"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.
Miguel Montero is the most fundamentally sound player on the Arizona Diamondbacks' roster. Because of injuries to other players around the National League, he was an All-Star this year, but he deserved it. How many times have we seen the guy get a clutch hit for the D-Backs through his five full seasons with the team? That was a rhetorical question — meaning it's a lot. His on-base percentage is .346. Plus the guy has been the field general over a bunch of young pitchers this year, with amazing results. As a defender against the steal, he's improved vastly. A banner game for Montero this season came on July 23 against the Colorado Rockies, when he hit a home run, a double, and drove in five runs. He couldn't lose that day; he even walked in a run. He's had to fight off injuries, but if he can stay healthy, he will be one of the reasons that the Diamondbacks can go deep in the post-season. A solid .280 hitter for most of this season, he finished the year with a career-best 17 home runs. Miggy's a quiet guy, leaving the limelight to more flamboyant players like Justin Upton. He just does his job.
Stephen Drew went out for the season with a gruesome broken ankle (his toes were pointed backward) after sliding into home plate in a July 20 game against the Milwaukee Brewers. Drew's a good hitter for his position, with a lifetime .270 batting average, and a guy who can hit for power. He's slammed 70 home runs in six seasons (including the shortened season in 2006, when he came up from the minors, and this year) — 21 in 2008, 15 in 2010. For Babe Ruth's sake, manager Kirk Gibson had him batting cleanup some of the time. But where he has been hugely missed by the Arizona Diamondbacks is in the field. Drew, from Valdosta, Georgia, isn't the best shortstop in the major leagues — that would be Hanley Ramirez of the Florida Marlins — but he's in the top 10, especially when it comes to fielding. He's up there with New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter as a defensive shortstop. Jeter, in the 3,000-hit club, surpasses Drew with a .312 lifetime average, but consider this: Jeter has averaged 13 errors over 17 seasons and Drew has averaged 11 over six. The impossible grabs he made this year, saving the D-Backs runs and ensuring wins, truly were phenomenal. Drew may not have ever turned backflips, like the Wizard of Oz (Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith) once did, but he is a magical glove man.
Ryan Roberts is a hustler who makes his teammates better. His manager, Kirk Gibson, calls him a "gamer," which, coming from the ultimate gamer, is a huge compliment. Finally a starter at third base this season (he's adept at all infield and outfield positions), he hit 13 home runs and batted a respectable .245. But what we want to talk about here are the 30-year-old's tattoos. Many big leaguers hide their tats beneath long-sleeve T-shirts, but not Roberts. He has at least 30, including one that crawls up the left side of his neck. His arms and hands are sleeved with them. It's said he's running out of skin for tattoos, and in preparation for a possible career as a tattoo artist when he's done with big-league baseball, he's even personally put two on himself: imprints of his young daughter's feet on the tops of his own. He says his "only the strong survive" tattoo has kept him plugging away at the game he loves, even after limited playing time and a demotion to the minors in previous seasons. In what must have been either a nightmare or a religious experience for his mother, he got his first tattoo when he was 18: a cross with a crown of thorns. A family man all the way, guardian angels representing his grandparents adorn his shoulders, and the elaborate aforementioned neck tat signifies "family" in Chinese characters. The tattoos we know about don't seem to symbolize anything fearsome, but all that ink must scare opposing pitchers to death. His nickname among teammates and fans: "Tatman," natch.
There was a different vibe in the Arizona Diamondbacks' clubhouse this season, and it's because of new GM Kevin Towers. The former San Diego Padres GM, who finished his first regular season with the Diamondbacks, has put people in place — manager Kirk Gibson, along with clubhouse leaders like veteran pitcher Joe Saunders — who have turned things around for the franchise. Now, instead of looking at years of dismal, last-place finishes, Arizona fans have reason for hope. This year's team contended all season, after having finished at the bottom of the National League west in 2010. Towers was a proven winner in San Diego. In his two decades with the Padres, his last 14 helming the front office, Padres teams appeared in one World Series — losing to the New York Yankees in 1998 — and won four division titles. (Ironically, the only other time San Diego was in the Series was in 1984, when Gibson's Detroit Tigers beat them.) Now, here's an interesting twist: Towers came to Arizona after he was fired by Padres CEO Jeff Moorad, who disparagingly called him a "gunslinger." (Towers does favor cowboy boots.) Moorad headed the Diamondbacks before he bought the Padres in 2009. Once the D-Backs' pathetic 2010 season concluded, GM Josh Byrnes and manager A.J. Hinch — definitely not "gunslinger" types — were summarily fired. Guess what Moorad did? He hired both boobs for front-office jobs in SD. The result of all this was that Arizona won the NL West, and the Padres (true to Byrnes and Hinch's form) were in last place. Towers for the dismal duo definitely is a trade we endorse. Shoot 'em up, Kevin.
Kevin Kolb is the great hope of the Arizona Cardinals. After struggling last season with a trio of inept quarterbacks, the Cardinals dished out big bucks — a $63 million ($23 million guaranteed), five-year contract — and traded away their best cornerback, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and a second-round draft choice to the Philadelphia Eagles for a guy they hope can bring back the glory days of Kurt Warner. (Though in this deal, the Cardinals also lost their second-best receiver in the off-season when Steve Breaston went to the Kansas City Chiefs.) Here's the skinny on the 6-foot-3, 218-pound Kolb: He's got a great arm, which means he has no problem airing it out downfield or to zigzagging receivers.He's not just a scrambler but a guy who can leave the pocket and pick up yards on the ground. He's 27 and reaching the prime of his career (considering his limited playing time). Drawbacks are that defenses can read him more often than coaches would like, he takes too many chances resulting in interceptions, he tends to run the ball at the first sign of trouble, and he can sail passes over the heads of receivers. He was drafted 36th in the 2007 NFL draft out of the University of Houston and completed 194 passes out of 319 attempts for 2,082 yards, 11 TDs, and 14 interceptions. This was mostly as a backup, first to Donovan McNabb and then to Michael Vick. He had been the Eagles' starting QB until he was sidelined in the last season's opener with a concussion. Insiders believe Kolb can be great now that he's playing every Sunday. He passed for 309 yards and a TD in the Cards' opener against Carolina. We've heard that star Cards wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald pushed for him, which can only mean that Fitzgerald believes the new kid will return him to greatness. Which would be good for all of us.
Calias Campbell is inspirational. He's a leader on the field from his defensive end position and a monster, even by NFL standards. Campbell stands 6-foot-8, weighs at least 300 pounds, and is the most intimidating player on the Cardinals' defensive line. Which is saying a lot, since the fearsome 6-foot-4, 290-pound Darnell Dockett, also a team leader on defense, plays beside him at defensive tackle. The second-most exciting play in football (to a long pass to an acrobatic receiver) is a quarterback sack. Even on last year's losing Cardinals team (the Cards were destroyed by so many teams that their self-esteem got diminished), the two were quarterback smashers: Campbell had six sacks (among his 60 tackles) to go along with Dockett's five (among his 52 tackles). The two played college football in Florida for two of the nation's premier college football teams, the University of Miami Hurricanes (in Campbell's case) and Florida State University Seminoles (in Dockett's). Campbell's in his fourth pro season, and Docket's in his eighth, and the two are the heart of an Arizona defense that should be tough this year, even with the loss of cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

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