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The Whims and Foibles of Sports...

Kentucky's sentimental choice to win the Derby

by J.W. Miller on 04/30/15

The Lovely Miss Jean and I attended the 2014 Kentucky Derby, but this year we will watch at home, sip some home-made mint juleps and snack on Kentucky beer cheese and Bluegrass burgoo, Kentucky’s version of gumbo. But for a Kentucky bred who made his  home in New Orleans, the 2015 Derby has only one horse to pull for. International Star, a three-year-who made his mark in New Orleans and is owned by a Kentuckian, is my sentimental favorite. 

International Star is not the universal favorite. His current odds of 20-1 are well behind trainer Bob Baffert’s American Pharoah, the favorite at 5-2. But if you look at it from my perspective, then consider a bundle of evidence, some real and some, well, sentimental! Owner Ken Ramsey, 79, is the sport's best self-made story. A successful businessman, Ramsey bought an old farm near Nicholasville, Ky., in 1994 and, along with wife Sarah, built an industry juggernaut. The Ramseys have won six Eclipse Awards - four as owners, two as breeders. Last Friday, they wrapped up a record 15th Keeneland meet ownership title. They've won more races than any owners in Churchill Downs history. What the Ramseys have not won is the Kentucky Derby. In six tries, they've never finished better than eighth. "This," Ramsey told the Lexington Herald’s John Clay, "is the best shot we've ever had." 

Adding to the sentimental aspect is that Star became the overall points leader for Derby eligible horses by winning the Louisiana Derby and sweeping the Fair Grounds Triple Crown. A Kentucky angle and a New Orleans angle? Wow, this is a story made in Gentilly! Fun fact 1: Since Churchill implemented a points system, the leader has also been the winner. Orb did it in 2013. California Chrome did it in 2014. "That could be a good omen," Ramsey said. Fun fact 2: The last Louisiana Derby winner to win the Kentucky Derby also is the last Derby winner to be sired by a Derby winner. That was 1996 winner Grindstone, by 1990 winner Unbridled. International Star is by 2000 winner Fusaichi Pegasus.

Another reason I like Ramsey is that he is still upset at Kentucky’s loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four. So am I. Ramsey even used a UK analogy when talking about American Pharoah. "We may have a super horse in American Pharoah. We could be talking Triple Crown and 40-0 and have a more realistic chance than the Cats had," said Ramsey, who attended the Final Four. "But we know in sports anything can happen."

If all that isn’t enough to make a Kentucky bred fan pull for a horse owned by a Kentucky bred owner and who won his best races in New Orleans, how about this? International Star’s trainer is named Mike Maker! I can see the headlines now! “Maker Makes his Mark with Derby win!” That’s enough to mix a Maker’s Mark julep right now! Bottoms up! Go Star!

Saints draft can be Heaven or it could be Hell

by J.W. Miller on 04/27/15

You can understand the NFL Draft, which begins on Thursday, when you look at it from the extreme perspective. There is Draft Heaven and there is Draft Hell, and I have seen both from the inside. The difference between the two is often the size of one’s cujones, but it can just as easily be dumb luck. First, I will tell you what I would do if the first-round decision this week was up to me, and then I will back it up with a history lesson on Heaven and Hell, draft-style.

My sources tell me that this year the "talent line" is drawn after the top seven picks. That means the league's scouting experts generally agree there are seven can’t-miss players, who are, in no particular order, QBs Jameis Winston of Florida State and Marcus Mariota of Oregon, WRs Kevin White of West Virginia and Amari Cooper of Alabama, DT Leonard Williams of Southern Cal, DE Dante Fowler Jr. of Florida and OT Brandon Scherff of Iowa. After that comes a jumble of about thirty players of similar talent, their draft position determined only by the particular need of the team drafting. 

Need adds value to a player and influences a team’s thinking with regard to trading up, so add another two or three players to the top tier. That brings the Saints’ top considerations to about ten players, which means they’ve got to move out of their No. 13 slot if they want an impact player. For example, if the Saints believe their greatest need is an edge rusher, they might trade up from No. 13 to get either Bud Dupree of Kentucky or Vic Beasley of Clemson. Ditto with Trae Waynes of Michigan State, the top-rated cornerback or one of the wide receivers. 

Dupree would be a perfect fit for Rob Ryan’s defense. He is bigger than Beasley (6-4, 270 vs. 6-3, 246 for Beasley), just as fast (4.56 vs. 4.53 for Beasley), and his leadership qualities are unquestioned. The Saints last season showed they are struggling for leaders on the field, especially on defense, and Dupree fills the bill on all counts. The latter consideration is why I would not pick Nebraska’s rush end Randy Gregory, who failed the IQ test when he tested positive for marijuana at the NFL Combine. 

The Saints will wait until the seventh or eighth selection is made, and then spring into action, calling teams with whom they already have had "what if our player is there" conversations. If they can’t get a trade partner, they will sit at No. 13 and hope the players who fall to them fit their needs. The more likely trade slot for the Saints could be at No. 31, but only if a difference maker falls past his pre-draft ranking. If that player is still on the board after the No. 20 or 21 teams select, the Saints may again try to move up. If they stand pat in the first round and keep the second, two thirds and two fourth-round picks, they will focus on the positions they did not bolster in the first round. 

And now, here are two stories of how Draft Heaven can quickly become Draft Hell. When the Saints brass sat in the War Room during the 1987 draft, they had targeted cornerback Rod Woodson of Purdue, hoping he would be available at their No. 11 slot. The player personnel department saw the "talent line" at about eight or nine players who could make an immediate impact on the program. We sat there hoping at least two teams ahead of us would go for need and pick a lower-rated player to fill a hole. That happened at No. 6 when the Cardinals picked QB Kelly Stouffer of Oregon, pushing the remaining gems closer to No. 11. 

Pittsburgh was on the clock at No. 10, and Woodson was still available. The Steelers appeared to have more needs than defensive backs, but, predictably, they burst the Saints bubble when they took Woodson, who would be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009. With the next pick, the Saints picked DT Shawn Knight of BYU, whose picture is alongside the Dictionary definition of "Bust!" That is Draft Hell. 

An example of Draft Heaven came in 2001 after I had moved on to the Chicago Bears. Our GM, Mark Hatley, was a former Saints scout who coveted Mississippi RB Deuce McAllister. As half of the first round picks came off the board, McAllister kept falling, and Hatley got on the phone to the Saints. He came back to our war room and said the Saints would trade their No. 23 pick for the Bears’ No. 1 pick the following year and other considerations. However, Bears CEO Ted Phillips did not like trading future No. 1 picks and nixed the deal. The Saints kept the pick and used it on McAllister. Dumb luck turned that pick into Draft Heaven as Deuce went on to become one of the favorite Saints of all time. 

So now it’s showtime, NFL-style. The 2015 draft is on the clock. So which will it be this week for the Saints? Draft Heaven or Draft Hell?

Should Saints care if Tampa passes on Jameis?

by J.W. Miller on 04/20/15

Random thoughts while wondering if the Falcons are going to limit the Saints’ options and pick Kentucky’s master pass rusher Bud Dupree at No. 8...

You can bet the Saints are lining up their boards and making last-minute telephone calls to the teams ahead of their No. 13 slot to ask the question: “If our guy is there when you pick, would you be willing to trade down?” It worked last year when the team traded up from 27 to 20 with Arizona and took WR Brandin Cooks. That same thing could also happen on April 30, but I suspect the more likely scenario is for the Saints to hold at No. 13, where a number of quality players should be available, and then try and trade up from No. 31 if they see a bargain player who has dropped beyond their rating. 

We’ll look at the draft in more detail next week, but I am already prepared to make one bold prediction: Tampa will not pick Jameis Winston No. 1 unless they’re stupid. I know he’s a Florida State guy, and it would be big news in Tampa and Lovie Smith sees himself as a role model who can straighten out wayward youth in his charge. That’s all well and good, but you don’t spend the No. 1 pick in the draft when character issues are afoot. Winston’s own agent said this week that he will have a difficult time adapting to more money and more freedom. But in the draft, you can hate a guy at No. 1 and love him at No. 6 which is why I believe Winston could fall to the Jets at No. 6, barring another team trading up. 

Should that make a difference to the Saints? If I were scheming next season’s Saints game plan against Tampa, I would much rather face a rookie at quarterback, especially one who could implode, than facing a defense which isn’t that bad bolstered by a defensive tackle like Leonard Williams of USC or Dante Fowler of Florida ...

The Pelicans should feel right at home tonight in Game 2 of their first-round NBA playoff series with a lineup weakened by injuries. Tyreke Evans might miss the game after bruising his left knee in a collision with Golden State forward Andre Iguodala in Game 1. Evans said Sunday an MRI showed a deep bone bruise, and he is questionable for Game 2. The Pels have been there before, leading the league in games missed by their top six players. Jrue Holiday was out for 40, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson out for 21 each and Anthony Davis was down for 14. Just when they get Holiday back, Evans is nicked after missing only three games during the regular season. It might not matter. The Warriors have the best record in the league and are odds-on favorite to come out of the Western Conference unscathed. But, dammit, wouldn’t you like to see the Pels at full strength? They defeated the Warriors 103-100 on April 7 and made a late run in Game 1. Anthony Davis is playing phenomenal basketball, and the role players such as Quincy Pondexter and Norris Cole have provided valuable minutes. They can play with those guys. They just need all hands on deck. 

I always attend the Zurich Class of New Orleans, which tees off on Thursday at the TPC of Louisiana. Reigning Fed Ex Cup champion Billy Horschel picked up his first PGA tour victory two years ago at the Zurich, and he is slated to be joined by four others among the top 20 in the current world rankings. No. 5 Jason Day, No. 6 Dustin Johnson and No. 10 Justin Rose, who tied for second at the Masters last week, are highest on the list. Steve Stricker will make just his second start of 2015, coming off a tie for 28th at the Masters on the rebound from back surgery. 

I am picking Johnson to continue his solid play and get his second victory since a six-month leave from the tour to battle personal problems. Johnson, one of the long hitters on the tour, beat J. B. Holmes by one stroke to win the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral in Miami on March 8, and he finished tied for sixth last week in the Masters. If Johnson is in the mix on the weekend, local fans might even get to see Johnson’s fiancée Paulina Gretsky and her dad, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, in the gallery. Go Dustin!

American golf needs the Era of Spieth

by J.W. Miller on 04/13/15

All you really need to know about Jordan Spieth, golf’s new wunderkind, is to flash back to the 14th hole of Sunday’s final round of the Masters. Spieth was 18 strokes under par and hit a decent drive, while Justin Rose, his closest competitor at 14-under, had splayed his drive to the right into the pine forest. Spieth put his approach shot on the green and had an easy two-putt for par, while Rose faced a shot off a packed dirt surface, an overhanging pine branch that obstructed his view of the green and a sand trap begging to swallow his ball. They were starting to pop the champagne corks in Spiethville. 

But Rose did what the world’s best golfers do in that situation, hitting a wedge under the branch, over the trap, through the windmill, under the lighthouse and then backed up his spinning shot to a tap-in birdie. Spieth’s margin was down to three strokes with four holes to go, the type of situation where he might have crumbled last year under just such an assault when matched with Bubba Watson. But Sunday, Spieth simply smiled, looked over at Rose and gave him a thumbs up, which signaled  “Great shot, Justin!” What it did not say was “but I’m gonna kick your ass anyway!” And he did. 

Spieth birdied the next hole and held on as his pursuers ran out of holes. And what a parade of golf royalty tried! In addition to Rose, who will be the highest ranked golfer at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans in two weeks, the pack included three-time champ Phil Mickelson, No. 1 in the world Rory McIlroy, the sweet-swinging Hideki Matsuyama and former Masters champ Zach Johnson. The likes of Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, Dustin Johnson, Hunter Mahan, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia all ended up in the Top 20. Even Tiger Woods flashed his former brilliance and showed that he isn't done competing for major championships just yet. 

But the 2015 Masters clearly belonged to the 21-year-old Spieth at a time when America needs a successor to Woods and Mickelson. The 2014 Ryder Cup meltdown accented the fact that U.S. golf is struggling for a new champion and a new era of dominance. Tiger ruled. Arnie and Jack ruled. Tom Watson ruled. Lee Trevino won six majors. With five majors, Phil has spent his time on the throne. But today, American golf is loaded with .300 hitters who will never win a batting title. 

Of those Americans who have flashed most recently, Bubba has won big but not consistently. Dustin Johnson has the physical skills so long as he can keep his head together. Rickie Fowler nearly had his fifth consecutive top-five finish in a major, and he seems like he's on the brink of breaking through. Russell Henley and Patrick Reed both finished well and ended up in the Top 25, and as they mature on and off the course figure to challenge for major titles. Billy Horschel was the hottest golfer on the planet last fall but has been average this year and did not even make the Masters cut. 

So if Spieth uses the 2015 Masters as a launching pad, we might be on the verge of a new era of dominance in American golf. McIlroy, just 25, and Spieth now sit 1-2 in the World Golf Rankings and could be the stars of golf for decades to come. And that could not come at a better time for American golf.

The imitative spirit is alive at the Masters

by J.W. Miller on 04/09/15

This is the week my golf game improves. Honest! Happens every year! And I give due credit to the Masters Golf Tournament, which teed off this morning at Augusta National. The Masters is the only golf tournament I will watch from tee to green for 72 holes, and when you watch that much golf from the world’s greatest players, you can’t help but be inspired. Not to mention picking up a few tips, free of charge! 

Every shot is instructive. Watching the players, their timing and their tempo, how they manage a dynamic course, their actions and reactions, their course management along the way, how they play those long winding putts off that bikini wax surface. Everything they do can give even a duffer something that helps his game. And they don’t throw their clubs when they make a bad shot! Wow, what a novel concept! I am not billowing smoke into your ear. 

There is something about the imitative spirit that breeds confidence. The same thing would happen when I was a kid watching baseball games on television. In those days, we watched the Game of the Week with Dizzy Dean and Buddy Blattner, and then Ole Diz with Pee Wee Reese in 1960, coming to you in the name of Falstaff Beer. Watching the fluid motions of a Luis Aparicio at short or the turn of Nellie Fox at second or the majesty of a long Ted Williams’ shot into the right-field stands. It made a pre-teen baseball nut want to go out and do the same things, and it worked. The ball just seemed easier to catch after watching Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays glide under a high fly. 

Such confidence on display, even in black and white, was compelling, and I’ve tried to transfer that to golf, thanks to the Masters. After immersing myself into all things Augusta, my game improves enough to drop my handicap to a 14, which makes for an enjoyable spring and summer of "Baja 90" golf. The problem is that the Masters muscle memory fades the deeper into the season I go. By the time the crisp autumn air turns frigid, I’m done until next year. 

My primary contribution to the Wussification of America is that I don’t like cold-weather golf. I am not talking really cold-weather golf, but cold-weather golf as it is practiced in the Gulf South. A 50-degree day in Lexington puts more golfers outdoors in the spring than racehorses, but when New Orleans gets 50 degrees, usually in January and February, it is accompanied by a 20 mph wind coming off the lake, and my game goes into hibernation. Any rounds I can squeeze in between Christmas and Easter typically wind up in the low- to mid-90’s. That’s not good when you play with a regular group, as I do on Wednesdays, and you’re still shackled to a 14 handicap because you haven’t played enough bad rounds to kick it up to where it belongs. 

The Masters has always intrigued me for other reasons, maybe because in a lifetime of peripatetic sporting memories, it is the only major sports event that I have wished to attend but never had the opportunity. The closest I came to attending the Masters was this year when I bought a $100 chance from my nephew who is a member of the Fore Kids Foundation that sponsors the local Zurich Classic PGA tour stop. The winner and a guest would win a week in Augusta. I guess I should stop waiting for the call that I won? 

So, as I sit down to another four-day seminar on proper golfing technique, I turn you over to my good friend, Dr. Dennis McSeveney, a semi-somewhat-almost-nearly retired professor and administrator at the University of New Orleans who gives us the following story depicting man’s fascination with the Masters:

An older man had two tickets for the Masters. As he sat down to watch the opening rounds, a younger  man came along and asked if anyone was sitting in the vacant seat next to him. "No," says the older man. "The seat is empty." "This is incredible!" said the younger man, "Who in their right mind would have a seat like this at the biggest golfing event of the whole world, and not use it?" "Well,” the older man said, taking a deep breath. “Actually, the seat belongs to me. My wife always would come with me to the Masters, but she passed away. This is the first Masters we haven't attended together since we got married." 

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that,” said the younger man. “That's terrible. I guess you couldn't find someone else to take her ticket? A friend or relative or even a neighbor?" The older man shook his head. "No. They're all at the funeral."

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