Best Of :: Fun & Games
Over the past few years, something of a stadium arms race has developed among Cactus League teams, which are constantly building bigger and more elaborate stadiums across the Valley. Though these new ballyards certainly are impressive, they aren't necessarily better. There's something about Scottsdale Stadium, the spring training home of the San Francisco Giants, that just makes it better than the rest. Maybe it's the location, where you're within walking distance of postgame burgers and beers in Old Town Scottsdale. Maybe it's the energized crowd, which roots for a team that's won three World Series championships in the past five years. Maybe it's the fact that Scottsdale Stadium is becoming something of a classic Cactus League ballpark, if there is such a thing. Or maybe it's something else. All we know is, it's where you want to watch spring training.
Long, tall Randy Johnson was inducted into Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, this summer, and he deserves it, despite those cornball local commercials he does. Randy, stick to being the most intimidating pitcher of your time — as an actor, Luis Gonzalez you're not. Johnson played for the Diamondbacks during his glory days, even pitching one of his two no-hitters here on May 18, 2004 (he's among five major-league pitchers to have thrown a no-hitter in both leagues, and with the one in '04, he was the oldest pitcher to perform the feat). At 6-foot-10, he's a five-time winner of the Cy Young Award (given to the best pitcher in each league) and one of two pitchers to win it in both the National and American leagues (he played for the Seattle Mariners before coming to the D-backs and played a pivotal role in Arizona's 2001 World Series victory over the New York Yankees). His 4,875 strikeouts rank him second in big-league history to Nolan Ryan, and speaking of Ks, he's won a modern historical five strikeout crowns for a left-hander in the Bigs. The Big Unit may not be headed for an Academy Award, but his prowess as a photographer nowadays comes close to matching his skill as a pitcher. Indeed, check out the skills of the baseball legend who calls the Valley home if he decides to display his art in a local gallery soon. You can also see it at http://rj51photos.com.
Yasmany Tomás was one of two top prospects left in Cuba, where baseball is an even bigger deal than it is in the United States (fans there have a single-minded love of the game, probably because they don't have much to distract them in a communist country where the masses still drive '50s cars). The 24-year-old played five seasons with Cuba's great national team. A power hitter on the island, he started playing baseball in the streets of Havana as a little boy. He was one of the youngest players on the Cuban team, after starting his career with the Havana Industriales, where he hit 30 home runs and batted in 104 runs during 205 games. He somehow escaped from his homeland (details remain mysterious) and lived for a time in nearby Haiti and the Dominican Republic, while working out his immigration to the States. A plethora of major-league teams were interested in him, but largely because of the prestige of playing for an organization headed by the respected Tony La Russa of St. Louis Cardinals' World Series fame, Tomas came to the Diamondbacks after signing a six-year $68.5 million contract. Franchises don't hand MLB rookies this kind of money unless they're expecting big things from them. Through 109 games with the big-league club, he was batting .282 with 107 hits and 45 runs batted in. When the trade happened earlier this season, we wondered why Arizona traded away slugger Mark Trumbo (who was having a good season) in favor of Tomás' taking on a bigger offensive role, but now we know.
Paul Goldschmidt isn't just the best Diamondbacks hitter ever (though it's early in his career), he's been the best everyday player in baseball this year (pitchers don't count in this measure). A National League All-Star again this season, Goldschmidt's having his best year to date, and there's no reason not to believe that his hitting and fielding skills won't continue for a long career. He's not injury prone, he's built like a superhero, and he's a Captain America nice guy (hates talking about himself, asks his teammates for advice on how to better play the game, even when it's them who should be asking him). Goldschmidt's literally the guy the rest of the team is built around, and as we're all seeing, he can't do it alone. But he's damn well trying to carry the Snakes on his back. Let's review his superstar stats: After 143 games this season, he was batting .315, with 28 home runs, 162 hits, and 100 runs batted in. His on-base/slugging percentage was a whopping .984. He's the choosiest hitter in the game, rarely swinging at a pitch out of the strike zone. At this writing, he'd gotten himself more walks than any hitter in the big leagues (108) than all but two other hitters — but this is partly because he's so feared by opposing pitchers (who'd intentionally walked him 26 times). He can beat you with a walk-off homer or a double to the gap — ask the San Francisco Giants, whom he owns. And we haven't even talked about his stellar defensive prowess. Goldy's a Gold Glover who's robbed countless hitters of blazing extra base hits down the first-base line. Signed through the 2018 season, this possible 2015 MVP is a bargain today at $32 million over five years.
Brittney Griner's bad in so many good ways. Indeed, she may be the most exciting athlete in the Phoenix area. At an athletic 6-feet-8, she is transforming the women's professional game. Used to be that dunking was never seen in the Women's National Basketball Association, now it's de rigueur for Griner. Even with the great Diana Taurasi taking a sabbatical from the Phoenix Mercury this season, Griner's keeping the team in the hunt. (The Mercury won the WNBA championship with Griner and Taurasi leading the way last season.) Griner didn't start the season with the team because of her suspension for domestic violence. Yes, this time it was an elite female athlete under scrutiny for an incident with her significant other. Or, in Griner's case her ex, Tulsa Shock forward Glory Johnson. Griner and her then-fiancée got hit with assault and disorderly conduct charges after a disturbance at their Goodyear home that cops were said to have broken up. Both suffered minor injuries (an indication that blame was shared), and both women later were suspended for seven games after a guilty plea in the incident. Twenty-six weeks of domestic-violence counseling also was required by the court. The pair got married less than a month after the incident, but the union was annulled after it was announced that Johnson was pregnant. Griner, 24, had bad games — for her — on her return to the team, but on July 1, she returned to top form, scoring 23 points, grabbing eight rebounds, and blocking four shots in a victory over the San Antonio Stars. She was the WNBA blocks leader in 2013 and 2014 so now it'll be interesting to see if she can block the infamous incident with Johnson out of her mind and return the Mercury to championship material. Because with Taurasi gone, it's her team.
Daryl Washington always was a badass on the football field. A premier defensive player since high school in Irving, Texas, he went on to greatness at Texas Christian University and was considered the fourth-best outside linebacker coming out of the 2010 National Football League draft. As an Arizona Cardinal, he was named to the 2013 Pro Bowl Team. His stats as an inside linebacker for Arizona are impressive: For the 2012 season, he had 108 tackles and nine quarterback sacks, and during every season he played, he was a leader on a defense known as one of the league's best. Yet for all his accolades on the field involving sanctioned violence, Washington is best known for the violence he inflicted on his ex-girlfriend, which along with two substance-abuse violations, got him suspended for all of the 2014 season. He was charged on May 1, 2013 with two counts of aggravated assault on the mother of his then-5-month-old daughter. He later pleaded guilty to the assault and was sentenced to a year of supervised probation. Thus, he joined too many other NFLers, including former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, as poster boys for domestic violence. At this writing, it remains to be seen whether Washington will be reinstated. The two-time suspension for substance abuse (the original forced him to sit out four games during the 2013 season) doesn't help his case. Critics contended that the many incidents involving NFL players prove that too many pampered athletes involved in a violent game cannot leave the mayhem on the field, that examples must be made: lifetime suspensions.
John "Smokey" Brown is a mighty mite. On the street, he'd be of average build at 5-feet-10 and 179 pounds, but he's a shrimp in the NFL. But for what he lacks in size, he makes up for in speed and field savvy. One of the bright spots of a good 2014 Arizona Cardinals season (if the team hadn't been in the same division as the Seattle Seahawks, and hadn't lost its two top quarterbacks, it would have been a great season), Brown showed the world why he deserves his nickname. He often came out of seemingly nowhere, leaving a proverbial cloud of smoke from the friction of his body blazing through the atmosphere of various NFL stadiums. Out of tiny Pittsburg State in Kansas, Brown looked like a long shot to even make the Cardinals roster, much less stand out. But he was a favorite of Cardinals QB Carson Palmer, who'd mentored him in the offseason, and it soon became apparent why. He caught a game-winning touchdown pass against the Philadelphia Eagles last October 26 and followed that up with three more game-winning grabs during the rest of the season — becoming the first rookie in NFL history to make the difference in four victories. Humble to the core, Brown credited everybody but himself with the feat in media interviews.
In today's NFL, if you don't have a good quarterback, you can't compete on any level, much less make it to the playoffs or win the Super Bowl. The Cardinals have had good seasons over the past two years, and the reason they weren't great was quarterback play (and, of course, playing in the same division as the Seattle Seahawks, who won the title following the '13 season). Carson Palmer was no slouch during the '13 season, passing for 4,274 yards on 362 attempts, but it was his first year playing in coach Bruce Arians' system. By the '14 season, Palmer had the system down; the team's offense started to click, but Palmer went down with a knee injury in the sixth game, after throwing 11 touchdown passes well before the middle of the regular season. Backup quarterback Drew Stanton filled in admirably until he, too, got injured. The Cardinals turned in an 11-5 record, but — forced to play with a third-string QB — were embarrassed by their one-and-done performance in the playoffs. Which is why Palmer is the linchpin to the Cardinals' success this season. After winning the Heisman Trophy at USC and getting picked first in the 2003 NFL draft, Palmer played the bulk of his pro career for mediocre Cincinnati Bengals teams. Now's he's on a team that has all the components to challenge the Seahawks for the division title, and if they succeed (because Seattle has been the best team in the NFC), this should mean a berth in the Super Bowl. Palmer has all the tools: He was the only NFL quarterback to beat the Seahawks on their home field when he was healthy in '13, leading Arizona to a 17-10 victory.
Brad Ziegler is an animal, a machine, something crazy good. Placed in the role of closer for the Diamondbacks this season, he has excelled. But the veteran relief pitcher always has, at the Oakland A's and in Arizona. He's so good that he once was labeled as the most dominant pitcher in baseball by the ESPN online magazine Grantland. The headline of its story last year read: "He began his MLB career with a historic streak and has dominated ever since, yet he's toiling in anonymity. Why? It starts and ends with how he throws the ball." That is, submarine-style, a low sidearm delivery during which his throwing hand winds up about a foot off the pitcher's mound. Grantland argued that his seemingly goofy style is why he isn't taken seriously. But when you bore down on said style, you see that Brad Ziegler — whom few outside the two cities whose franchises he's toiled for know anything about — has (at this writing) an earned-run average of 2.48 over eight seasons, which makes him — despite his unorthodox style — the most successful pitcher of his time. At just before midseason, his 2015 ERA was 1.36 with 12 saves. And he started out untouchable, throwing 39 scoreless innings for Oakland before giving up a hit. Consistency is his middle name, and he does it because of his silly delivery, not in spite of it. It's damn hard to hit pitches that come at you with the crazy "stuff" that Z creates for anything other than groundball outs. In fact, his pitches are hard to hit at all — he'd also posted 327 strikeouts during his career. Yet he's an extreme longshot to make the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
The Suns lost in their bid for superstar power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, but they improved their fortunes nevertheless by acquiring veteran center Tyson Chandler to go along with 22-year-old former University of Maryland center Alex Len. Both at 7-1, the two complement each other in that they are good defenders, Chandler one of the best big-man defenders in the NBA. Signed to a four-year $52 million contract by the Suns, Chandler anchored the Dallas Mavericks defense last year, averaging 11.5 rebounds a game, in addition to having the second best field goal percentage in the league at 67 percent. He's somebody coach Jeff Hornacek's Suns team long has needed: a center who can score in the paint, as attested to by his 147 dunks, third best in the league. Published reports say Len, who has turned out to be one of the best young centers in the NBA, is happy that he will be mentored by the veteran. In his second year as a pro, Len emerged in the second half of last season as the Suns' starting center, averaging 6.6 points and 6.6 rebounds in 22 minutes per game, but he still shared big playing time with two other big men. Combining Chandler's other attributes with his 10 points per game, the two should be one of the league's best one-two punches.
First of all, these guys know what they're doing. Steve Berthiaume is an ESPN veteran who's chosen to bring his homespun, everyman talent to our (by comparison) boondocks, and Bob Brenly is a former catcher who was manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks' World Series champion team.
What we love about these guys is that, though they're employed by the team, they're not homers. When the team does something crazy, they point it out. When a player has a bad game, they are on it like pine tar on George Brett's ancient bat. Berthiaume's Cup of Coffee show, where he interviews players, is great. In his inoffensive way, he really gets into the TV heads of players, and even bosses like the legendary Tony La Russa. And Brenly's just a breath of fresh air, when compared to predecessors in the team's broadcast booth and to color commentators for our other pro sports franchises, who border on bush league most of the time. Berthiaume's got quite a broadcasting résumé: He was a SportsCenter anchor and anchored Baseball Tonight. He also worked for the New York Mets' network and covered University of Connecticut basketball for a Hartford television station. As for Brenly, he's been a D-backs manager and broadcaster, a starting catcher for the San Francisco Giants and an All-Star in 1985, and a broadcaster for the Chicago Cubs. He knows everybody who's anybody in baseball. Brenly comes across as a great guy, but he doesn't mind offending an entire baseball position, as he did when he said pitchers really aren't athletes. This came up in a question from Berthiaume, who asked B.B. if he'd ever wanted to take the mound in a big-league game. D-backs management may not have returned the team to the limelight, but they certainly have professional broadcasters who're at the top of their games.
Bruce Arians knows the Arizona Cardinals inside and out. He coached against them in Super Bowl XLIII as offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cardinals, helmed by Kurt Warner at quarterback, were in a position to win that game, having taken the lead on a 64-yard touchdown reception by Larry Fitzgerald with 2:37 left in the fourth quarter. But the Steelers, under Arians, marched 67 yards to the 6 yard line, and then Santonio Holmes, tiptoeing just in-bounds, made a spectacular catch falling out of bounds to knock the Cardinals out of its first Super Bowl 27-23. Though the Holmes play was drawn up by Arians, you might argue that he's made up for the worst day in Cardinals fans' lives by leading the team to consecutive double-digit-winning seasons, the last despite losing starting quarterback Carson Palmer and backup Drew Stanton to season-ending injuries. And the team he has assembled for the 2015 season should be the best yet: Palmer is healthy, key players have been added, the defense is dominant, star receiver Larry Fitzgerald is as good as ever, and the running game is improved. The much-traveled Arians, 62, proved himself a winner with the Steelers, where he coached in two Super Bowls, and the Indianapolis Colts, where he took over as interim head coach for ailing head coach Chuck Pagano and posted 9-3 record and an AP Coach of the Year Award. This before he landed in the Valley of the Sun to turn around a Cardinals franchise that had gone to hell under former coach Ken Whisenhunt. Now, all he needs to cement his legacy is to take the once-lowly Cards into the promised land with a deep playoffs run that ends with a Super Bowl victory. You owe it to us, Bruce!