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Monday, October 21

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Cubs in Five

I Believe the Children Are Our Future
by Jeff Webber

One: Vast Armies of Pujolses
Glendon Rusch is out of the rotation and Rich Hill is up from AAA Iowa, and David Aardsma goes back down. Shouldn't exactly surprise anyone, as Derek Smart pointed out: "At the end of play this weekend, Albert Pujols, on an amazing tear to start the season, is sporting a .346/.509/.914 line — just vicious stuff. The line allowed by Glendon Rusch in his first five starts has been .348/.438/.841, turning entire teams into vast armies of Pujolses." Unloading guys like that will do a lot to help minimize humiliations like last week's mess against Milwaukee. (Twenty-five runs in two days? Ow.)

Two: New Hacks for First Sack
Thus far, Todd Walker has done a plenty fine job subbing for injured Cubs slugger Derrek Lee (.358 BA/.436 OBP/.507 SLG... though he's stinking it up against lefties). Still, the Cubs are continuing to explore other possibilities, namely former Tiger Carlos Peña and D-Back Tony Clark. Clark, who, at 6'5" could fill Lee's actual shoes, though not necessarily his figurative ones, is reportedly under consideration with young pitching being the anticipated price. Peña has until today to either be called up to the Yankees or he becomes a free agent, after which point it's believed he will cheerfully sign with the Cubs if they'll have him. For those of you hoping some stud kid would emerge from the system to take Lee's place, there's only heartbreak, as hotshot 1B prospect Brandon Sing has only managed an appalling .580 OPS in AAA Iowa.

Three: The Cub Rotation: Now 60% Fresher!
Rich Hill may have been pretty great this year in Iowa (1.44 ERA, 25 IP, 33 K, 7 BB) but he's still a guy who's already 26 years old and rarely sniffs 90 on the radar gun. Sean Marshall just threw his third strong outing in a row and is starting to stretch out his arm a bit (clocking five Ks in seven innings over 90 pitches last night), but he's still just a rookie few of us had heard of just a few months ago. And Angel Guzman showed some promise against the Marlins last Wednesday, notching five strike-outs in only five innings. But he also allowed four walks and four runs and seemed to regularly let loose meatballs low in the zone. So yeah, there are reasons to like these kids, but they're still rookies. But how in Hades did the Cubs end up with a 300 game winner, a 20-K-in-a-game power pitcher, a born Cy Young candidate, and Carlos Freakin' Zambrano all under contract, and still they're sending out rookies to pitch 60 percent of the time?

Four: Carlos Zambrano Is/Is Not Losing His Damned Mind. Discuss.
While you discuss that, I'll be praying for the Cubs to smack the bloated corpse of Chan Ho Park around on Friday for say, eight runs. That way, it won't matter if our favorite headcase is busier breaking bats over his head than collecting outs against Park's Padre teammates.

Five: Offered Without Comment, Dusty's Theory on Motivating Players
"Sometimes when you're down and things aren't right and you're trying to figure it out, sometimes you need a hug versus a kick," Baker said. "You're already down. If you kick somebody when they're down, you're just going to kick them even lower. … We all can use a hug sometimes. I don't get many. I don't know what I'd do if I got a hug."

Sox in Five

Not-So-Wild West
by Steve Gozdecki

A 4-2 swing out west through Seattle and Anaheim? Yes! A victory over the underachieving third-place Cleveland Indians in their park last night? Double yes! Sox in Five? Why not!

One: Such Great Heights
Last season, your world champion Chicago White Sox got off to a hot start, winning 17 games in April on their way to dominating the major leagues. In an early sign that history just might repeat itself, this year's Sox club also posted 17 victories in the month that just ended. But one major indicator that bionic general manager Kenny Williams rebuilt this team over the winter to be better, faster and stronger than before is the fact that this year's Sox won all those games despite a so-so 3-3 record in those all-important one-run games, where last year's squad went 10-3 in April nail biters on its way to a ridiculous 35-19 record in one-run games. The difference? So far this season, the Sox are scoring a lot more runs than last year while continuing to do a pretty good job of suppressing them via pitching and defense. What a difference a Jim Thome can make in your lineup, ably assisted by fast starts from Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye to make one of baseball's best 3-4-5 hitting combos. Now if that Scott Podsednik can just add another 100 points to his on-base percentage, and Tadahito Iguchi and Joe Crede continue to rake the way they have...

Two: Adios, Angeles
Oh those devilish Angels, aka the only team to beat the White Sox last post-season. Think they're all professionals, willing to let bygones be bygones and wipe the slate clean after last year's Sox stole a game or two from them in the American League Divisional Series? Think again. The first meeting of the year between the two clubs over the weekend was fraught with beanballs, near-beanings, and all kinds of great quotes and misquotes. The beaned Sox included Paul Konerko (by asshat Jeff Weaver, new to the Angels this year but a traditional Sox enemy), AJ Pierzynski (by Kelvim Escobar, "victim" of Pierzynski's legendary dropped-third-strike inning-extender in last year's ALDS Game 2) and Joe Crede (by Ervin Santana and his awe-inspiring afro). Sayeth Ozzie about the Pierzynski plunking, "A.J. had nothing to do with the dumb plays Escobar and [catcher] Josh Paul made [last year]. A.J. didn't kick Josh Paul to get the ball out of his hands. People in L.A. should look at the stupidity of that play, like the Bill Buckner thing [in the 1986 World Series]." After the Sox swept the three-game series, Angels reliever Scot Shields was a little more diplomatic, simply saying that the Sox "have a very complete team, and it's going to be a challenge for any team to dethrone them."

Three: Freddy Garcia, Cool Cat
As is ever the case, in retrospect the signs were all there. The paunchiness from too many late-night snacks. The calm, downright mellow nature. The unfortunate hair. Yes indeed, we should've known that Sweaty Freddy Garcia might be hitting the chronic, and now word has come from a Venezuelan newspaper that Freddy tested positive for marijuana during March's World Baseball Classic. While neither Major League Baseball nor the White Sox have the authority to take any action against Garcia as a result of the test, the pitcher can be suspended from International Baseball Amateur Federation competition for a maximum of two years pending the analysis of a second urine sample as part of the IBAF's anti-doping policy.

Four: Pardon Me While I Channel Andy Rooney for a Moment
Did you ever notice that Jim Thome hits a whole lot of long fly balls to the warning track? Do you think he sometimes wishes that the ballpark fences were just 15 feet closer to home plate? I know I sure do.

Five: The Bright Lights of Broadway
It's time to take another gander at what goes on in the minors for the White Sox, so let's check in on Lance Broadway, last year's first-round draft choice out of Texas Christian University. Broadway, a 22-year-old right-handed pitcher, is off to a fine start down in AA ball with the Birmingham Barons, for whom he has a 3-1 record through five starts with a miniscule 1.74 ERA. He has allowed less than one base runner per inning (25 hits and four walks given up in 31 innings pitched), and is close to the magical K-per-inning rate that marks a genuine pitching prospect. He may be on the outside looking in with the parent club sporting six starting pitchers ahead of him, but injuries and/or trade activity could see him up in the bigs some time toward the end of next year. Broadway ultimately projects to be more of a third or fourth starter rather than an ace due to the relative lack of zip on his low-90s fastball, but his ability to generate groundballs would make him a big plus in the homer-friendly environs of The Cell.

Fire in Five

Money Ball
by Steve Gillies

One: Fire Wins!
The Fire finally managed their first win of the season. It was a pretty sweet win, too, with the Fire coming from behind to beat a New England Revolution team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season. What did they do differently this game from previous weeks? Not a whole lot. Gonzalo Segares was hurt and Chris Armas was healthy, so the lineup shuffled around a little bit. I'm not sure that made much of a difference; the Fire played at about the same level as they had previously. The big difference this week was that we finished our chances while it was someone else's turn to hit the post with their shots. That and Zach Thornton finally started to look like a goalkeeper again, rather than a competitive eater who'd just eaten a goalie.

Two: That Better Be the Goal of the Week
Last season Brazilian midfielder Thiago scored the best goal I've ever seen in person. The game didn't get televised and there was no footage of it so it didn't get any attention in the league's goal of the week competition. I legitimately think it could have been a contender for goal of the year. This week's goal will definitely be in the running and if there was a better goal scored in the league over the weekend I'd like to see it. Thiago's goal came at a badly needed time, with the Fire having just gone down to a Taylor Twellman header. It was a great mix of skill, imagination and that little bit of magic the Fire pays the Brazilian to deliver.

Three: They pay him HOW MUCH?
Actually, the Fire pays Thiago around the same amount a librarian or a schoolteacher makes: $42,000. I know this because the Washington Post just published the list of MLS teams and their salaries (registration required). Thiago was among the lowest-paid regular starters on the team, which is shocking when you consider his role as the team's chief playmaker, generally an important and highly paid position. Top scorers Chris Rolfe and Nate Jaqua are surprisingly low on the list, making around $50,000 a year. Spare a thought also for the rookies coming in on developmental contracts. They're making around $11,000 a year and sleeping on teammates' couches. Welcome to the glamorous world of professional sports!

Four: So Who's Making the Big Bucks?
Tony Sanneh's the highest paid player on the Fire, making $365,000 a year. Considering he played in a whopping total of eight games last season, it works out to something like $360 per minute played. Other than Fire captain, Chris Armas, Sanneh's making about twice to three times as much as the higher-paid players for the Fire. Not only do you have to wonder what kind of effect this information has on morale, but with a team salary cap, the Fire can ill afford to pay that much to an unproductive player, no matter how good he was four years ago. The Fire fans in the bar booed when Sanneh came on as a substitute late in the game, and if he doesn't start making a real contribution things he'll hear a lot of that when the home games roll around. Costa Rican misfit Andy Herron and Huddersfield Town washout John Thorrington are among those at the high end of the salary list, despite not getting much playing time, and somehow rookie Calen Carr's making more money then many of the guys who established their spots last year.

Five: Bruce Arena's Announcing the World Cup Team Today
Chris Armas might have rushed back from injury a bit early to prove his fitness to US coach Bruce Arena. While he lasted 90 minutes, he didn't quite look National Team caliber. Although you can't really blame him for being a little rusty, it'd probably be too big a risk to bring him. I mentioned in previous columns that it doesn't look likely that any Fire players will get selected, but I'm sure they'll all be gathering around their television sets for Arena's announcement on SportCenter, hoping against hope they'll hear their name called, but more likely finding out which of their June opponents will be missing top players. I should also mention one person definitely going to the World Cup and that's me. After six months of being on the waiting list, my tickets finally came through and my flight to Germany has been booked. So, uh, no Fire in Five for June 10th through the 24th. It's not like anything major, such as a stadium opening, will be happening then. Oh. Oops.

Bulls in Five

Foot in Mouth, For Now
by Jason Maslanka

I should have known. All I wrote about all year was the up and down Bulls. The win two, lose two Bulls. The exciting, then disappointing Bulls. How did I not see this coming?

One: Where'd the Heat Go?
This was a totally different Heat team than what we saw in the first two games. Shaq, who had been frustrated at times during the start of the series, looked like a victimized old man in the latter two. Games of eight and 16 points are a far cry from the big man's dominant self. Matching the mediocre Shaq point totals were Dwayne Wade's 20. Is this a case of the Bulls' defense picking it up, or Miami falling apart? It seems to be a combination of both, but more so the Bulls' defense. It's of the frustrating variety, sending different looks and different defenders on every possession to confuse the Heat's offense. Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon and Chris Duhon turned up the perimeter defense (except on Antoine Walker), and Andres Nocioni is such a pest that it seems to be finally getting to the Heat.

Two: Falling Apart
Everyone seems to now think that the Heat have completely fallen apart. Don't count on it. Yes, we all saw Wade and Gary Payton bickering like fools, and we all saw Shaq play 23 minutes, but things change quickly in playoff basketball. Just as the Bulls looked to be in terrible shape after going down 2-0, they roared back. Winning in the playoffs will always require playing good basketball, and no seven seed is going to walk all over a two. What this does provide is an opportunity, one that didn't exist before last Thursday. The Bulls still have to win a game in Miami and continue the Heat's drought winning in Chicago. They have to keep down Dwayne Wade, a world-beater in the first two games, and hope the referees continue to watch Shaq closely. It really is a long to-do list, but fans have hope, and more importantly, so does the team.

Threeeeee: The Future... Now
Hinrich, Nocioni and Gordon led the team in scoring in Game Four. That's starting to become a pattern. In a year where any number of assorted players would lead the Bulls to victory or defeat, the big three are emerging. Nocioni is the most consistent at this point, Gordon can pour in points in bunches and Hinrich has hit big shots in big spots. Maybe the future of this team isn't a free agent or a big trade for Kevin Garnett. Maybe all superstars don't develop as quickly as Wade or Kobe Bryant but need a few years in the big leagues before they win. With those three and a 21-year-old Luol Deng, as well, this playoff surprise may just be the start of something exciting for years to come.

Four: Turn It Down, Up, Off, On
The worst part of playing the Heat in the playoffs isn't having to face the most dominant center of an era. It isn't trying to contain one of the games best players, or even deal with the assembly of talent on the team. Most certainly, it's dealing with the ridiculous headline writing. I'm sending out a personal challenge to major media outlets, today: Write one recap story on this series that doesn't include the word Heat or some reference to it. Write one headline without a play on words like "Bulls Turn Up the Heat." Try keeping the Bulls out of "Heat-ed Affairs" or "Hot Water." It's still the NBA playoffs, folks. Certainly, something is happening in the game that's worth a headline. Both of the papers, the major websites and almost anywhere you look use these playful headlines. Once? Terrific. Twice? Fine. It's been two weeks now, and I am taking a stand.

Five: Tonight, Tonight
Tonight's 7:00 PM CST start in Miami is the biggest game of the entire series. If the Bulls win, they're well on their way to winning the series, having a home game on Thursday to close it out. If the Heat win, the Bulls can hope to see Game Seven, but will be back in a tough spot, having to win out to take the series. With the talent the Heat have, a Game Seven is infinitely frightening. Beyond that, the Bulls currently have the momentum, believe they can win and are on a roll. Now's the time to win. Will they? My guess is not, and the Heat will win in seven with each team holding home court through the whole series.

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About the Author(s)

Steve Gozdecki has been a White Sox fan his entire life, with the exception of an ill-advised flirtation with the 1984 Cubs in the days when his town wasn't wired for cable. Because he swears by the work of the "baseball outsiders," who believe that statistical analysis trumps old truisms like subjective evaluation and team chemistry, he found himself pleasantly surprised when the Sox won it all last year. Each week through the 2006 season, Steve will bring you five crucial talking points you can use the next time someone says, "Hey, how 'bout them Sox?" Send comments to sox@gapersblock.com.

Jeff Webber spends hours and hours every day taking in every printed, spoken, and broadcast word he can find about the Chicago Cubs, and each week till the end of the season he's boiling them down into five simple crib notes you can use to stay on top of any watercooler or corner bar Cubs discussion. Send comments to cubs@gapersblock.com.

Steve Gillies watches too much soccer to be completely healthy. He's been a Fire fan since he stood in a torrential downpour while the Fire beat New England 6-0 and he realized watching American soccer games in person was a lot better than watching European football matches on television. Each week he'll give you five things to talk about if you happen to get cornered by one of those soccer people at a party. Send comments to fire@gapersblock.com

Jason Maslanka began his fandom of the Chicago Bulls in June of 1991, conveniently coinciding with the franchise's first championship. The years since the championships tested his fandom, but it never faltered. He believes that the NBA is more than dunks and hip hop, and that the NBA dress code is a good thing. He thinks most fans don't really understand basketball, and if they did, they'd love it even more. He knows that there are certain players who do the little things for no praise, and stat-mongers who don't really do anything to help their team win. Every week, he plans to execute a beautifully crafted column containing five points you should be thinking about and discussing as a Bulls and NBA fan. Send comments, questions and arguments to bulls@gapersblock.com.

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