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.
What's he thinking? What does he mean when he says that? What was "that look" about? Is he smiling? Is he frowning? Inscrutable is what Cardinals Coach Ken Whisenhunt is. He's a guy who wouldn't need to wear a hat and sunglasses to be a poker champion. Coach, why even hold the clipboard in front of your face when you change a play from the sidelines? When your lips are moving, we can barely tell that your lips are moving. The former offensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers led the Cardinals to an improbable Super Bowl berth in 2008 (they had the game won until a Steelers receiver made a toe-dragging catch falling out of bounds in the end zone to seal the deal for his team, 27-23). Whisenhunt had pushed his team away from its perennial losing ways that season. The Cardinals' NFC West championship was the team's first division title since 1975, when they were the St. Louis Cardinals. One of the best times of our life was watching the Cardinals beat the mighty Philadelphia Eagles to win the NFC championship that season. The Whiz then pushed his team to a 10-6 record the next year before losing in the second round of the NFC playoffs to the eventual Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. Whiz, what happened last year? Sure, Kurt Warner retired, and you didn't have a viable quarterback, but couldn't you have pulled enough of your patented trick plays out of your red cap to win a few more than five games? Whiz, are your lips moving?
Taitusi "Deuce" Latui was involved in the most-publicized gaffe in local sports last football season, when he was seen joking around with then-Cardinals starting quarterback Derek Anderson. Because Anderson was clowning during a blowout loss to the San Francisco 49ers, fans and sportscasters took exception, and Anderson — who was supposed to be the answer to the Cardinals' QB woes — was all but run out of town. Anderson was released by the team this summer, but Lutui's still around. Though Latui has improved over the past few seasons to become a solid offensive guard, his weight always was a problem for Coach Ken Whisenhunt. He weighed 370 pounds when he played in college at USC (the largest player ever to don a Trojans jersey) and his off-season weight ballooned that high as a Cardinal. Last year, this mountain of a man's sense of humor came through when he referred to himself as the Lindsay Lohan of the team because of all the publicity his tubbiness had generated in the media. The tomfooling Tongan, who was a popular player at Mesa High School pre-USC, has been a joker all his life. It's not that Deuce doesn't take football seriously; it's that he doesn't take daily life seriously. He has a tendency to dance maniacally around the locker room. They call the NFL the No Fun League (because coaches are always on players' asses), but Deuce Lutui's out to change that.
And we mean this in a good way. We love Mark Grace, one of the nicest guys in local sports. The man never has been an asshole to the media, like a lot of professional athletes in this town (initials: Randy Johnson). He's always humble, grateful for his opportunity to play major-league baseball, first for the Chicago Cubs but especially for the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he was an integral part of the team's 2001 World Series championship, homering in game four. He led off with a base hit in the ninth inning of Game 7 that enabled a come-from-behind victory to shock the mighty Yankees. Grace now is a color commentator for D-Backs broadcasts, and we enjoy his insight. He's paid to love the home team, for sure, but he isn't afraid to call out Arizona players when they mess up. So when we heard that he'd been busted for driving under the influence of alcohol, we felt for him. Not that he didn't deserve it: He admitted to drinking Macallans that evening, one drink about five minutes before he was pulled over in his Jaguar. Not that anybody should drive while intoxicated (his blood-alcohol level allegedly was more than the legal limit of 0.08), but the cops report that Grace was nothing but all-smiles polite. When the arresting officer asked the former first-baseman how he thought he'd done on a field-sobriety test, Grace reportedly responded, "Not well enough." No cursing, yelling, threatening the cops — like one professional athlete (hockey player Brett Sutter) did here recently. Gracey's honest to a fault.
Marcin Gortat's known in the NBA as "The Polish Hammer." From the looks of him, he's a goon you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. At 6-feet-11 and 240 pounds, he's scary-ugly, a guy who has terrified opponents of the Phoenix Suns since his arrival last December from the Orlando Magic. When the trade for him and two lackluster veterans was announced last season, we wondered about the Suns' sanity. They gave up the most prolific scorer on the team, Jason Richardson, for Gortat, a backup center for the Magic. The other two guys the Suns acquired, Vince Carter and Michael Pietrus, were unlikely to improve the team's fortunes (and indeed they didn't). The Hammer, though, became just what the Suns needed: a tough defender and hardcore rebounder (almost 10 boards a game last season). Can Gortat return the Suns to contention? No, not averaging 13 points a game to go along with his defense and rebounding. Not with the present team that features ancients Grant Hill and Steve Nash, a franchise that gave up superstar Amar'e Stoudemire because owner Robert Sarver didn't want to pay him. But we really enjoy watching the friendly (only when he's off the court) Pole kick ass, and we pray for a miracle during the upcoming season — that is, some young studs to surround him and reduce Nash's playing time. Provided there's even a season at all. The players and owners are in contract talks.
We hate to give a Los Angeles Dodger props, but we have adjusted our rule for right fielder Andre Ethier, a hometown hero if there ever was one. Phoenix native Ethier first gained fame at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, where he batted .468 with 32 doubles and was named MVP. He then played at Arizona State University, where he batted .371 with 14 home runs. He was drafted by the Oakland Athletics before landing with the Dodgers in 2006. Three years later, Ethier had a breakout year. He hit 31 home runs and had 106 runs batted in. He had six walk-off hits, including four game-winning, ninth-inning homers, more than anybody in the big leagues and the most in 35 years. He was named an All-Star this summer for the second time, and he singled in a run in the game, which the National League won 5-1. He noted after the game that the hit, while a personal highlight, may come in second to when he was in Chase Field 10 years ago to witness the D-Backs' only World Series championship, against the New York Yankees. Ethier, who grew up down the street from the ballpark, made it to the mid-summer classic in Phoenix partly because he started the season with a 30-game hitting streak, which lasted until May 7. Ethier is batting .300 with nine home runs, 102 hits, 44 RBI, and 23 doubles. He has been sidelined by injuries this year and last, but we predict that the 29-year-old will be one of the greats before his career is over.
Why isn't St. Mary's High School and University of Arizona product Channing Frye a tougher professional basketball player? He seems to have all the tools, but . . . Oh, we know what you're thinking: He's a hell of a three-point shooter (.403 career). Well, to hell with that! Frye's a muscular 7-footer who plays like a point guard — on a college team. That is, his interior game is pretty much non-existent. Every year, he has a spurt or three of all-rightness, and then comes the disappointment. Problem is, the Phoenix Suns try to start him, or give him major minutes at power forward or center, and he's just not that good at these hardcore positions. If he were on a team with solid starters (like, say, the Lakers, the Heat, or the Mavericks), he would be fine to come in for 10 minutes a game. But playing big-time minutes exposes that he's not a big-time player. Let's face it (though he has an occasional okay night as a rebounder, despite his measly five-boards-a-game career average), he's a pussy under the basket — which is where big guys like him belong. Why, oh, why didn't suns owner Robert Sarver bounce this 10-points-a-game local dud and put the resources toward the salary of gone-last-season Amar'e Stoudemire? If he had, the Suns' future would still be bright.

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