Best College Athlete 2011 | Dallas Escobedo | Sports & Recreation | Phoenix
We first took notice of this wonderfully named superstar in the making in high school, when she toiled as a four-year varsity star for Phoenix St. Mary's. Even as a lanky 15-year-old, Dallas exuded joy on the pitcher's mound and possessed a great big heart. When she enrolled at Arizona State last fall, we knew she would be an immediate impact player, and we expected her to supplant junior Hillary Bach as the staff's ace. But who really expected Dallas to become one of college softball's very best chuckers right out of the chute? She led the Sun Devils to the College World Series, which they won in dominant fashion. Along the way, Dallas won new fans with her cheery disposition even in adversity, her gritty performances, and her obvious love for her teammates, who raised their own games to reach the Promised Land of women's softball this year.
We predicted that wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald wouldn't have the big numbers he had during the Kurt Warner era of Arizona Cardinals football, and we were correct. Without a good quarterback, a wide-out doesn't get many quality touches. That is, last year's pathetic crop of Cards QBs couldn't throw the pigskin into Town Lake. Nevertheless. Fitzgerald still is the best wide receiver in professional football, and we'll make another prediction: He will return to form with new QB Kevin Kolb, whom the Cardinals got in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles this summer. Nobody could make last year's signal-callers look good, but we think Fitzgerald will make Kolb glad he's moved from the Rust Belt to the desert. Because Fitz has got it all: size, hands, speed, leaping ability, wingspan. He plucks impossible balls out of the air. We're not exaggerating to call him the Captain America of Valley athletes (his physique rivals that of actor Chris Evans in the movie). Consider Fitz's most important accolade: In the Cardinals' run to the Super Bowl 2008, he smashed the league's post-season receiving record with seven touchdown catches and 30 overall receptions for 544 yards. The former Minnesota Vikings ball boy is a perennial Pro Bowl selection. If he and Kolb mesh as he and Warner did, the Cardinals could make it to another Super Bowl, or at least win the NFC West title again.
If Diana Taurasi were a man, she would be as rich as Kobe Bryant. Almost. And rivaling him for best player in the NBA. Almost. As it is, she is the best female basketball player in the world and makes about $100,000 a year playing for the Phoenix Mercury (plus a reported $500,000 annually playing in Europe during the WNBA's off-season). She led the Phoenix Mercury to two WNBA championships, was named best collegiate basketball player (regardless of sex) in history after she led her Connecticut Huskies to three NCAA women's championships, and was a member of the USA Olympic women's basketball teams that won gold medals in 2004 and 2008. Hey, we don't have room enough to list all of Tenacious D's accolades. Suffice it to say that the Suns' Steve Nash may be the most famous basketballer in town, but Diana Taurasi may be the best. At 6 feet, the native of Chino, California, has averaged 21 points a game during her professional career, and who says white women can't dunk? Though Taurasi hasn't slammed the ball during a game, she did it in practice for our reporter a few years ago. She says dunking is just not part of the women's game. Pity. Proving that white women can also drink, Taurasi became still another professional athlete to get nailed for DUI here. Authorities said her blood-alcohol level was 0.17 when she was stopped two years ago this summer. Extreme DUI and speeding charges eventually were dropped, and Taurasi served a day in jail.
For a few delightful, if delusional years, some of us thought that the Phoenix Suns might become the Los Angeles Lakers or the San Antonio Spurs, a team that annually competed for, or actually won, an NBA championship. At one point, the franchise had one of the all-time great point guards (Steve Nash), a pure athlete with incredible offensive skills (Amar'e Stoudemire), a perennial All-Star (Shawn Marion), and a dynamite supporting cast in what was one of the more entertaining and effective units in all of pro sports. Then along came Mr. Sarver, whose idea of running a franchise was to scrimp when- and wherever and not to listen to those on his staff who certainly knew (and know) more than him about the sport, including his highly successful general manager, Steve Kerr. Sarver has earned a terrible jacket with his employees as an often mean-spirited fellow keen to blame others as the Suns have slipped into the league's second tier. We never thought we'd be saying this, but previous majority owner Jerry Colangelo is looking awfully good these days.
We were at Chase Field in July when starting pitcher Daniel Hudson hit his first big-league home run, and the Diamondbacks went on to take a series against the hated Los Angeles Dodgers, two games to one. And it was all Hudson, almost all the time, that day; he not only pitched a one-run, five-hit complete game, he drove in all but one of the Diamondbacks' runs, with the homer and a two-run single later in the game. The single was especially sweet, since the Dodgers had hoped to force Hudson out of the game by putting in a hard-throwing reliever with two men on base and two outs. But manager Kirk Gibson was having none of it. Most managers would have put in a pinch-hitter in this situation, but Gibson left his right-handed hurler in to either save the day or blow an opportunity to seal the deal. When Hudson zapped the ground ball into left field, the Dodgers pitching coach was cursing the day he was born. Along with Ian Kennedy, Hudson is the great hope for the Diamondbacks pitching staff, which (until this season) had stunk for quite some time. The win on this day in July gave him a 10-5 record (3.56 ERA). But more than that, his offensive might added to his .359 batting average. Now, that's a great average for a player who hits every day. For a pitcher, it's stupid-good. We mean, not many actual pinch-hitters anywhere in the bigs have an average like that. No wonder Gibson stuck with Hudson in this clutch situation. For the uninformed, though pitchers may throw manly 95-mile-an-hour fastballs, when they come up to bat, they usually whiff at pitches like little girls in T-ball. Not Dan "The Man" Hudson, the best-hitting pitcher in baseball.
Remember when crucifix-sucking Chris Young sucked? When the center fielder (who likes to taste his silver necklace during games) was sent down to the minors for a stint because he couldn't buy a hit. Yes, his M.O. was to pop out to an infielder in 2009, when he cooled his heels with the Reno Aces for three weeks. His batting average dropped below .200 that year, and he finished that season at .212 with 15 homers (he had hit 32 in 2007 and 22 in 2008.). Well, this year, he had 16 homers with the season slightly half done and a .262 average. When he was in his slump, he was lucky to bat seventh when he was in the game at all. Last year, he was moved to leadoff and his production improved. And this year, he's batted fourth (cleanup) on many nights, because of his 50-plus runs batted in. In addition to the hitting, Young is an avid base-stealer. In a game with the Milwaukee Brewers late last season, he became the first major leaguer to become a member of the vaunted 20-20 club — he hit his 20th homer to go along with 22 stolen bases. This year, he has 14 steals so far. Two seasons ago, predictions were that he might be sent to the farm permanently and soon be out of baseball, but the naysayers were wrong. What turned Young around? Part of it was hard work, which included adjusting his swing, and part of it was having a manager, Kirk Gibson, who believes in him. Whatever mojo is working, Young has not only saved his career but vastly improved what was the worst offense in the big leagues last year.
"I wanted to act like I belong here. It's a dream come true. You see the stadium on TV, and you wish and hope you'll be out there like those guys." This is what Ian Kennedy was quoted as saying before his first start with the New York Yankees in 2007. And he acquitted himself well in that first major-league win, striking out six, walking two, and giving up five hits in seven innings. But it didn't go so well after that with the Bronx Bombers. After poor outings and health issues — including an aneurysm under his left armpit — he was in and out of the Yankees' minor-league organizations. He never pitched a full season until after he was involved in a three-way trade with New York and the Detroit Tigers in winter 2009. Pitching for the D-Backs against San Diego late last season, Kennedy struck out 12 Padres and gave up one hit and two walks in seven innings. It was the beginning of his resurgence, and by the time this season rolled around, he was named the Diamondbacks' opening-day starter. Now the ace of the Arizona staff, the Huntington Beach, California, native and University of Southern California alum was 13-5, with a 3.39 ERA, after the All-Star Game this season. With the Diamondbacks in the playoffs, they need Kennedy to produce. And he is capable. He's always had his share of strikeouts, with 168 last year and 113 this season. He's also capable of walking a lot of batters: 70 last year and 37 so far this season. An interesting side note: When Kennedy and his wife, former USC basketball player Allison Jaskowiak, were wed a few years ago, they left the church to the strains of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
The fact that the Arizona Diamondbacks have clinched the National League West lands squarely on the broad shoulders of manager Kirk Gibson, the guy who (with a two-day growth of beard) looks like he could chew nails. But what we hear he's done is chew players' asses. That is, he won't accept mediocrity. And what he has done with a roster of (previous) no-names is nothing short of unbelievable. His players talk about clubhouse "tension" now that Gibby's in charge. But it's not by way of complaining. They know they're going to be held accountable, and they like it that way. Players know that they must work hard or else. The square-jawed Gibson commands respect, and you can see it on his face: He hates freakin' losing! Which is exactly what the Diamondbacks have needed all these years. In the past, they have been coddled by lightweight managers (Gibson's predecessor, A.J. Finch, comes to mind) who commanded little respect — hadn't been there/done that. Gibson was a star in the major leagues, a two-time World Series champion. He led the Detroit Tigers to their 1984 title, but he's best known for the homer he hit for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first game of the 1988 World Series, against the Oakland A's. You know, the one that literally is one of the greatest moments in sports history. When a hobbled-by-injuries Gibby dragged himself around the bases to the screams of everybody with a pulse in the City of Angels. We lived in L.A. at the time and saw people run out into the streets to hug strangers and dance on the roofs of cars in the middle of Sunset Boulevard. We want to see that kind of thing here, and we believe Gibson, the no-nonsense manager now, can make it happen.
Justin Upton made his second All-Star team appearance this year, just as we predicted he would. All it took was playing on a better team than the miserable Snakes squad of last year, when Upton missed the mid-summer classic after having made it in 2009. Upton's young (24 this season), and the desperation of playing on a last-place team got to him in 2010. This season, he was the only Arizona Diamondback to make the cut, until injuries allowed catcher Miguel Montero a roster spot. Upton's destined to be a superhero in his sport, a sure future Hall of Famer. What makes him so special is that he's a solid power hitter, a guy who (when he gets a little older) will challenge the likes of Milwaukee's Prince Fielder and St Louis' Albert Pujols. In a very exclusive club of long-ball hitters, Upton narrowly missed selection to the National League's home run derby squad during All-Star week in Phoenix this summer. Before this season is over, the D-Backs right fielder could still eclipse the year he had in 2009, when he hit .300, with 26 home runs and 86 runs batted in. He was at 15 homers as he went into the All-Star Game and was batting .281 with 46 runs batted in. The downside to Upton is his streakiness. After the All-Star break, he slumped briefly and then surged, with 21 home runs at this writing. Let's hope that manager Kirk Gibson can make him a more consistent player, because Gibson will need him to win that next World Series title we hope for around here.
Dustin Pedroia is a phenom with a .303 batting average going on six seasons with the Boston Red Sox. He's the best hitter to come out of Arizona State University since Barry Bonds. Better than Bonds when you look at his average and worth to his team — and there's no doubt that the 5-foot-9, 180-pounder never has done steroids. Not only is Pedroia a probable future Hall of Famer, based on his hitting; he is a stellar infielder. He's an American League Gold Glove (2008) second baseman who has committed only 28 errors since the 2006 season. It was a good bet that Pedroia would do well in the majors. During his ASU career, he hit .384, with 71 doubles, 14 homers, and 146 runs batted in — incredible stats for a college player. In addition, he was 2003 National Defensive Player of the Year while at ASU. He went on to win AL Rookie of the year in 2007, his first full season in the bigs — which coincidentally was the year that Boston won its second World Series in four years (before 2004, it hadn't won the title since 1918). On the first pitch of his first World Series at-bat, the Woodland, California, native homered over Fenway Park's Green Monster. This season, he's on a pace to hit more home runs than in any other season, with 13 since the All-Star game — as Boston led the American League East. Never known as a power-hitter, his previous HR total was 17 in 2008. Now 27, he's billed in Boston as the spark plug of his team — the proverbial little man who plays big.

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