July 20th: Broadening Our Horizons to Deepen Our Understandings

When was the last time you read an article written by someone with a different skin color than your own? When was the last time you read a blog post offered by someone of a different sexual orientation? Have you ever read a sermon by someone who practices another faith?

We, as a society, have grown awfully comfortable living within the echo chamber of our own identity. We don’t know how to think from anyone else’s perspective outside of our own. It’s because we’re out of practice. The thoughts and perspectives of others feel dangerous because if they are right, it somehow means maybe I’m wrong.

On top of it all, we’ve so thoroughly pigeon-holed individuals that identity seems to be all we can talk about. Black writers examine race, women challenge gender issues, gays argue for the rights of marriage equality. Of course, it isn’t everyone, but we come to associate someone’s identity with their preferred topic of discussion. Somehow we have revoked credentials for meaningful discussion on too many issues begging for attention.

I want to know what a gay man thinks about the economy. I want to know what a woman thinks about steroid use in baseball. I want to discuss the enduring legacy of the West Wing with a Muslim, to hear how he thinks differently or similarly to myself.

Truth be told, I want to have these conversations not only despite their identities but because of them. Who we are influences how we think, and teaches us a great deal about what is and is not important. It’s time we embraced the idea that we aren’t always going to get along or agree, and to widen our horizons.

The written word has the incredible ability to allow one person to gain momentary access to the thoughts and feelings of another person sharing this earth. With our modern technology, it is only getting easier to collect and consume it all. What a gift we’re wasting if we only ever read things that come from “people like me.”

It’s going to be a little bit messy. Reading can lead to frustration and discomfort and unease, even to anger. But that’s the cost of sharing a world full of people who aren’t always going to see things my way.

I’m taking up the challenge. I want to learn more, to listen to new ideas and to be inspired by others to think differently. I want to engage in powerful discussions without the need to “win.” I want to participate in a great debate worthy of the innovation and freedom we enjoy. I hope you’ll join me.

May 18th: A Tale of Two Playoffs

The NBA and NHL playoffs have kept pace with one another, both beginning in early April and continuing through the first few weeks of June. On the one hand, basketball has pitted two powerhouse teams on either side of the bracket, with a virtual destiny to meet for the third time in a row in the Finals. Meanwhile, the NHL has four teams remaining, two of which are competing for their first championships in team history, while a third looks to seal the deal on a dynasty. Two sports in very different places have, by fate of scheduling, put themselves in position for comparison, and the results are striking.

The NBA has always gotten the attention of the American public. ESPN covers basketball to an almost obnoxious degree, with every single game, character, and personality analyzed. Because of NBC’s stranglehold on the rights to the NHL, hockey is, at most, a few moments on any given night of Sportscenter, dramatically preventing the public from getting the chance to see the excitement that goes into a playoff hockey game. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are some of the most intense, dramatic, and exciting contests in professional sports, but most Americans would never know that.

Curry

While there have been a dramatic number of overtime games this year in the NHL, the NBA is dragging out a snooze fest. With some of the largest margin of victory in the history of the league, the Cavaliers and Warriors have made the playoffs “must-miss TV,” with a very low chance of getting to see anything surprising or exciting. There have been a few games of intrigue (Game 7 between the Celtics and Wizards being one of them), and the Finals are supposed to be an epic clash of the Titans, but, in general, NBA fans have had little drama to get them excited or to incentivize tuning in for a game.

One of the reasons that the NHL has been so successful at creating intrigue for the extended playoff season is that their playoff structure stacks exciting matchups early. Intra-division playoff series start each post-season, meaning that teams are facing bitter rivals right off the bat. As the playoffs grow deeper, the gravity of the situation spurs on the intensity, having gotten the boost from prior round’s enthusiasm. The hardwood could learn a thing or two about this by restructuring the divisions in the NBA (which are seemingly worthless now), to allow a playoff structure that would create more engaging and entertaining matchups than watching a top seed abuse a squad with a losing record.

The bottom line is that this spring, two sports have both had the chance to exhibit their greatest chases to the ultimate crown. One of those races has proven to be as exciting and engaging as ever, with matchups that keep the attention of just about all fans of the sport, while the other has put forward a generally unsuccessful attempt to stir up drama where it doesn’t exist. While there is still a ways to go, both sports are forcing fans to choose which they would prefer to watch, and the result may be that the more casuals fans are choosing to watch neither at all. If those fans can’t get the updates and highlights they want on a major network, and are getting highlights that aren’t worth watching, it takes the fun and excitement out of the playoff chase, the time when both sports should be able to shine the brightest.

April 2nd: 2017 MLB Preview

Opening Day will mark exactly 5 months since the Cubs hoisted the World Series trophy, ending the 2016 season. Coming out of Spring Training, every fan is excited to see what the year holds in store for their team. The ZP: Left Fielder predicts how things will go for all 30 MLB teams, and who will make an appearance in October baseball.

NL Central:

  1. Cubs: The most complete team in the bigs, the Cubs will have no problem getting back to the postseason. Many forget that the end of June and beginning of July were miserable months last year for the Cubs, so this Cubs team has a chance to be even better than last year’s champs.
  2. Pirates: A rumor-filled offseason is usually a bad sign, but the Pirates have a deep team and a strong foundation of success. The best outfield in baseball will propel them into meaningful September games, and a core of young talent will keep the Pirates right in the thick of things.
  3. Cardinals: The Cardinals had a middle-of-the-road 2016, and are placing a lot of their hopes on Dexter Fowler, who they poached from their rivals, the Cubs. Fowler, though, had a somewhat unusually successful 2016, and will not be able to solve all of St. Louis’ problems. Look for the Cardinals to show their youth and struggle in the middle part of the season.
  4. Brewers: The Brewers are a hot pick to win a lot of games…in 2018. But, in 2017, they will have to bide their time until their young stars can really emerge. A few strong performers will continue to drive ticket sales, but don’t expect much in the way of team success in Milwaukee this year.
  5. Reds: The Reds are a bit of a mess. With the exception of first base, there is relative youth and inexperience at every position on the diamond. There may be hope that the young talent will put a good team together for the future, but this team is going to lose a lot of games and give a lot of tryouts to rookies.

HarperNL East:

  1. Nationals: The reigning NL East Champs have a deep rotation, terrifying offense, and a manager who knows how to win. The most popular prediction this year is that Bryce Harper will return to form, and, if this spring is any indication, he will return to MVP caliber performance. The only question is whether or not this team can perform well in October.
  2. Mets (WC): The Mets have some of the greatest pitching names in baseball. Except, none of them seem to be able to stay healthy. Yoenis Cespedes is a beast, and will power a strong offense, but there’s no use betting on the Mets if you can’t guarantee they will be on the field. Everyone’s safest bet is a Wild Card spot.
  3. Marlins: The Marlins could challenge the Pirates for the best outfield in baseball, and Giancarlo Stanton is going to be fun to watch, assuming he can stay on the field. With a deep NL East (and a deep National League as a whole), though, this “good” team will not be able to make the turn into greatness.
  4. Braves: The Braves are an intriguing team. They’re young talent is going to shock the league eventually, and they have a lot of strong players to bridge the gap to that youth. I would predict a higher finish, but I think the length of the summer will eventually hurt the Braves’ final results.
  5. Phillies: Last year’s Philadelphia team surprised everyone with how well they did. This year, I expect them to shock everyone with the regression. The team did little to beef up their roster, and haven’t filled any of their needs. The Phillies will stumble in their rebuild, and leave Philadelphia fans begging for football season.

NL West:

  1. Dodgers: The Dodgers were a few games away from the World Series, and spent the offseason working to keep their core intact. I expect this team to regress a little bit, but generally maintain the success of the past few years. If Kershaw can stay healthy, he will single-handedly lead this team to the playoffs.
  2. PoseyGiants (WC): The Cubs ended the Giants’ even-year streak, but this team doesn’t look like they are going to fall back into the pack. With veterans like Posey and Pence, and young stars like Crawford and Panik, expect the Giants to look more like their first-half 2016 selves than their second-half.
  3. Diamondbacks: Arizona was the hot pick for a dark horse last year, and this year isn’t getting quite as much attention. They made very smart moves in the offseason, and have a good group of players to make this an intriguing year. I expect to see the D’backs playing for a wild card spot in the middle of September, and falling just short.
  4. Rockies: Oh, poor Rockies fans. This looked like the year that they were going to try to simply outslug their opponents, and they had a lineup that looked like they just might be able to. The problem is, the injury bug has hit them hard, and their top signing, Ian Desmond, leads an all-star caliber disabled list. The Rockies will be nothing more than “fine” as they try to get healthy during the season.
  5. Padres: The Padres, or, as baseball analysts like to call them, 4-A baseball. San Diego is in for a rough year, with a lineup that feels like everyone is a rookie. The rebuild will be slow, and an all-star selection will be a joke, but at least fans will get to watch a bad team in nice weather.

Russell

AL Central:

  1. Indians: After winning the American League and owning a commanding lead in the World Series, the Indians are everyone’s favorite pick to win the AL Central and the AL all over again. I’m not a full believer in their longevity, but a generally weaker division could spell success for the Land.
  2. Tigers (WC): While the Tigers have certainly gotten old, it is impossible to ignore how good they also are. Detroit has experience and depth, and a pitching staff that, if healthy, can be lights out. This team is my darkhorse pick to contend in 2017.
  3. Royals: The Royals core that took them to back-to-back World Series appearances is going to fall apart after 2017, and this is their last chance to get something done. They’ll be good, but not THAT good, and may sell off an asset or two come July.
  4. Twins: Two years ago, the Twins were a hot pick for a young team on the rise. Now, nobody seems to want to go anywhere near them, as there are huge questions about whether those stars will come to fruition. Expect another year of growing pains, but some big performances from the young studs.
  5. White Sox: Of course, I’m biased as a Cubs fan, but everyone has been trying to tell me for years why the White Sox will be good, and I have been proven correct that they are a disaster. Maybe a sell-off will finally turn their luck? Definitely not this year…

JudgeAL East:

  1. Red Sox: The Red Sox are all in on this year, and their lineup is good enough to get them places. What started as a terrifying rotation is now looking like a question mark, but most of those arms will be able to figure it out come October. The question is not if the Red Sox can win but how far into October they can play.
  2. Blue Jays (WC): Last year looked like it could have been Toronto’s year, until Cleveland spoiled the fun. This year, the Blue Jays bring in a formidable lineup (albeit less a slugger or two), and a rotation that is low-key fierce. This will be a good year up north, and the Blue Jays will be hoping to make the next step through the playoffs.
  3. Yankees: Of any team, the Yankees have the farm system that most intrigues me. They have a stable of bright young stars, and I think all of the pieces are going to come together perfectly. New York is going to be the team to beat for years to come. I’m just not sure if 2017 is the first of those years. This will be an exciting year, but not necessarily THE year.
  4. Orioles: Every year, I predict the Orioles won’t be very good. Every year, they make the playoffs. That being said, I’m going to do my duty of predicting that this team has individual stars and not team success. Now, the ball is in their court to win a Wild Card spot, and prove me wrong yet again.
  5. Rays: The Rays have a lot of talent, and did a good job of doing it on a budget. That being said, the Rays are playing in a very tough division, and don’t have the star power to compete with the Red Sox or Blue Jays. Tampa Bay will play spoilers for the dreams of a lot of other teams, but need to put together some consistent success to make a run of their own.

AL West:

  1. Astros: Well, if Sports Illustrated says it’s your year, then it must be true. The Astros had a great offseason, and look to be in an excellent position to make something happen. Look for Carlos Correa and George Springer to lead the offense at a prolific clip, and the Astros to head into the playoffs with legitimate championship hopes.
  2. Rangers: The Rangers have been there before, and have a solid core. The Rangers also did little to get any better from last year, when their stay in October was momentary. The Rangers are the biggest swing team, in that they could be great and they could be terrible. Expect them to split the difference and compete, without actually sealing the deal.
  3. 04192015-Mariners21Mariners: The Mariners have had two offseasons in a row where they have made a flurry of moves. Seattle is about to prove, though, that not all action is good action, as the team doesn’t look all that better than the one that finished in the middle of the pack last year. It’s fair to assume they will have a similarly “fine” year.
  4. Angels: The Angels are a team that I’m itching to predict as a surprise, but it just isn’t a smart bet. The Angels have a ton of talent at most positions, but don’t have the depth to endure a long season. There will be times this summer of huge excitement, and other long losing periods. We can root all we want, but I don’t think they have 162 games in them.
  5. Athletics: The A’s are a team that often makes a lot out of nothing. That’s good news for them, as they have a particularly large quantity of nothing. There are a lot of decent players, but the sum of the parts isn’t going to blow anyone away, and the As will spend the summer as the AL West punching bag.

March 18th: The Crean of the Crop

After an 18-16 season, Indiana had to make a change. On Thursday, Head Coach Tom Crean was fired after nine years with the program.

Crean’s time in Bloomington has been quite the mixed bag. There have been plenty of high moments, with two Sweet 16 appearances and the famous Kentucky game in 2011 that will live on in the hearts of all Hoosier fans. At the same time, Crean often seemed to struggle to keep his team from making routine mistakes, and keeping turnovers to a minimum.

CreanThis season may have been his most frustrating, with debatably one of his most talented teams incapable of getting out of their own way. Much like the rest of his time at IU, this season saw wins against Kansas and North Carolina, and losses against just about everyone else. It may come as a surprise to some that, in the last hundred years, Tom Crean has the second worst winning percentage amongst IU head coaches (.551).

Crean’s greatest success at IU was his ability to run a program that exuded integrity. He brought in recruits and made a home for them, taking boys and turning them into young men that the IU community could be proud of. Tom Crean served himself well, led a team that understood it’s importance to the school as a whole, and represented the heritage of what it means to be a Hoosier. As a man, he will be missed.

At the same time, as a Hoosier fan, I can’t help but respect the fact that the athletic department has a demand for excellence. After yet another season of immeasurable talent that never came to be, it’s about time to see a change. If Tom Crean wasn’t going to be the guy who produced wins in February and March, we need to go and get ourselves a coach who will.

Over the next several months and years, it is to be expected that Indiana will go through a major culture shock from the loss of our leader. Many players will declare for the NBA draft earlier than they should, and still more will transfer to other schools altogether. But, as a long history of proud Hoosiers will tell you, the championship pedigree and rabid fans will always show up in Assembly Hall.

Tom Crean deserves a massive thank you for all he has done for the Indiana basketball program. He led with integrity, helped to guide young men into the limelight, and demonstrated his values both on and off the court. He has brought the Hoosiers to the doorway of success on a number of occasions. And now is the time for someone to take us over the threshold.

March 4th: Spring Training Bold Predictions

As Spring Training gets underway, teams are taking stock of who is going to thrive, and who is going to struggle in the coming season. Before we get too deep into the thick of things, the ZP: Left Fielder submits 5 bold predictions for who is primed for a breakout season and who is destined for doom in 2017.

almora1. Albert Almora Jr. will slide right into Dexter Folwer’s shoes…and then some.

Dexter Fowler was a huge part of the 2016 team that ended the Cubs’ 108 year World Series drought. His combination of speed, on base skills, and charismatic leadership were a huge plus, and will be sorely missed, as he left for the rival Cardinals this offseason. That being said, there have been questions as to whether Albert Almora Jr. will be able to slide in and fill those big shoes. If he can get reliable at-bats and solid playing time, Almora should be able to get comfortable and solidify himself at the top of the lineup.

He is a defensive wizard who is only a few years removed from being the golden egg in a stacked Cubs farm system. If the Cubs can be patient through a few growing pains, Almora Jr. will be a huge contributor to the Cubs success.

2. Yoenis Cespedes is big, and his numbers will be too.

Every report coming out of Mets camp is telling us that Cespedes came into Spring Trianing bulked up and in good shape. After getting the big contract he’s been waiting for, Cespedes has been able to settle in and ignore the question marks in his future. While some players get lazy after earning their contract, Cespedes has proven that he is hungrier than ever, and that drive combined with a comfort level in New York will lead to massive numbers and huge success for the Cuban super star.

3. The Marlins outfield will continue its brilliance, while the team as a whole struggles.

The Marlins outfield is stacked with talent, from the power of Giancarlo Stanton to the all-around skills of Christian Yellich and the breakout last season of Marcell Ozuna. While the outfield will continue to grow into fantasy assets and ticket sellers, the Marlins’ hopes of team success seem distant. Between a strong division (the Nationals and Mets look to have a strangle-hold on things) and a lackluster offseason, expect these Marlins to serve as an 85 win team, pesky enough to steal wins away, but not good enough to make a playoff run of their own.

MLB: FEB 23 Colorado Rockies Photo Day4. Ian Desmond will prove to be the star that the Rockies paid for.

The Rockies have been blasted for their big offseason splash of acquiring Ian Desmond to play first base. Desmond is an athletic powerhouse, who’s skills will translate well to Denver. While first base is a new position for him, expect his athleticism and dedication to equate to defensive strength, while his bat falls into an already potent lineup. For a team with very little pitching depth, scoring a ton of runs is the only hope for the Rockies. Having Desmond on their squad will only serve them well in that goal.

5. The Mariners will show that sometimes action doesn’t mean success.

Not for the first time, the Mariners were the busiest team in the offseason, tweaking and maneuvering their roster. With the most moves of the winter, many believe the Mariners will be able to end their playoff drought (the longest in baseball). Unfortunately for Seattle fans, action doesn’t necessarily equate to success, and the Mariners will, for the 17th time in a row, find themselves on the outside of the playoffs looking in.

January 7th: NFL Playoff Preview

This year’s NFL playoffs features a collision of the old guard and the fresh blood in the league. On one side, you have the Patriots and the Seahawks, looking to push their teams to historic dynasties. Meanwhile, a young core of teams, like the Cowboys and Raiders, look to usher in the next generation of stars and franchises looking for supremacy.

In the Wild Card round, television executives clearly had no say in the matchups. The Texans will host the Raiders in a game almost completely devoid of offensive play callers, while the Lions and Packers miss a chance at a rematch, in favor of opponents from the coasts.

The real questions come in the divisional round, where the Patriots await a challenger, while the Chiefs, Cowboys, and Falcons all look to exorcise the demons that have haunted their recent playoff pasts.

The Zoot Perspective paves the road to Super Bowl LI, which will feature a pair of new challengers for the Lombardi Trophy.

Wild Card Round:

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee TitansDolphins at Steelers:

If Ryan Tannehill was healthy, I’d call it a closer game, but the Steelers have the pedigree and the determination to win this. The Steelers have had some sloppy losses this season, but a healthy team and the pressure of the playoffs should make this a cake walk.

Winner: Steelers

Raiders at Texans:

Oh, how I wish I could see a strong Raiders team in the playoffs. With Derek Carr injured, though, this is a tough sell. The Texans are a mess, and snuck into the playoffs by default (most likely because of a Marcus Mariota injury), so the Raiders will squeak this one out.

Winner: Raiders

Giants at Packers:

This isn’t the first time these teams have met in the playoffs, and this one will be no less exciting. The Packers are on a tear, while the Giants have quietly become a very strong championship contender. The Packers have had trouble throughout the year, though, and I’m going with consistency over streaking.

Winner: Giants

Lions at Seahawks:

The Lions have won games that they had no business winning, and the Seahawks have lost games they have no business losing. The playoffs, though, generally allows the cream to rise, and the Seahawks will show their pedigree to blow out the Lions.

Winner: Seahawks

Divisional Round:

Raiders at Patriots:

The Raiders should have lost in the last round, but for an abysmal Texans team. The Patriots look THAT good, and it is going to be hard to imagine a team with a third-string quarterback beating them out.

Winner: Patriots

Steelers at Chiefs:

This one is going to be interesting. Nobody has been talking about the Chiefs, and now they’re the division champions. The Steelers, meanwhile, have had big ups and downs. In a battle of quarterbacks, though, Big Ben beats Alex Smith every time, and his supporting cast will propel him to the AFC Championship game.

Winner: Steelers

Giants at Cowboys:

We’ve seen the matchup twice, and it has been the only downfall for an otherwise immaculate Cowboys’ season. It would be easy to predict an Eli Manning-like playoff streak, but a well rested Cowboys team will have a fire under them to buck the trend and win a playoff game.

Winner: Cowboys

ryanSeahawks at Falcons:

The Falcons offense has been prolific, and the Seahawks defense is legendary. This will be an absolute grudge match, but Matt Ryan is finally beginning to come into his own, and the Seahawks’ injury list will keep them from the promised land.

Winner: Falcons

AFC Championship:

Steelers at Patriots:

This is the matchup of the classic NFL teams, with championship experience everywhere. The Steelers have talent across the board, but the Patriots have the discipline and excellence to keep chugging along. Tom Brady’s short season also helps him avoid the fatigue of the end of the season.

Winner: Patriots

NFC Championship:

Falcons at Cowboys

The guard has officially changed in the NFC, with two teams vying for their first Super Bowl appearance in nearly 20 years. The Falcons have the age advantage, but the Cowboys are led by a pair of rookies who cannot be stopped. The Cowboys Offensive Line will ice this cake, and will ensure an invitation to Super Bowl LI for Dallas.

Winner: Cowboys

Super Bowl LI:

Cowboys vs. Patriots

A rookie who has taken the league by storm against maybe the greatest of all time. Two claims at the notion of “America’s Team”. This will be a perfect matchup for the haters, as everyone will have something to say. In the game, the Cowboys flash vs. the Patriots’ efficiency will result in a close matchup, but another Lombardi Trophy for NFL-villain and fan-hero Tom Brady.

Winner: Patriots

brady

December 26th: NFL – Not For Long

The NFL is heading into it’s final week, and we already know that the two teams that playing in last year’s Super Bowl will not be returning. With the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers both eliminated from the playoffs, a new champion will be crowned, and the NFL has plenty of exciting options. Will it be the up-and-coming Dallas Cowboys, led by a pair of rookies blowing records out of the water? Will it be the Oakland Raiders, whom success has avoided in the past decade and a half? Will it be the Pittsburgh Steelers or Green Bay Packers, teams with championship pedigree looking to add to their already proud trophy case?

Regardless of the answer, the NFL has plenty of intrigue. And it doesn’t matter, because nobody is watching.

TV ratings for the NFL are at a low, unseen in recent years. Fewer and fewer fans are watching, buying merchandise, and identifying the NFL as the destination for their attention and their dollars. Many critics have tried to identify the reason for the slow demise of the NFL. Some blame deflate-gate, and the punishment of Tom Brady. Some blame Colin Kaepernick, claiming the NFL has endangered ideas of patriotism. Others complain of the punishments for celebrations, that the fun of the game is being stripped before our eyes.

In any case, the NFL must do something to keep up with their fans. They have to be willing to listen, to pay attention to where the sports world is going, and how they can keep up. If they continue to believe that they know what is best for the sport, belligerently ignoring what the fans and players are asking for, you are going to see a massive dismissal of the sport as a whole.

Baseball just saw two fan bases stimulate the entire sport with their contest in the World Series. Hockey has been using social media to brilliantly connect with fans and garner attention in America and beyond. Basketball is constantly investigating ways to maintain their hold on the audience, including discussions of advertising on jerseys. In all cases, the sports world is looking around and trying to figure out where they belong in the future, and the NFL has demonstrated a critical inability to have those conversations.

Football is a tough sell as it is. The health risks for young people have always been staggering, and something that should make parents very uncomfortable. If the NFL doesn’t find ways to not only improve the health but also ensure that fans are still paying attention, this could be the beginning of the end for football as we know it in America.