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!
This superhero exudes class. He's a fierce competitor who leaves it all on the court and, somehow, makes no enemies in the process. In interview after interview, his competitors talk as if he's Mahatma Gandhi in sneakers. His charity work is legendary, both locally and nationally. One minute he's hanging out with cancer kids, the next he's rebuilding homes in ravaged neighborhoods, with NBA buddies hammering nails beside him. With the departure of Amar'e Stoudemire to the New York Knicks, Saint Steve is the only superstar left on the Phoenix Suns. He keeps his great attitude despite what must be searing, chronic back pain. You can see him lying flat on the court when he's getting spelled during games, trying to keep the spasms in check. And one reason for the agony has been the necessity of him carrying the team on his back. Not that he ever complains; he would be the first to say that a guy getting paid millions to participate in a playground game needs to just suck it up. Be grateful. At 36, you'd think Nash would be wearing out as a professional jock — point guards like him run close to 20 miles a game — but last season, he played as well as he ever had (though in decreased minutes because of the coming of age of backup Goran Dragic). The Canadian sports legend (only, perhaps, Wayne Gretzky surpasses him in the Great White North) averaged 17 points and a league-leading 11 assists last season — well above his 15 and 8 career totals. In the conference finals against the superior Lakers last season, he averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds. Remember, nice-guy Nash is a pass-first player. Arguably, he could've led the league in scoring during his younger years if he were a ball hog like Kobe Bryant. Though they like him off the court, players tend to beat him up on it (he weighs only 180 pounds on a 6-foot-3 frame). He gets fouled a lot. How many times have we seen his nose bloodied or his eye swollen shut? Because of this, and because of his precision shooting skill, he's third all-time in free-throw percentage at .893. and first by a country mile ahead of current players. Nice guys sometimes finish first.

Best Hope for the Suns to Go Far in the Playoffs

Center Robin Lopez

In an age when few true centers are left in the game, the perennially small-ball Phoenix Suns finally have one in Robin Lopez. Based on a stellar second-half-of-his-second-year performance for the Suns, we're hoping the 7-foot Lopez puts on the cape and achieves full superhero status this season (forget about Dwight Howard). Lopez filled the gigantic shoes of Shaquille O'Neal last year, and this year, he'll have to step up for the departed-to-New York Amar'e Stoudemire. But the 255-pound bruiser out of Stanford University should be up for the job after coming along superbly after the All-Star break. He was hobbled in the first rounds of the playoffs by a bad back, but all that should be, um, behind him when the season kicks off this fall. He was a great defensive player at Stanford, and he was solid defender and top shot-blocker for the Suns last season (once assistant coach Bill Cartwright taught the intense young man how to stop fouling so much), but who knew that he had such overpowering offensive moves? Though his overall stats for the season appear mediocre, after coach Alvin Gentry began starting him, he had several double-figure rebounding and scoring games in the second half of the regular season. After returning from his injury in the Western Conference Finals, he overpowered the Los Angeles Lakers' big men in the Suns' first finals win, with 20 points in 29 minutes. And he did it with pizzazz — 15-footers, hooks with both hands, and dunks early and often. When he'd gone down earlier, NBA prognosticators wondered whether the Suns could win in the playoffs against Portland and, later, San Antonio without him. (Something we thought we'd never be hearing about scoring phenom Brook Lopez's twin brother.) The Suns did win in the first two rounds, but his 7-foot, eagle-wingspan presence was missed. Fropez (he of the big hair) wasn't 100 percent even when he returned, despite that solid performance dunking over the likes of the Lakers' Pao Gasol. If he had been, the Suns would've had a better chance of upsetting the Lakers and maybe bringing Phoenix its first NBA championship.
Why? Because he's the smartest. He wouldn't give Amar'e Stoudemire the huge contract he demanded. Everybody likes to rag on Robert Sarver because he let a superstar go, but he made a sound business — as well as sports — decision. Though Amar'e was capable of 40-point, 20-rebound nights, he rarely produced on the rebounding side of the equation. Plus, he was a lousy defender — always seemed lost out there. The buzz-phrase was: He "lacked focus." Whatever. Giving top money to someone who's less than a superstar doesn't make sense. Superstars do everything Amar'e did, plus play solid D. It also didn't make sense to bet on the often-injured STAT to last through a five-year, $100 million contract, which is what the New York Knicks gave him — despite nobody being willing to insure him. The reason is that he had microscopic surgery on his left knee in 2005 and detached-retina surgery in 2009. Because of his health issues, the 27-year-old was limited to only three 82-game seasons in his eight-year career. Sarver's righteous hang-up with keeping Amar'e was the fifth year of the contract — Sarver wasn't willing to guarantee it because of Amar'e's health issues. But once Stoudemire headed north, Sarver didn't sit around doing nothing. He brought in two young, promising power forwards to replace him, plus veteran forward Hedo Turkoglu. He also gave forward-center Channing Frye a new contract for bench strength in the frontcourt. The Suns will be fine without a guy who was always carping about deserving max money. Our prediction is they will again challenge the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. If that happens, you won't be complaining anymore that Sarver's a banking mogul caught up in the recession who was too cheap to keep a superstar. He'll be a superhero in a suit.
The first time we watched Hedo Turkoglu, he was giving the Los Angeles Lakers hell in the playoffs as a Sacramento King. These were in the post-Charles Barkley, pre-Steve Nash days, when the Lakers were the closest "professional" basketball team we had nearby. He was playing behind fellow Eastern European Peja Stojakovic at the time, but you could tell that this 6-foot-10 player would someday be a star. He's traveled around since, with a stop in San Antonio, five seasons in Orlando, and one in Toronto. Last year with the middling Raptors was his worst since he became an NBA starter — he averaged only 11 points and five rebounds a game. But the crack outside shooter (he's 38 percent career from the three-point line) was riddled by injuries (none nearly as serious as those of the guy he will replace in the Suns starting lineup, Amar'e Stoudemire). This year, Hedo should be healthy and able to return to the form he demonstrated during his years with the Magic, including one when the team went to the NBA Finals. His best year for the Magic was 2007-08 when he averaged 20 points, six rebounds, and five assists a game. He alone won't be able to replace Stoudemire (he won't have to; the team drafted two young power forwards to back him up, plus re-signed forward-center Channing Frye), but he's a slightly better defender, who may become an even better scorer when playing with pass-first point guard Nash. Who knows how good Stoudemire would've been without the two-time MVP from Canada? We look for the Turkish Turkoglu to have the best year of his career playing with a guy who will set him up with open shots. Signing Turkoglu was the Suns' smartest move of the off-season.

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