-year-old Pukall (14-13-2, 12KOs) and bested him with a stream of careful head shots.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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Rower rescued off Australia after 10-month journey

By KRISTEN GELINEAU, Associated Press Writer

Rower rescued just short of crossing Pacific Play Video AP – Rower rescued just short of crossing Pacific
Handout picture shows Italian adventurer Alex Bellini gesturing in front of his Reuters – Handout picture shows Italian adventurer Alex Bellini gesturing in front of his row boat (R) after arriving …

SYDNEY, Australia — An Italian adventurer who spent 10 months rowing more than 9,500 nautical miles (18,000 kilometers) across the Pacific has been rescued a mere 65 nautical miles short of his goal — Australia — after rough weather sapped him of his final shreds of energy.

Alex Bellini, who began his voyage off Peru in February, contacted his wife Friday to say he was too exhausted to row his 25-foot (7.5 meter) boat any further, despite being nearly in sight of the eastern Australian town of Laurieton.

Bellini's wife contacted authorities, and an Australian tug boat towed the 30-year-old to shore. They reached Newcastle, 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Sydney, Saturday morning.

Although looking weary and thin and sporting a bushy beard, Bellini grinned and appeared in high spirits as he was reunited with his tearful wife, Francesca.

"I'm feeling good. I'm exhausted," Bellini told The Associated Press. "I need some time to relax."

A strong wind had hampered his efforts to get closer to shore for days. By Friday, he said, his energy was gone.

"For the next few days, the weather would have been even worse," said Bellini, who has also rowed across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. "It has been a grueling, grueling effort."

Bellini said the journey was not about breaking records; he is not the first person to row solo across the Pacific and is not yet sure whether his trip is the longest solo journey. Instead, he said, the voyage was about testing his own limits.

"The reasons of my trip was double. First of all was to cross the Pacific," Bellini said. "But the other reason of my trip was making a trip inward. So it was discovering something of myself."

Bellini used a satellite phone to keep in contact with those on land and survived on dried food and desalinated ocean water. He also used a small cooker to fry up fish and to boil water for pasta. He found himself craving sweet foods — especially tiramisu and apple cake — and was looking forward to gorging on desserts.

"It made me crazy. I want all the sweets here in Sydney," he said with a laugh.

The worst part of his journey was the loneliness and the longing he felt for his wife. But despite their 10 months apart, Bellini said it was as if no time had passed when they laid eyes on each other Saturday. The two plan to return to their home in Trieste, Italy, in about a week.

For now, Bellini has no immediate plans to return to the open ocean. He has other priorities.

"I miss my bed. I miss my home," he said. "I need to go back and settle down."

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10 Sports Heroes You Won’t Find On Wheaties Boxes

the mag
by the mag

0703.jpgEditor’s Note: To promote the mental_floss Holiday Subscription Special, I’ve asked co-founders Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur to select some of their favorite mag articles from 2008. Today’s story comes from our annual ‘10′ issue. And if it puts you in a subscription-giving mood, here are the details.

by Ethan Trex
May-June issue

Shame on Wheaties for ignoring the heroes of elephant polo, sumo wrestling, and bullfighting! At our breakfast of champions, they’re always at the head of the table.

1. Sumo Wrestling: Akebono Taro

a.ake.jpgThe only slim thing about sumo wrestling is the chance of becoming a yokozuna, or grand champion. Throughout the centuries, only 69 men have done it. Before Hawaii’s Chad Rowan stomped into the ring, no foreigner had ever held the honor. Of course, improbable things can happen when you stand 6’8” and weigh more than 500 lbs.—gigantic even by sumo standards. After abandoning a college basketball scholarship due to arguments with his coaches, Rowan threw himself into sumo.

In 1988, he went to Japan with only a single set of clothes and a limited knowledge of Japanese. But Rowan wasn’t there to chitchat. Within a year, the quick study had learned how to use his towering height to make devastating thrusts at opponents’ throats. That March, he made his professional debut as Akebono—“dawn” in Japanese—an ironic moniker for a man who could block out the sun.

As Rowan’s victories piled up and his Japanese improved, he won more and more fans. His jovial demeanor didn’t hurt, either. In January 1993, Akebono was promoted to yokozuna—a title he held until retirement. By the time he was ready to hang up his belt in 2001, he’d racked up 566 wins and 11 division championships.

2. Elephant Polo: Kimberly Zenz

elephant.jpgWhen Kimberly Zenz, an experienced horse polo player, discovered elephant polo on the Internet, she knew she’d found her destiny. Intrigued by the prospect of simultaneously riding an elephant and wielding an oversize mallet, Zenz posted an ad on Craigslist looking for teammates in Washington, D.C. Amazingly, people responded.

Zenz’s four-person team, the Capital Pachyderms, didn’t have real elephants with which to practice. Luckily, that didn’t matter much. Four elephants—along with four experienced elephant drivers—are provided to each team before a tournament. Knowing that her squad could concentrate more on whacking the ball than handling the elephants (you leave that to the drivers), Kimberly and crew trained on top of old swing sets to approximate the pachyderms’ height.

As one might expect, there wasn’t quite enough jungle in their jungle gyms. The team’s training efforts were no substitute for experience, and the Capital Pachyderms finished second to last in Thailand’s 2006 King’s Cup Elephant Polo Championship. Undeterred, Zenz and her team kept practicing. In 2007, they placed second in a competition in Sri Lanka and fifth in the World Elephant Polo Championships in Nepal. Both victories have earned them bragging rights as “America’s No. 1 elephant polo team.” [Image courtesy of]

3. Bullfighting: Sidney Franklin

In 1922, Sidney Franklin was just an artist from Brooklyn who’d moved to Mexico City after an argument with his father. One day, he decided to take a break from painting to see his first bullfight. Franklin immediately fell in love with the sport—particularly the crowd’s reverence for the fighters. When he told his Mexican friends that he was surprised by the absence of American matadors, they replied that Americans didn’t have the guts to step into the arena. The ribbing irritated Franklin so much that he embarked on a quixotic mission to become a legendary bullfighter.

In need of a trainer, Franklin brashly solicited the services of renowned Mexican matador Rodolfo Gaona. The request was basically the equivalent of asking Peyton Manning for free football lessons, but shockingly, Gaona accepted.

Franklin’s fearlessness didn’t translate into instant success. During his first fight in 1923, he fell down twice before killing the bull. Within five years, however, he was thrilling Mexican crowds. But the victories weren’t enough for Franklin. Looking for bigger challenges, he set out to conquer the motherland of toreadors—Spain. Franklin’s gutsy performances in Spanish arenas earned him throngs of fans, along with several gorings. They also earned him the friendship of bullfighting aficionado Ernest Hemingway. The author would later immortalize Franklin’s technique and bravery in Death in the Afternoon, saying Franklin’s life story was “better than any picaresque novel you ever read.”

4. Billiards: Willie Mosconi

It’s hard to believe that billiards world champion Willie Mosconi learned to play pool by hitting potatoes with a broomstick.

a.mosconi.jpgIt’s even harder to believe that his parents, who ran a pool hall in Philadelphia, forbade him from playing because they wanted him to pursue a career in vaudeville. Luckily for them, the obstinate Mosconi taught himself late at night with the only implements at his disposal.In no time, Mosconi became a cue-wielding child prodigy. His talents supported his family during the Great Depression, and Mosconi went on to win 15 world championships during his career. Impressively, he still holds the world record for running balls without a miss, sinking 526 consecutive balls in a 1954 exhibition.
Of course, Paul Newman might argue that Willie Mosconi’s greatest accomplishment was teaching him to play pool. Allegedly, Newman had never played before filming The Hustler. After taking intense pool-shark lessons from Mosconi, however, Newman was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor in 1962.

5. Polo: Sue Sally Hale

Women who disguise themselves as men seem to be successful in only two settings—the plays of William Shakespeare and the real-life drama of Sue Sally Hale. Hale, who received her first horse at the age of 3, was determined to play polo, even though Southern California’s thriving early 1950s polo scene forbade women from the field. So when she was old enough to play, Hale simply dressed as a man. Before each tournament, she would don a baggy shirt, stuff her hair under her helmet, and draw on a mustache with mascara. Playing under the name A. Jones, she competed with such ferocity that one commentator claimed Hale “could ride a horse like a Comanche and hit a ball like a Mack truck.”

After each match, she would transform back into Sue Sally Hale, then go carousing with her teammates, who were happy to play along. For the next two decades, Hale maintained the ruse while campaigning fiercely to get the United States Polo Association to changes its policies. The association relented in 1972, and Hale finally received a membership card, along with the freedom to play under her real name.

6. Cricket: John Barton King

Cricketers in the United States may be traditionally associated with wealthy men of leisure, but the top player ever produced this side of the pond was a middle-class baseball fan from Philly named Bart King. What made King so great was his ability to dominate as both a bowler and a batsman—the equivalent of being a top-notch pitcher and slugger in baseball. As a bowler, King created a pitch he called “the angler,” which dipped and swerved in a way that confounded batsmen. As a batter, he was one of the top scorers in North American history.

The gregarious King was also beloved for spreading tall tales about himself. Perhaps his most famous story came from a 1901 match against a team from Trenton, New Jersey. As the legend goes, King was about to bowl to the Trenton team captain when the batter started to talk trash. Remembering a stunt he’d seen in a baseball game, King ordered the rest of his team off the field. He reasoned that he wouldn’t need anyone around to catch the ball, because he was about to strike out the loud-mouthed batter. The cocky move proved effective. King fired off his angler, and the befuddled Trenton captain didn’t stand a chance.

7. Formula One Racing: Phil Hill

a.phil.jpgFormula One, the elite international driving circuit characterized by curvy courses, is a sport dominated by Europeans. It’s also a sport that rewards aggressive driving. Both are reasons why Phil Hill, an American who’s petrified of racing, should not be one of the greatest Formula One drivers of all time.
After a boyhood spent obsessing over cars, Hill began racing Jaguars in 1950 in Southern California’s burgeoning road-racing scene. Successful as he was, Hill remained terrified of racing’s dangers. Worried that he was going to kill himself on the track, Hill developed serious stomach ulcers that prevented him from keeping down solid foods before a race. To keep his energy up, he began a pre-race regimen that included feasting on jars of baby food.

In 1956, Hill made the jump to European racing as a member of the famed Ferrari team. With a few key wins, including France’s grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans race, he established himself as a star. Then in 1961, Hill got behind the wheel of the legendary “shark-nose” Ferrari 156 and became the first American to win the coveted Formula One World Drivers’ Championship. The victory not only secured his place in racing history, it also assured that Phil Hill could afford the finest baby food for the rest of his career.

8. Tug of War: Milwaukee Athletic Club Team

At the beginning of the last century, tug of war was more than just a groan-inducing part of company picnics. From 1900 to 1920, it was an Olympic event. Traditionally, the best teams came from Scandinavia and Great Britain, where the sport still enjoys a strong niche following. But one American squad managed to grab gold in the 1904 St. Louis games—the pullers of the Milwaukee Athletic Club.The triumph of the club’s iron grips and sturdy ankles led to much rejoicing across Milwaukee. There was a slight snag, though. No one on the team was actually from Milwaukee, and they certainly weren’t members of the Milwaukee Athletic Club. Instead, the athletes were ringers that the club’s head, Walter Liginger, supposedly recruited from Chicago. Although the defeated teams filed a grievance, Olympic officials rejected the protests, and the so-called men from Milwaukee got to walk away with both their medals and their honor intact.

9. Soccer: John Harkes

If you’re ever asked a trivia question about Americans in English soccer, always guess John Harkes.

After a distinguished college career at the University of Virginia, Harkes headed to England in 1990 to join the Sheffield Wednesday Football Club. Although British fans were skeptical, he quickly earned their respect after smoking a 35-yard, game-winning goal in the last minute of a match against Derby County. Fans were so impressed they selected the shot as England’s “goal of the year.” Harkes continued to win over the English with his scrappy play, and he became the first American to compete in several major European tournaments. In 1996, he returned to the United States, but his legacy overseas remained. His feistiness proved to the British that Americans could excel at European football, and it paved the way for the influx of Americans playing in Europe today.

10. Fencing: Keeth Smart

Like lots of kids growing up in the 1980s, Brooklyn’s Keeth Smart adored the lightsaber battles in the Star Wars movies. But, unlike most of those kids, Smart parlayed that into the top saber fencing ranking in the world—a first for an American in a sport historically dominated by French and Hungarian swordsmen.
In 1990, Smart’s parents convinced him to sign up for lessons with fencer Peter Westbrook. Westbrook, who won the bronze at the 1984 Olympics, had recently opened a school to expose New York City’s youth to the sport. Turns out, Smart’s body was perfect for fencing. His long legs allowed him to quickly cover the field, and his long arms allowed him to attack from safe distances.

Smart went on to become a four-time All-American at St. John’s University in New York and a two-time Olympian. But, stunningly, he wasn’t even a professional fencer when he grabbed the world’s top saber ranking in 2003. While most of his European rivals spent their days training and living off sponsorships, Smart was working full-time as a financial analyst for Verizon and practicing just three nights a week.

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Sports Personality 2008

Lifetime achievement award for Charlton

Sir Bobby Charlton has been honoured with the 2008 BBC Sports Personality's Lifetime Achievement award.

Charlton, 71, helped England to World Cup success in 1966 and then led Manchester United to European Cup glory in 1968, scoring twice in the final.

The award, which recognises Sir Bobby's 50 years dedicated to football, was presented to him by brother Jack.

Sir Bobby, who is England's all-time leading scorer with 49 goals, said: "I am absolutely knocked out with this."

Charlton, who received a standing ovation from the 9,000-capacity audience inside the Liverpool Echo Arena, added: "I was fortunate enough to be good at the game of football.

"It was easy for me and I couldn't understand it when people couldn't play the game.

"I hoped that one day I would play for a League club and England and I achieved my goals.


"There are players here from the United team of 1968 and the World Cup team of 1966 which is in our history. If I played a little part in it then I am very grateful.

"All the yachtsmen, cyclists and athletes here are fantastic and marvellous and it is great for their future that there are events like this where all these young people can be recognised."

Charlton also scored 249 goals for Manchester United in 758 appearances during a club career that spanned from 1953 to 1973.

Roger Mosey
BBC Director of Sport
Sir Bobby was joined by legendary friends from the world of football as well as a group of other survivors from the Munich air crash, which happened 50 years ago this year.

Previous winners of the Lifetime Achievement award include Sir Bobby Robson (2007), Bjorn Borg (2006), Pele (2005), Sir Ian Botham (2004), Martina Navratilova (2003), George Best (2002) and Sir Alex Ferguson (2001).

The Lifetime Achievement award celebrates those who have made a significant contribution to sport and demonstrable success in their relevant sport throughout their careers. The award is the gift of the BBC.

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Even Lions not far from playoff contention

by Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for He's covered the NFL for 14 seasons as a beat writer and is the president of the Pro Football Writers of America.

Through 13 games, the NFL standings show that any team is just one season away from being back in playoff contention.
Even the Detroit Lions.

Just like that winless franchise, the 2007 Miami Dolphins were an NFL laughingstock during last season's 1-15 campaign. One year later, Miami has the chance to complete the biggest turnaround in NFL history. The Dolphins (8-5) can clinch the AFC East title by winning their final three games.

"It's something to hold your head up high about because last year was the opposite," Dolphins defensive end Vonnie Holliday told South Florida media this week. "You wanted to stay in the house and not come out because it was a bad situation. Now, you're sitting here at this time of the year exactly where you want to be — in the hunt."

Miami isn't the only once-downtrodden franchise on playoff safari. Three others that won five or fewer games in 2007 — Atlanta, Baltimore and the New York Jets — remain serious postseason contenders.

Every year since the NFL switched to an eight-division, 32-team format in 2002, at least one team with five or fewer wins one season has rebounded to reach the playoffs the following season. But never have four such clubs qualified in the same year.

Conversely, three of the four teams in last year's conference championships (San Diego, Green Bay and New England) may fall short of the postseason. Two other 2007 playoff squads — Jacksonville (4-9) and Seattle (2-11) — are already eliminated from contention; Washington (7-6) would be on the outs if the regular season ended today.

The cliché that the NFL is a "year-to-year" league has never rung truer. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome knows that first-hand.

Baltimore experienced an eight-game swing when dropping from 13-3 in 2006 to 5-11 last season. The Ravens are soaring once again at 9-4 entering Sunday's pivotal AFC North match-up against visiting Pittsburgh (10-3).

"Were we really good enough to be a 13-3 team? I don't know, but we definitely weren't a 5-11 (caliber) team last year," Newsome said in a telephone interview. "There are certain things and positions that can affect a team's success."

Let's begin at quarterback. The Ravens (Joe Flacco), Jets (Brett Favre), Dolphins (Chad Pennington) and Falcons (Matt Ryan) all have new ones who have started every game. Last year, those teams fielded a combined total of 11 starting quarterbacks.

After being traded from Green Bay, the 39-year-old Favre has proven it wasn't a mistake for him to come out of a brief retirement. Pennington, who was released by New York after the Favre acquisition, has proven a steadying influence for a young Dolphins offense. As for Ryan and Flacco, both are disproving the notion that rookies can't handle the NFL's most difficult position.

"Did (Flacco) impact our team to the point that it's because of him that we're in a division race and fighting for the playoffs? Yes," Newsome said. "You can say the same thing about Matt Ryan and (Tennessee running back) Chris Johnson."

Just like when Eric Mangini led the Jets to the playoffs in 2006, new head coaches in Miami (Tony Sparano), Atlanta (Mike Smith) and Baltimore (John Harbaugh) have experienced quick success. None of the three were big-name hires or had previous NFL head-coaching experience, but they each had a plan to kick-start their struggling franchises. Sparano, Smith and Harbaugh built quality coaching staffs that include three former head coaches at offensive coordinator — Dan Henning (Miami), Mike Mularkey (Atlanta) and Cam Cameron (Baltimore).

"Sometimes a different voice or different approach can be the difference between a playoff team and 6-10," said Newsome, whose team parted ways with head coach Brian Billick last January after nine seasons. "But eventually, it still comes down to players. You've got to have both."

The talent being fielded in Baltimore, New York, Atlanta and Miami is significantly different than at this point in 2007. The Ravens are healthier defensively and have gotten steady play out of left tackle Jared Gaither, who replaced the retired Jon Ogden. Besides trading for Favre and standout nose tackle Kris Jenkins, New York embarked on a wild free-agent spending spree, acquiring key players in left guard Alan Faneca, right tackle Damien Woody and outside linebacker Calvin Pace. New management in Atlanta (Thomas Dimitroff) and Miami (Bill Parcells/Jeff Ireland) used a combination of the draft and free agency to replenish their rosters.

While all four franchises have provided some of the NFL's best feel-good stories in 2008, it's also entirely possible that the Dolphins, Ravens, Jets and Falcons will fall short of the playoffs once again. But at least Baltimore, Miami, Atlanta and New York have something that wasn't there at this time last year — hope.

"That's the beauty of the NFL," Pennington said. "Regardless of what happened the year before, it's a new season every year."

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Bradford’s biggest score: the Heisman Trophy

The star quarterbacks from the top two teams in the country shook hands Saturday night, then embraced.

On Jan. 8, with the national championship on the line, it won’t be so cordial.

Bradford, Oklahoma’s amazingly accurate and quick-thinking passer, won the Heisman after leading the highest-scoring team in major college history to the BCS title game.

A year after Tebow was the first sophomore to win the Heisman, Bradford became the second and kept the Florida star from joining Archie Griffin as the only two-time winners.

Bradford and Tebow will soon meet again, when the No. 2 Sooners (12-1) face No. 1 Gators (12-1) in Miami.

“We’re ready to get back to work to get ready for the 8th,” Bradford said. “When we started this season, winning the national championship was the first goal we put down as a team.”

Next month’s game between Oklahoma and Florida marks the second time Heisman winners will play against each other. The first was in the 2005 Orange Bowl, when ‘04 winner Matt Leinart and Southern California beat ‘03 winner Jason White and Oklahoma for the national title.

Bradford, who leads the nation in touchdown passes with 48, received 1,726 points. Texas quarterback Colt McCoy was second with 1,604 and Tebow—who received the most first-place votes—was third with 1,575 points.

“I was definitely surprised and I think it’s everything I imagined,” said Bradford, who raised the 25-pound bronze statue with his left hand still in a cast from a recent surgery. “I think it will take a couple weeks to set in.”

Bradford got 300 first-place votes, McCoy 266 and Tebow 309. Not since 1956 had a player drawn the most first-place votes and finished third; Tommy McDonald of Oklahoma holds that distinction.

Bradford was the third person to win without receiving the most first-place votes, joining Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung in ‘56 and Oklahoma’s Billy Sims in 1978.

Any consolation, Tim?

“Not really,” he said with a smile. “You lose, you lose.

“We still get to play in January and decide something a little bit bigger.”

It was the closest margin between the top two since Nebraska’s Eric Crouch edged Florida’s Rex Grossman by 62 points in 2001. The only other time the gap between first and third was smaller was also ‘01, when Miami’s Ken Dorsey was 142 points behind Crouch.

“Now I know what it’s like for those people on ‘American Idol,”’ McCoy said. “My heart was pounding.”

The award ceremony was held at the Nokia Theatre in Times Square. When it was over, the finalists were whisked downtown with a police escort, about 50 blocks to the Sports Museum of America in lower Manhattan for a news conference.

“I was really nervous,” Bradford said during his news conference. “I’d much rather play in front of 100,000 people than wait for an award to be handed out.”

The Big 12 South was the epicenter of college football this season, with both the national championship race and Heisman chase turning weekly on games played by its three powerhouse teams.

Texas quarterback Colt McCoy answers questions for the media after coming in second place in the Heisman Trophy voting Saturday, Dec. 13, 2008 in New York.
Texas quarterback Colt McCoy a…
AP - Dec 13, 10:56 pm EST

McCoy was the early Heisman front-runner after leading the Longhorns to the No. 1 ranking with a victory against Oklahoma in October. Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell, who finished a distant fourth in Heisman voting, then moved to the forefront after he tossed a last-second, game-winning touchdown pass to beat Texas a month later.

But Bradford closed strongest, leading his team to a string of blowout victories, including one against Texas Tech, and a spot—even if it was somewhat controversial—in the BCS title game.

Bradford leads the nation in passer rating (186.3) and has thrown for 4,464 yards, directing the Sooners’ fast-paced, no-huddle offense.

Oklahoma has already racked up 702 points to blow past the record of 656 set by Hawaii in 2006, and last week the Sooners became the first major college team in 89 years to score at least 60 in five straight games.

“This is an individual award but I feel like I’m receiving it on behalf of my teammates,” Bradford said during his acceptance speech. “I feel like our whole offense bails me out every game. They make me look good.”

Oklahoma football player Sam Bradford puts his hands on the original Heisman Trophy, which is on display at the Sports Museum of America, after being awarded the Heisman Trophy Saturday, Dec. 13, 2008 in New York.
Oklahoma football player Sam B…
AP - Dec 13, 10:41 pm EST

Bradford is the fifth Oklahoma player to win the award, and second during coach Bob Stoops’ 10 seasons with the Sooners. Bradford matched White by taking home college football’s most famous bronze statue. Next he’d like to join Josh Heupel, his position coach and a Heisman runner-up, who quarterbacked OU to the 2000 national title.

“You were one of my heroes growing up,” Bradford told Heupel.

Oklahoma has never won a national title and a Heisman Trophy in the same season.

While no match for Tebow and McCoy as a runner, Bradford’s Heisman moment came on a scramble against Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale. He sprinted away from pressure, turned up the sideline and about 5 yards from the end zone tried to vault headfirst to the goal line. Bradford got hit and flipped, arms and legs whipping around, and landed hard out of bounds, but popped right up. On the next play, he sneaked into the end zone from a yard out.

He came out of that game with an injured non-throwing hand. The cast will be off well before the game against Florida.

The winner that night in Miami gets the biggest prize of all.

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Investigator: Simpson paid off witness

A witness in O.J. Simpson's Las Vegas trial said the former football star paid him to alter his testimony, an investigator said.

The Los Angeles Times reported Friday that an investigator from the Clark County district attorney's office said witness Alfred Beardsley said Simpson gave him his Hall of Fame ring in exchange for altering his testimony.

"I asked what did you get to change your testimony," said investigator Bill Falkner, who worked with prosecutors to build the armed robbery and kidnapping case against Simpson, who was sentenced to nine years earlier this month.

The newspaper reported that the witness's allegation emerged at a civil court hearing in Los Angeles in which attorneys for Fred Goldman asked a judge to order Beardsley to turn over the ring to help satisfy the $33.5 million wrongful-death judgment against Simpson.

Although a jury acquitted Simpson of the 1994 murders of Goldman's son, Ron, and Simpson's ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, a civil jury found him liable for the deaths.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Gerald Rosenberg ordered Beardsley back to court next Friday to hand over the ring.

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Sixers fire Cheeks in fourth season

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- The 76ers signed Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala to $80 million deals in the offseason and gave another $25 million to Louis Williams because they believed they could contend in the East.

When the blossoming Sixers nucleus stumbled to start the season, it was Maurice Cheeks who paid the price.

Cheeks was fired Saturday in his fourth year as coach of the Sixers, who are slumping at 9-14 a season after making the playoffs. Assistant general manager Tony DiLeo was appointed coach for rest of 2008-09.

The dismissal came hours before the 76ers were to play at home, with DiLeo making his coaching debut against Washington.

The hasty move caught the Sixers by surprise.

"They want to win and win now," Brand said.

Team president Ed Stefanski said he fired Cheeks because the 76ers were not successfully running the fast-break, up-tempo style of play they used at the end of last season to make the playoffs.

The Sixers' slogan is "Run With Us." When they couldn't, Cheeks was run out of town.

"I felt we were not progressing the way we had wanted to progress," Stefanski said. "I didn't feel on the floor we were executing the philosophy we wanted to have as Sixers basketball."

Cheeks became the fifth NBA coach fired this season following P.J. Carlesimo (Oklahoma City), Eddie Jordan (Washington), Sam Mitchell (Toronto) and Randy Wittman (Minnesota).

Cheeks was one of the most popular players in 76ers history and led them to the NBA title in 1983. He was part of Larry Brown's staff when the Sixers went to the NBA finals in 2001 and, after a head coaching stint at Portland, returned to Philadelphia in 2005.

He never had a winning record (122-152) in three-plus seasons and the Sixers were eliminated last season in the first round by Detroit. After an 18-30 start, Philadelphia won 18 of its next 23 games and wound up at 40-42, the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.

The strong finish and Brand's free-agent acquisition sent expectations soaring in Philadelphia. The 76ers anticipated a deep run in the playoffs this season.

Stefanski rewarded Cheeks with two contract extensions in seven months that would have taken him to the end of next season. Instead, with the team on a three-game losing streak and last in the Atlantic Division, he didn't even last until the end of the calendar year. The Sixers have lost eight of 10 entering Saturday.

"I knew something would happen because of the high expectations, but I didn't think it would happen that fast," Brand said.

A message left on Cheeks' cell phone was not immediately returned.

"It takes time and I'm sad, because he did a phenomenal job last year," Brown said.

The Sixers made a surprise choice skipping assistants like Jim Lynam for DiLeo, a New Jersey native who played at La Salle. He played and coached in West Germany for 10 seasons before joining the Sixers in 1990-91. He had a brief stint as an assistant in the early '90s, but hasn't been in an NBA huddle in more than a decade.

"Once you're a coach, you're always a coach. That doesn't concern me at all," said chairman Ed Snider.

There were a smattering of boos when DiLeo was introduced before the Washington game.

DiLeo was promoted to senior vice president/assistant general manager in 2003 and has been a steady presence at practices.

He believes if the Sixers can stretch that fun and fast-breaking style over the rest of the season, they can race up the Eastern Conference standings.

"I have seen flashes, quarters or halves of this, but we have to do it more consistently," DiLeo said. "We want to play at more of an up-tempo pace."

Brand's arrival has been a popular target for their slide this season. His numbers (15.9 points, 10 rebounds) are off his career averages, and the Sixers play slower when he's on the court. Iguodala hasn't adjusted making the move from small forward to 2 guard, Samuel Dalembert has struggled on the weakside and seen his numbers drop, and the Sixers still don't have a legitimate 3-point threat.

"Elton can fit into a running game," DiLeo said. "He's a perfect trailer. He can catch, he can shoot, he can put it on the floor. ... If you're looking for an ideal trailer, he's an ideal trailer."

Cheeks played 15 seasons in the NBA, the first 11 with Philadelphia, and retired in 1993. An outstanding defensive player, Cheeks played in four All-Star games and his No. 10 jersey hangs in the rafters.

At the press conference to announce his hiring, former Sixers guard Allen Iverson said, "If you got a problem with Mo Cheeks, there must be something wrong with you." Iverson -- who has feuded with many of his coaches -- would have a bitter falling out with Cheeks and was eventually traded to Denver. The 1-2 combination of Iverson and Chris Webber also was a bust in Cheeks' first season.

They're all gone and now so is Cheeks.

"I believe in this team, we are better than this and we are going to make it better," Stefanski said. "We will find a way to improve on this team."

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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According to several baseball officials, the Yankees remain in the Mark Teixeira hunt. But the same connected voices insist if the Yankees don't land the switch-hitting first baseman, they will turn their money toward controversial slugger Manny Ramirez.

"If they can't get Teixeira, they are right there on Manny," an official with knowledge of the Yankees' plan said yesterday.

The attention being paid to bolster the lineup that lost Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi doesn't mean the Yankees are out of the pitching business. They remain engaged with Andy Pettitte, Derek Lowe and Ben Sheets. Eventually, the Yankees believe Pettitte will take their $10 million offer.

Only fools count out the Yankees when it comes to free agents. Nevertheless, Teixeira has eight-year offers for $160 million from the Angels and Nationals. The Red Sox are wary of eight years but aren't shy of six for $150. Having already spent $243.5 million for CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, the Yankees may not want to go that high (or for that many years) for Teixeira.

If they pass on Teixeira, the Yankees will try and bolster a sagging lineup with Ramirez, one of the greatest run producers in baseball history. And to clear some money, they might entertain offers for outfielder Xavier Nady, who made $3.35 million last year, is arbitration eligible and a free agent after the 2009 season.

"Hank (Steinbrenner) wants him, but he isn't alone in the organization," a source said of Ramirez. "They need somebody to protect Alex (Rodriguez)."

The Yankees are likely to offer Ramirez, 37 in May, a three-year deal in the $20 million range, though agent Scott Boras reportedly is seeking a five-year deal for the future Hall of Fame lock.

Because the signings of Sabathia (seven years for $161 million) and A.J. Burnett (five years for $82.5 million) leave $48.5 million of the $88 million that came off the Yankees' payroll, there is plenty of glue left for more additions.

Ramirez carried the Dodgers into the playoffs with his bat, producing a .396 batting average, 17 homers and 53 RBIs for the Dodgers in 53 games after getting banished from Boston. Combined, he batted .332 with 37 homers and 121 RBIs. Ramirez forced his way out of Boston with boorish behavior that included shoving 64-year-old traveling secretary Jack McCormick to the ground.

Another option would be to obtain right-handed hitting outfielder Jermaine Dye, 35 next month, from the White Sox.

"He's available, but they aren't going to give him away," said a source with knowledge of Chicago's plan to get younger.

Dye has the Yankees among the six teams for which he can veto a trade, and it's not likely the Yankees would give him an extension (or pick up a $12 million option for 2010) to waive the no-trade clause.

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Top 10 Worst Baseball Free Agent Signings over the Last 20 Years

by Jim Neveau

For baseball fans, the winter months are sometimes just as exciting as the actual season. Teams are constantly wheeling and dealing with a plethora of trades, free agent signings, and a general sense of drama hanging over the proceedings.

I’m sure I’m not alone in the feeling of elation that I get when my team scores a big name free agent. The anticipation of seeing what that player will bring to the club the following season is enough to send any baseball nut into a tizzy, and, as a fan of the Cubs, I’ve gotten to experience that feeling a lot in recent years.

This glee sometimes goes un-rewarded, however. For every player like a Manny Ramirez that can hit a city and make a huge impact, there are multitudes of guys who think they’re finding greener pastures elsewhere, and they end up scraping the bottom of the barrel a few years later.

With this in mind, here is my list of the top 10 worst baseball free agent signings in history.

10. Chan Ho Park, P5 years, $65 million from the Rangers in 2002

You would have thought that being the only pitcher to ever surrender two grand slams to the same player in the same inning would have been enough of an indicator that Chan Ho Park wasn’t all he was cracked up to be.

Well, to Rangers owner Tom Hicks this wasn’t enough proof.

A man who is becoming famous for overpaying players and then whining about it later, Hicks signed Park to one of the most lucrative contracts for a pitcher in history, showing him the rewards for having a 15-11 campaign in 2001 with the Dodgers.

Park did little to earn this contract after receiving it, pitching to an abysmal 10-11 record in his first two seasons in Texas, with an ERA well above 6.00. He was frequently hampered by injuries, and eventually the Rangers traded him in 2005 to the San Diego Padres.

He is still trying to make a comeback into baseball, but injuries still haunt him to this day.

9. Albert Belle, LF5 years, $65 million from the Orioles in 1999

Albert Belle will always be viewed by most baseball minds as one of the most hated players in the history of the game. He had a nasty temper, illustrated nicely by stories of destroying thermostats and boom boxes with his trusty corked bat at his side.

In the winter of 1996, Belle signed with the White Sox for a five year deal worth $55 million. This contract had a stipulation that Belle could opt of the contract and automatically receive a top-three salary in the league, and he took advantage of this in the winter of 1998.

After the Sox declined re-signing him, the Orioles were the lucky victims of fate, agreeing to a huge contract with the slugger. He managed to play just two more seasons, until he had to retire with a hip condition.

This contract would have been higher on the list, but the Orioles got a good chunk of the money from the contract back due to an insurance policy they had inserted into the contract. Lucky them.

8. Juan Pierre, LF5 years, $44 million from the Dodgers in 2007

Juan Pierre is still one of the best singles hitters in the game of baseball today, but unfortunately for him and the Dodgers, that is all he is.

Pierre signed his deal after a halfway decent season with the Cubs. In that year, he had an average of .292 and collected 204 hits. He also stole 58 bases.

In the first year of his contract, he hit .293 for the season, while also stealing 64 bases. This apparently wasn’t good enough for the Dodgers, as they brought in Andruw Jones (an honorable mention on this list) to replace Pierre in center field. He was eventually shifted over to left field and lost his starting job about midway through last season.

Looking at his numbers, his RBIs have slowly decreased since 2004, and his walk totals have followed suit. Clearly the Dodgers don’t value his services very highly, and they are stuck paying him nearly $9 million a season for the next three years to sit on their bench.

7. Carl Pavano, P4 years, $39.95 million from the Yankees in 2005

This may not be one of the biggest contracts ever signed by a free agent, but the lack of earning that Pavano did for the contract is staggering.

After a 18-8 record with the Marlins in 2004, the Yankees decided that they needed some new blood on the pitching staff. When they brought Pavano into the fold, things started going wrong almost immediately.

In June of 2005, Pavano injured his shoulder and was placed on the DL. He missed the rest of that season, and then all of 2006 with various injuries.

Pavano managed to pitch three games in 2007 before going down with an elbow strain that eventually resulted in him having Tommy John surgery. In 2008, he managed a 4-2 record with a 5.77 ERA and gave up 23 runs in his seven starts.

Pavano is currently rehabbing in Tampa, FL, waiting for a team to call upon the man whose agent still insists that he is still ready to be a 1-2 starter and go 200+ innings in a season.

6. Jason Giambi 1B/DH7 years, $120 million from the Yankees in 2002

You know, I’m betting that the Yankees weren’t thinking about steroids and facial hair when they signed Jason Giambi to this enormous contract in 2002.

Before he donned the Bronx Bombers uniform, he had a fantastic couple of seasons with Oakland, hitting 124 home runs and 280 RBI in his final three seasons in the Bay Area. He also played at least 150 games for four consecutive seasons at the end of his run in green and gold.

After he signed his contract, he managed to have two good seasons in a row for the Yankees, hitting 41 homers in each campaign, but the Yankees still couldn’t win that elusive title. In 2004, everything began to fall apart.

He only played 80 games in that season, hitting .208 with 12 home runs. He also was implicated in the notorious “Game of Shadows” in 2006, in which leaked grand jury testimony implicated Barry Bonds and Giambi in the BALCO scandal.

To Giambi’s credit, he apologized for using steroids in May 2007, and he cooperated with the Mitchell Report as well.

In 2006, he had a bit of a resurgence with 37 home runs and 113 RBI, but he batted .253 and only managed 113 hits over the course of his 139 games. In 2007, he backslid a bit, only playing in 83 games and hitting a horrendous .236 with 14 home runs and 39 RBI.

Injuries and steroid abuse conspired to knock Giambi from the upper echelons of the Major League hierarchy, and earned him this spot on this list.

5. Denny Neagle, P5 years, $51 million from the Rockies in 2001

After going 15-9 with the Cincinnati Reds and New York Yankees in 2000, Denny Neagle signed a lucrative deal with the Colorado Rockies that made him one of the wealthiest pitchers in the game. Mr. Neagle quickly proved, however, that he was not worth the money.

Over the course of the next two seasons, Denny compiled a gaudy record of 17-19, with an ERA above five, gave up 55 home runs, and hit 17 batters. In an injury shortened 2003 season, he also went 2-4 with an ERA of 7.90.

Unfortunately for Denny, his troubles didn’t end there.

He missed all of the 2004 season with elbow ligament surgeries, and he was released by the Colorado Rockies after he found himself embroiled in legal trouble. After he was arrested with a hooker and driving under the influence, he was released by the team and sent on his way.

In 2005, he signed on with the Devil Rays, but once again was unable to play due to recurring injuries. After several other arrests and legal troubles, Neagle’s career ended in a sea of criminal activity and unrealized potential.

4. Barry Zito, P7 years, $126 million from the Giants in 2007

If anyone personifies being overblown on the free agent market, it’s Mr. Zito. He came in to the Giants organization making a name for himself for the team across the Bay (the A’s), with his guitar playing antics and his ridiculous curve ball.

He threw at least 200 innings in each of his six full seasons with the Athletics, and he was a three-time All-Star. He also won the Cy Young Award in 2002 with a 23-5 record, and he struck out 205 batters in 2001. He also never missed a scheduled start. It was for all of these reasons that the Giants committed the biggest contract ever given to a pitcher to let him pitch in friendly AT&T Park.

The park and team have been anything but friendly to him.

In his two seasons in Rice-a-Roniville, Zito has a 21-30 record, with an ERA near 5.00 and 40 home runs given up. He also set a career high by allowing 102 walks in 2008.

Things got so bad for him last season that he was demoted from the starting rotation for part of the season, as youngsters Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum showed dominance and a reason for hope in San Fran.

3. Mo Vaughn, 1B6 years, $80 million with Angels in 1999

Mo Vaughn came to the Angels after a checkered final season with the Boston Red Sox. He got into an altercation at a nightclub when he punched a man, and he crashed his truck on his way home from a strip-club. His off-field troubles didn’t affect his on-field track record, as he combined to slug 75 home runs with teammate Nomar Garciaparra.

When he came cross-country and suited up for the Halos, he was productive—when he was healthy. He hit 30-plus home runs in his first two seasons in Anaheim, but he caught a nasty case of the injury bug when he came to California.

In fact, before his first game, he fell down the dugout steps on his first play as an Angel and badly sprained his ankle. It was these kind of nagging injuries that led to him missing the entire 2001 season and he was subsequently traded to the Mets after the season.

When Troy Percival said that the Angels wouldn’t miss Vaughn’s leadership, Mo taunted his former team, saying that they had “no flags hanging at friggin’ Edison Field, so the hell with them”. It must have felt pretty good for Troy and the Angels to win the World Series the first season after Mo took his act to New York.

He played limited ball in 2002 and 2003, ballooned to 275 pounds, and was sidelined permanently by a knee injury that last season. The trade that netted the Mets Vaughn was orchestrated by Steve Phillips, who is casually referred to as “the GM” on ESPN. I wish my legacy was that I pulled off one of the worst trades in history and get a cushy job at ESPN.

2. Kevin Brown, P7 years, $105 million in 1998 from the Dodgers

Quick! Tell me what you do with a 33 year old pitcher who had an 18-7 record for a team that made the World Series?

If you answered give him the first $100 million contract in Major League history, then you must be the GM of the Dodgers who decided to give exactly such a deal to Kevin Brown, who proceeded to win an average of nine games a season for the rest of his career.

After finishing third in Cy Young voting, Brown wanted to pay closer to his home in Georgia, but what kind of moron would turn down that kind of coin?

In his first season, he posted an 18-9 record with an even 3.00 ERA, which is obviously respectable. After this, however, his performance began to slowly suffer as he caught the injury bug, missing significant time between 2000 and 2002. In 2003, he had a resurgence of sorts, going 14-9.

This number, however, is undermined, as Brown was one of the players suspected of steroid abuse in the Mitchell Report. Kirk Radomski claims he sold Brown HGH between 2000 and 2001.

In 2003, he was traded to the New York Yankees, and his most notable accomplishment in the Bronx was breaking his hand after arguing with Joe Torre. He tried one more comeback attempt in 2005, going 4-7 with an ERA of 6.50.

1. Mike Hampton, P8 years, $121 million in 2001 from Rockies

If Denny Neagle and Mike Hampton have taught Major League pitchers anything, it is this: when Colorado comes calling with huge contracts, RUN AWAY! Coors Field is apparently where good pitchers go to die, and Hampton was not an exception to this rule.

In his first season in Colorado, he went 14-13 with an ERA of 5.12, and in his next season, he was even worse, going 7-15 with an ERA of 6.15.

After these two horrendous years, he was traded to the Florida Marlins, and then to the Atlanta Braves.

In 2003, he won 14 games, and in 2004, he won 10 of his final 11 starts, but in 2005, the wheels came off again. He managed 12 starts before being lost for the season, and then had Tommy John surgery, costing him his entire 2006 season.

In 2007, he was expected to rejoin the rotation, but after an oblique injury, it was again revealed he had recurring elbow pain, and had another reconstructive procedure, costing him the entire season.

In 2008, he actually managed to make a couple of starts, going 3-4 with a 4.85 ERA, giving up 10 home runs in 13 starts, and walked 28 batters in 78 innings.

He currently has a contract with the Houston Astros, and is still wanting to try to make a name for himself as a quality middle of the rotation pitcher.

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