Everything was topsy-turvy when the ASU Sun Devils baseball team took the field in January for its first regular season game. School honchos unceremoniously had dumped the team's longtime, highly successful coach, the fascinating (we do miss the guy!) Pat Murphy, and asked longtime assistant Tim Esmay to stop the bleeding on an interim basis. We know Coach Esmay, who is blessed with a calm temperament and a terrific squad of sluggers and scrappers who broke hard from the starting gate and never stopped until they were knocked out of the NCAA baseball tournament in the first round. The Devils were ranked as one of the best college teams in the nation for much of the season and struck fear in the hearts of every team they played. Congrats!
Phoenix College has dominated the state and national women's junior college fast-pitch softball scene for so long that the other local schools seem to be an afterthought. To put it kindly, the South Mountain C.C. Cougars never had been a factor in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference until this season. Coming out of nowhere, the Cougars upset number-one seed Mesa C.C. to win the regional championship and a coveted berth in the national championships in Normal, Illinois, where they knocked out in the first round. Scrappy utility player Wo-Wo Vasquez, out of Phoenix North High, was one of several keys to the team's surprise success. Led by head coach Kristina Graham Schmallen, the unheralded South Mountain team did themselves and their community proud.
First of all, we don't consider baseball players real athletes. They're in a skill sport that doesn't require a lot of running and jumping. (We said "a lot.") Hitters in the sport are more like golfers than basketball players — hand-to-eye coordination being the mark of excellence. So, Justin Upton is no Steve Nash. But he is the best professional baseball player in town — a superhero in his sport — and he's destined (yeah, we'll predict this) for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. That is, he's becoming among the greats at seeing and hitting a major-league fastball. Upton was an All-Star last season, and he didn't make that cut this year — he's not on pace to repeat the .300 batting average, 26 homers, and 86 runs batted in he racked up in 2009. But the Arizona Diamondbacks have sucked in 2010, and Upton's prone to frustration during a long season on such a bad team. But his stats are still respectable (a .273 average, 17 home runs, and 69 RBI at press time), and he still bats in the best hitter/power-hitter spot in the lineup (third). Once the D-Backs improve — and they will, next season, now that they've gotten rid of their ridiculously incompetent general manager and manager — look for Upton to return to All-Star form and become one of the best hitters in the game. He was promising from the start: When the former Virginia high school star, was called up to the D-Backs in August 2007, he was the youngest player in the majors at 19. In 2008, Upton hit a 484-foot round-tripper that was the second-longest in Chase Field history. Baseball's in his genes: His brother B.J.'s a star for Tampa Bay. Justin's the nucleus of the team, somebody to build around. It's not his fault that this year's D-Backs, well, sucked snake.
Last year at this time, we were mystified as to what the hell happened to Chris Young. We couldn't help wondering whether the Diamondbacks center fielder was another in the steroid era who had hit the big leagues with a boom — as in a first-full-year Diamondbacks' record 32 home runs and 27 stolen bases in 2007 (only the eighth rookie in the Majors to go at least 20 and 20 in the categories) — only to fizzle inexplicably over the next couple of seasons. It got so bad in 2009 that Young was demoted to minor-league Reno, Nevada. When he came back up, he had a slight resurgence, but he still finished the season batting .212 (the lowest average in the bigs for a player who had appeared in so many games), 15 stolen bases, and 42 runs batted in. Contrast that to this season, when Young was named to the National League All-Star Team, and was batting .260, with 26 homers and 88 runs batted in at press time. Along with teammates Adam LaRoche (96 RBI) and Mark Reynolds (84), Young was among the scoring leaders in the National League. Whatever Young did to get back to superhero status, he should keep doing it. With the prowess of Young and a few others offensively, plus a revamped pitching staff, the Snakes could challenge in the National League West next season.
It will be difficult for Diamondbacks third baseman Mark Reynolds to equal milestones he set last season. He hit 44 home runs, fourth in the National League, and he struck out 223 times, the most in major-league baseball. At press time, Reynolds had a team-leading 32 home runs and was again leading the majors in strikeouts, this time with 206. We're just happy that this year's dismal D-Backs lead their sport in something. But don't hold it too much against Reynolds. Some of the greatest hitters in baseball history whiffed much of the time — the great Reggie Jackson (dubbed "Mr. October," because of his World Series prowess with the New York Yankees) is the all-time strikeout leader among batters with 2,597 in 21 seasons. Reggie also hit a career 563 homers. Reynolds is in his fourth major-league season and has a career 121 homers and 762 strikeouts. That is, he's got almost a third of Jackson's whiffs already, and he's on a pace to strike out more than a whopping 3,560 times if he lasts as long as Jackson did. But, look on the bright side: Reynolds is on a pace to hit 570-plus round-trippers if he lasts 17 more seasons. We're saying, despite the strikeouts, Mark's a keeper for the D-Backs. If the team could just get some stellar pitching — and he could strike out half as much (which would still be a hell of a lot) — he might someday (dare to dream) be Mr. October/November himself. (Unless there's a sweep this year, the series will go into November for the second time in history.)
If ever there were a superhero-looking (and -acting) baseball manager, it would square-jawed, stubble-faced Kirk Gibson. He's the man's man who makes going bald as an onion cool. Women find him sexy as hell, guys have a man-crush on him. When the camera pans over to the Arizona Diamondbacks dugout and Gibby, you can see it on his rugged face: He hates to freakin' lose! And the Snakes have lost lots this season (they have a firm hold on last place in the National League West) — though not as often since he took over the team when manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Josh Byrnes were canned finally. That mighty face beneath the red D-Backs cap could almost make you believe the massive losing will stop now. Almost. There's the matter of the improved-through-trades-but-still-mediocre pitching staff. But if Gibson could chew nails and make it happen, he would. He did close to that when he was a player with the Detroit Tigers and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He led the Tigers to their 1984 World Series victory, but he's best known for a homer he hit for the Dodgers in the first game of the 1988 Series against the Oakland A's. With injuries to both legs and battling stomach flu, Gibson wasn't expected to play. But the Dodgers were trailing 4-3 with two outs in the ninth inning. With one guy on base, manager Tommy Lasorda needed to at least get a run home to tie the game. Gibson was sent to the plate and immediately fell behind 0-2. He laid off a couple of balls, and the count was 2-2. Then — in one of the greatest moments in sports history — he hit the ball over the right-field fence to give the Dodgers a 5-4 victory. He hobbled around the bases and pumped his fist to the crowd; it was a scene that fans who saw it will never forget. Always known as an intense player, he had become the Dodgers' team leader, literally willing one of the most mediocre teams ever to play in a World Series to an eventual 4-1 victory over the superior A's. We'd like to see what this balls-out guy could do over a whole season with the Snakes. Sometimes great players make lousy managers, but we're thinking Gibson could be the exception.

Best Reason to Believe the D-Backs Can Pull Themselves Up to at Least Mediocre Next Season

The firing of general manager Josh Byrnes and manager A.J. Hinch

The Tweedle-Dumb and a Tweedle-Dumber in major-league baseball have been put out of our misery, in favor of interims Jerry Dipoto and Kirk Gibson as GM and manager (In late September, Kevin Towers was named general manager). The dual firing is the second-best thing that's happened to the Arizona Diamondbacks since they improbably won the World Series against the New York Yankees in 2001. The first being, again improbably, going to the National League Championship Series in 2007. Even though the D-Backs were swept by the Rockies then, that was the highlight of general manager Josh Byrnes' 41/2-season career in the desert. It was his first year with the team, and it was downhill all the way to this year's cellar-dwelling debacle. A guy with an omnipresent smirk, Byrnes made a series of stupid moves that left the team in a world of hurt. One of the dumbest was giving outfielder Eric Byrnes a three-year, $30 million contract after his only (somewhat) stellar season in the big leagues. Critics crowed that this was a bad move for the predominantly mediocre player, but Josh Byrnes wouldn't listen (almost made us wonder whether the Byrnses were related, somehow). Turned out the detractors were right. Eric Byrnes got so bad that he was sent to the minors, traded, let go, and now he's collecting millions from the D-Backs playing amateur softball. In subsequent years after that contract was inked, when real stars like Manny Ramirez became available, the team was hamstrung financially. In the midst of all the losing last season, Byrnes raised more eyebrows when he replaced longtime manager Bob Melvin with the 30-something Hinch — a farm director with the team who had no dugout experience. See, the two were tight buds. Forget about whether Hinch, who didn't inspire the confidence of players, could put a winning team on the field. Then, there was this year's disastrous relief-pitching staff with the highest ERA in the majors. Games would seemingly be won, and this band of bumble-fucks would come in and give up five or six runs. How did it get this bad? We blame Tweedle-Dumber (Josh Byrnes). Hinch was just in over his pretty, buzz-cut head. Now, with them gone and vastly experienced Gibson at the helm, we predict the team can finish at least at .500 next season. Sad thing is, the Tweedles still are owed $7 million.
He doesn't have the star power of Justin Upton, but Miguel Montero is the best all-around player on the Diamondbacks' roster. First of all, the catcher position is the toughest in baseball. Imagine squatting for your entire career. Most catchers' knees go to hell eventually. Indeed, Montero had a right-knee sprain in April that kept him out of the lineup for two months, or 57 games. Otherwise, imagine how good he would be at the plate by now. At this writing, he has a .267 batting average, with nine home runs and 43 runs batted in. He had a spectacular game against the Washington Nationals in August in which he slugged two homers and caught seven masterful innings from emerging D-Backs pitching sensation Ian Kennedy. Catchers are the quarterbacks of baseball teams, and a rub on Montero was that he needed to improve handling pitchers and calling games. Another complaint was that he was easily stolen upon during his early years in the majors (he was called up in 2006). But he has been nailing runners consistently this season. Miggy's work calling games also has improved as the team's pitching staff has gotten better with trades and a new manager. Like right fielder Justin Upton, third baseman Mark Reynolds, center fielder Chris Young, and interim manager Kirk Gibson, Montero's a guy the D-Backs can rebuild around. Everybody on the team loves the outgoing Montero, who's not only the team's field general but an emerging clubhouse leader.
It's a distant memory, but Brandon Webb won the National League Cy Young Award in 2006. The ace of the Arizona pitching staff couldn't have saved the Diamondbacks from this season's bullpen woes (except by pitching an occasional complete game, maybe), but Webb in his prime would've made things a little rosy. Well, less thorny, anyhow. Webb was sidelined with what was at first described as pitching "shoulder stiffness" early last season. But things just kept getting worse, which eventually wound up with his having shoulder surgery. Nobody among D-Backs brass admitted to concern. But the team was headed by recently fired general manager Josh Byrnes, which may have had something to do with it. Despite the shoulder issue, Byrnes and company decided to exercise an $8.5 million option to keep Webb a Diamondback — which has to be one of the many reasons Byrnes is gone. There was talk in spring training this year that Webb could come back in June. Well, he didn't come back all season. And nobody's saying if he will ever return. Rumors abound that there's nothing really wrong with Webb anymore, that he just lacked the confidence to return, that he's a pussy. We find that hard to believe — the surgery must not have returned his arm to the gold standard of his 2006-2008 seasons. He arguably should've won the Cy Young again in '08 when he went 22-7 and had a 3.30 earned-run average. He pitched four innings in 2009, before the shoulder problem forced him to the bench. Then, poof. We've seen it so many times in baseball; pitchers are at the pinnacle of their careers, get injured, must go under the knife, and it's all over.
Certainly, Scottsdale's Danica Patrick, the only woman seriously competing in professional motor sports these days, is the best-looking human in racing. (Ever get a look at Dale Earnhardt Jr.?) We'd only seen her beautiful head emerging from those emblem-cluttered racing coveralls until we spotted her at a Diamondbacks game, and we've got to tell you, she's all-over hot. (Down, boys! She's married.) Once she started driving in the Indianapolis 500, Playboy asked her to pose nude for the magazine, an offer she turned down. She did make the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2005, however, but it was because she was the fourth woman ever to compete in the Indianapolis 500 — and named the event's rookie of the year — not because (too bad!) she rocked a skimpy swimsuit. Yeah, we know, we're drooling over her sexiness. But this hottie can handle a powerful engine like no woman in history. (Hey, we resisted using a drive-shaft metaphor.) Her third-place finish in the Indy 500 was the best by a chick in the race's history. Danica became the first woman to win an Indy race in 2008 with her victory in the Indy Japan 300. This year, she's driving a Chevy for Scottsdale's GoDaddy.com in NASCAR's Nationwide Series. Go, mama!

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