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2014 Baseball Preview

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I didn’t quite beat the first game of the season because Major League Baseball scheduled the Dodgers and Diamondbacks to play in Australia eight days before any other team plays, but here’s my 2014 Baseball Preview in all its glory.

This year’s edition is 70 pages long, almost double last year’s 38-page preview. There are some other changes from last year’s preview that I talk about in the introduction, but I figure most people are just going to skip to their favorite team, so I’ll just go ahead and explain them here. Then again, there’s a good chance you’ve already opened the preview and headed straight towards your favorite team.

The 2014 Baseball Preview uses a lot more statistics than past previews have, so I’ve included an in-depth glossary for sabermetric terms just three pages into the preview. You should probably read that if you want to fully understand each team’s capsule.

I’m also excited to say that the preview focuses heavily on a retrospective analysis of wins system (RAWS) I’ve created that helps explain how well teams actually did the year before. There’s a big ol’ explanation of how RAWS works and what it means with all the data laid out.

Additionally, I got a good deal of front office input from different front team executives and scouts across Major League Baseball, so that will bring another perspective into this preview.

Finally, thank you so much for reading my preview. I put in over five months of work on this, and it’s my favorite project of the year. For the eighth year in a row, I won’t be charging anything for my baseball preview, but I’d appreciate it if you sent it along to a friend or two or twenty.

Enjoy.

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Week 9 NFL Picks – All Favorites Everything

If you’ve been paying attention to my picks this year, you’d know that things haven’t gone exactly as planned. I’m picking 48% of the games correctly, which isn’t so bad, but I’m at -320 apples, mostly thanks to somehow going 2-6 in my Cook Out Drive-Thru Lock o’ the Week picks.

Now that we’ve reached the halfway point in the season, I thought I’d actually do some analysis. After charting all 120 games this year, here are the trends I’ve found:

Home teams are 69-49 against the spread.

Favorites are 62-55 against the spread.

Home favorites are 47-33 against the spread.

Home underdogs are 22-15 against the spread.

And with that being said, I’ll be picking every favorite this week. You know, to break my bad mojo.

Week 9 NFL Picks. Home teams in CAPS.

Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked Games:

PACKERS (-10.5) over Bears
Josh McCown was actually 14-20 for 204 yards and a touchdown that came out to a 94.6 QBR. Although he couldn’t beat Washington, he actually closed the gap by 3 points from when Cutler went out and he went in. Then again, I’m going with all the favorites this week.

COWBOYS (-10.5) over Vikings
What a choker, that Romo is. He let the Lions pick up 299 yards of offense in the fourth quarter, including going 80 yards in 50 seconds without a touchdown for the winning score.

Chargers (-1) over REDSKINS
Is it possible that Philip Rivers is having a career renaissance with Antonio Gates, Keenan Allen, Eddie Royal, and Vincent Brown as his top receivers? Oh, and The Onion killed it again.

RAIDERS (-2.5) over Eagles
Did you know that the powerhouse Eagles offense scored 10 points in the last two minutes of last game? Wait, scratch that, it’s just in the last two games.

Dunkin’ Donuts Plain Cake Games:

PANTHERS (-7.5) over Falcons
I’m sticking to my guns that the Panthers are actually a really good team, and frankly, I’m tired of the Falcons ruining my Cook Out Drive-Thru Lock o’ the Week.

Titans (-3) over RAMS
C’mon, you knew this one was the Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That Game of the Week.

SEAHAWKS (16.5) over Buccaneers
We already know the Jaguars are bad (R.I.P. list of things worst than the Jaguars this week), but the Bucs might not win a game this season. They go at Seattle, home Miami, home Atlanta, at Detroit, at Carolina, home Buffalo, home San Francisco, at St. Louis, at New Orleans. Could we have the elusive double defeated teams this year??

Colts (-2.5) over TEXANS
Sure, Case Keenum fumbled twice in his Texans debut, but at least he didn’t throw a pick six!

How bout this guy, huh?

How bout this guy, huh? 7th-highest scoring fantasy tight end, that #42 is.

KFC Double Down Games

Bengals (-2.5) over DOLPHINS
After starting 3-0, the last five weeks have illustrated that it’s hard to be good when your top skill position players are Lamar Miller, Daniel Thomas, Bad Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, and Some Guy Named Charles Clay.

Saints (-6.5) over JETS
The Jets are the top team against the rush, so they’ll force the Saints to beat them by making Drew Brees throw the ball.

Ravens (-2.5) over BROWNS
Clearly the Ravens are a shell of their Super Bowl Champion team last year, but if they can’t beat Jason Campbell by more than a field goal, they might end up regretting giving Joe Flacco $120.6 million.

PATRIOTS (-6.5) over Steelers
Will the city of Boston have a hangover after winning the World Series in Boston for the first time in 95 years? That’s the real question.

Cook Out Drive-Thru Lock o’ the Week:

Chiefs (-3.5) over BILLS
Shouldn’t this line be six and a half points higher? I’m scared. How are the 8-0 Chiefs just favored by a field goal in Buffalo. I can’t be this dumb, right? I love Thad Lewis, but geez. Quick, everybody put your life savings on the Bills!

Overall record: 56-61-3

Last week: 6-7

Apple Total: -320

Apple Total Last Week: -40

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Week 8 NFL Picks – The Lock’s Still Broken

You know what? At least I went 10-5 last week. Week 8 NFL Picks. Home teams in CAPS.

Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked Games:

EAGLES (-5.5) over Giants
It finally took them playing a team with a quarterback who completed 23-50 passes for the Giants to win a game. Did you know Peyton Hillis was the leading rusher last Monday night with 36 yards on 18 carries?

Bills (+12) over SAINTS
I’m so on board this Thad Lewis train. Dude is completing 64.6% of his passes and, oh yeah, did I mention he went to Duke?

RAIDERS (+2.5) over Steelers
These teams used to be really good. A decade ago. Your Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That Game of the Week.

Jets (+6.5) over BENGALS
In case you haven’t noticed, the Bengals don’t score a lot of points. They’re mostly winning games by 3 and 4 points, and the Jets weirdly play up to their competition this year.

The pushing penalty

The pushing penalty on New England against the Jets was one of the worst I’ve seen in a while. I swear the refs are out to get the Patriots.

Dunkin’ Donuts Plain Cake Games:

PATRIOTS (-6.5) over Dolphins
God what an awful call against the Patriots on that field goal at the end of last game. It’s like Boston sports teams never catch a break.

Cowboys (+3) over LIONS
I hate media narratives (other than the Jaguars being the worst thing ever), so I just want to point out that Tony Romo is not “unclutch.” In the fourth quarter when he is either up or down by 7, he’s completing 63.9% of his passes for 8.6 yards per attempt with a 2.58 TD/INT ratio and a 101.7 passer rating. Compare that to his normal 65.0% completion rate, 7.9 yards per attempt, 2.26 TD/INT ratio, and 94.1 passer rating. And I know your response: “Yeah, but still.” And it’s a quality response.

Redskins (+12.5) over BRONCOS
The Broncos haven’t covered their spread in the past three weeks and are looking particularly vulerable on (pass) defense. Considering the Redskins are 7th in passing, 4th in rushing, and 10th in scoring, this seems like the perfect opportunity for a backdoor cover on a nearly two-touchdown spread at the very least.

Packers (-9) over VIKINGS
Maybe Leslie Frazier thinks he can combine Moshian Freeselder into one semi-competent quarterback? He knows he has Adrian Peterson, the greatest running back alive, on his team, right?

KFC Double Down Games

Panthers (-6) over BUCCANEERS
Biases aside, I think the Panthers are actually a very good team. I’m going to ride out their artificially low spreads that put too much weight on their disappointing record until they inevitably blow a primetime game to a bad team. Wait a minute…

CHIEFS (-7.5) over Browns
Jason Campbell is about to become the 20th quarterback to start for the Browns since 1999. That’s so sad that Jeff Garcia reached out to them saying he’s ready to play. I’m not even making that up. Dude is 43 years old.

SEAHAWKS (-10.5) over Rams
On my Monday radio show with Jackson Martin (shameless plug) I couldn’t remember which former Jets backup is now starting for the Rams. Greg McElroy? Vinny Testaverde? David Garrard? Chad Pennington? Nope. Kellen Clemens.

Niners (-16.5) over JAGUARS
Here is a running list of things better than the Jaguars:
1. A-Rod’s ability to not act like a bridesmaid
2. This kid’s ability to smile for a picture
3. Jonathan Villar’s bunting ability
4. Melky Cabrera’s throwing arm
5. Songs about problems that hot girls have
6. Gana Diop’s free throw shooting
7. Gana Diop’s put-back skills
8. Gana Diop’s car dealership sales pitch
9. Gana Diop raps
10. Gana Diop’s blow-on-Dwight-Howard-and-maybe-he-won’t-embarrass-me defense in the playoffs

Cook Out Drive-Thru Lock o’ the Week:

Falcons (+2.5) over CARDINALS
This makes me so nervous. Why aren’t the Falcons favored? Am I missing something? I keep missing my locks of the week even though they seem so obvious to me. What’s going on? Am I crazy? Isn’t Carson Palmer the quarterback of this team? Haven’t they lost their past two games by 12 points apiece? Isn’t Matt Ryan 3rd in the league in passing? Ahhhhhh.

Overall record: 50-54-3

Last week: 10-5

Apple Total: -280

Apple Total Last Week: -15

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Week 1 NFL Picks – Return of the Apples

We had a nice appetizer last week with college football, but now it’s time for real football. The NFL is making its glorious return Thursday night, which means the glorious return of my weekly NFL picks. Don’t everybody get excited at once!

As you remember, last year I switched up my system for making picks by making four categories of games. Each game is worth a different amount of apples, because, of course, betting money on sports is illegal in the United States.

We have the Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked Games, which are worth 5 apples.

We have the Dunkin’ Donuts Plain Cake Games, which are worth 10 apples.

We have the KFC Double Down (May They Rest in Peace) Games, which are worth 20 apples.

And finally, we have the Cook Out Drive-Thru Lock o’ the Week, which is worth 50 apples.

The math is tough, but you’ll have to hang in here. Basically, the more confident I am, the more apples I’ll wager. Although my record against the spread last year was just 133-124-5, I made 365 apples. Basically, I have the clutch gene and am better and picking the more valuable games.

Without further ado, let’s get this season going strong. Home teams in CAPS.

Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked Game:

STEELERS (-7) over Titans
What ever happened to the Steelers offense? Their starting running back is Isaac Redman, and their starting receivers are Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. The good news is they don’t have Jake Locker starting for them at quarterback.

BROWNS (-1) over Dolphins
Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill: It’s our Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That Game of the Week.

Vikings (+5.5) over LIONS
The Lions aren’t as bad as their 4-12 record last year, and the Vikings aren’t as good as their 10-6 record this year, but I’m scratching my head over this line. Adrian Peterson racked up 273 yards in his two games against Detroit last year, and he should do even better now with Greg Jennings stealing attention.

COWBOYS (-3.5) over Giants
Admitedly, I’ve never been a fan of the Giants, but isn’t it at least a tiny bit concerning that David Wilson is their only feature back. Dude fumbled on his second NFL carry and was promptly benched for most of the season.

Eagles (+3.5) over REDSKINS
The Eagles are supremely underrated this season. They were Super Bowl contenders last year, and they still have the same team, although now they have a coach who can really take advantage of their speedy offensive personnel. Chip Kelly and Michael Vick may just set this league on fire. Or crash and burn, who knows?

Dunkin’ Donuts Plain Cake Game:

NINERS (-4.5) over Packers
Losing Michael Crabtree really hurts the Niners, but losing Brian Bulaga just kills the Packers. With San Fran’s front seven looming, Aaron Rodgers will have approximately 0.617 seconds to throw each pass. And yes, I calculated that down the thousandths of a second. It’s very advanced math.

Seahawks (-3.5) over PANTHERS
It’s a 10 a.m. West Coast game. The Seahawks don’t have Percy Harvin. They do have Sidney Rice. I so want to pick the Panthers. But then again, the Panthers offensive line is a certified mess, and the Seahawks do have a fairly solid defense.

RAMS (-4.5) over Cardinals
The Cardinals swapped Beanie Wells for Rashard Mendenhall as “That Guy Who Really Sucks At Football But Ends Up Drafted Way Too High In My Fantasy League Because Yeah He Is a Starting Running Back And You Really Can’t Have Enough Running Backs, Especially Starting Running Backs.”

    Unhappy with Carson Palmer, the Raiders are opting for a platoon of suck at the quarterback position.

Unhappy with Carson Palmer, the Raiders are opting for a platoon of suck at the quarterback position.

Bengals (+3) over BEARS
CBS picking the Bengals to win the Super Bowl made me laugh, but if you want a fraction of a shot to win it, you’d better not lose to the Bears by more than a field goal.

COLTS (-9.5) over Raiders
This line seemed way too high until I remembered that Terrelle Pryor and Matt Flynn were fighting for the starting quarterback job.

KFC Double Down Game:

Texans (-4) over CHARGERS
Fun Fact: the Chargers have opened the year on Monday Night Football in four of the past five years.

Ravens (+7.5) over BRONCOS
I understand the Broncos are very good and the Ravens lost a lot of players, but this is still the Super Bowl champs we’re talking about. Champ Bailey is out for this game, and I’m not giving up more than a touchdown.

Falcons (+3) over SAINTS
The Falcons might be the best non-West team in the NFC, and I’m getting points? NOLA’s D is about to be shredded.

Patriots (-9.5) over BILLS
This line would be 15.5 points in New England. Actually.

Buccaneers (-3) over JETS
I’m trying to decide if abominable or odious better describes the Jets.

Cook Out Drive-Thru Lock o’ the Week

Chiefs (-4) over JAGUARS
Here is a running list of things better than the Jaguars:
1. Brad Paisley and LL Cool J duets
2. Adam Dunn playing defense
3. A white guy in cornrows
4. The Houston Astros
5. Columns comparing Johnny Manziel to Rosa Parks
6. Ryan Braun’s ability to round third
7. Ryan Braun’s ability to correctly identify anti-semites
8. Ryan Braun’s ability to dump a Gatorade cooler on a teammate
9. Ryan Braun’s ability to look friends in the eye and tell the truth
10. Ryan Braun’s ability to fail a drug test, get off on a technicality, and then successfully avoid being caught again

Overall record: 0-0

Last week: 0-0

Apple Total: 0

Apple Total Last Week: 0

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Chase Garnham joins in lawsuit against NCAA

The NCAA can’t get out of the news, and it’s not because of the actual games on the field. Instead of celebrating tantalizing talents like Jadeveon Clowney and Johnny Manziel, the fans’ focus has shifted to the NCAA potentially colluding  with video-game giant Electronic Arts to make billions off their cash-cow student-athletes.

The biggest threat to the NCAA is currently the class action anti-trust lawsuit brought on by Ed O’Bannon, a star basketball player for UCLA in the 1990s.

O’Bannon contends that the NCAA and EA, which makes popular video games “NCAA Football” and “NCAA March Madness,” together artificially set the price of a student-athlete’s likeness at $0. On an open market, the players’ likenesses would undoubtedly be worth more than that.

The NCAA doesn’t pay student-athletes, who must sign a waiver that forfeits their right to make money off their own likeness as NCAA athletes. Receiving payment would make them professionals, and professionals can’t play in an amateur sport—an amateur sport that nets more than $6 billion in revenues annually.

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One of nine Vanderbilt captains, Garnham has a chance to change the landscape of college sports as we know it.

While the O’Bannon suit could revolutionize the way all college sports operate, an impact has already been felt on Vanderbilt’s campus: senior linebacker Chase Garnham has joined lawsuit as a plaintiff.

Five other current student-athletes also joined Garnham in the lawsuit: Arizona’s Jake Fischer and Jake Smith, Clemson’s Darius Robertson, and Minnesota’s Moses Alipate and Victor Kiese.

The proceedings won’t affect Garnham’s eligibility, however, and he will be a key cog in the Commodores’ defense this year. Garnham, who is not answering questions about the case at this time, was second on the team with 84 tackles last year and led the team with seven sacks.

Although the lawsuit is far from nearing an end—the trial is set for July 9, 2014—signals that O’Bannon and Co. may end up winning are already visible. Last month, the NCAA ended its partnership with EA and will not license an “NCAA Football 15” game.

Adding two and two together, it’s clear that the NCAA does not want to run the risk of having to pay thousands of student-athletes for the right to their likeness, should O’Bannon win the lawsuit.

Another potential impact of the O’Bannon lawsuit is that players would receive royalties from revenue coming from merchandise and broadcast rights.

Previously, the NCAA claimed that they just sold generic jerseys, although nearly every jersey sold in the Vanderbilt book store last year was No. 2 or No. 11, which happen to be the same numbers worn by starting running back Zac Stacy and quarterback Jordan Rodgers, respectively.

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas debunked the laughable claim earlier this month when he exposed that you could search for players’ names on ShopNCAAsports.com and find specific player jerseys. Three days later, the NCAA announced they would stop selling jerseys because, as NCAA president Mark Emmert put it, they can “certainly recognize why that could be seen as hypocritical.”

All of this means that schools may have to skimp on other aspects of the athletic experience. Maybe schools like Oregon will have to put a few less Milanese-furnished barbershops and pool tables in their $86 million football facilities.

The landscape of college athletics could undergo some massive changes in the near future, and Chase Garnham will play a large role in the lawsuit. For now, though, he’ll be just another key player on Vanderbilt’s defense.

(This first appeared in the Vanderbilt Hustler)

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Crawdads on pace to shatter records

(First appeared in The Charlotte Observer)

Baseball history is being made by the Hickory Crawdads this summer.

The Crawdads have passed their season record of 135 home runs–and there’s still a quarter of the season left. And they’re well on their way to shattering a Class A record set in 1998.

But with the home runs come a lot of swings and misses. The team also is on pace to break the minor league record for strikeouts and become the first team to whiff 1,400 times.

The Crawdads have struck out 10 times or more in more than half of their games, and they’re hit multiple home runs in more than a third of their games. This has led them to be the fourth-highest scoring team in the South Atlantic League and the second-worst team in batting average and on-base percentage.

Crawdads second baseman Ryan Rua leads all of minor league baseball with 29 home runs. At age 23, he is older than most players in the league, and there isn’t much precedent for sluggers his age making it from Class A to the majors.

But he is playing on a team filled with potential and loaded with some of the best young talent in baseball.

On a rainy afternoon last month in Hickory, seven scouts watched the Crawdads, the youngest South Atlantic League team.

The club includes five of the Texas Rangers’ top 10 prospects, according to Baseball Prospectus, an amateur baseball scouting service. The Rangers, Hickory’s major league parent club invested $13.7 million in those five players.

That collection of talent on one Class A team is rare. The Arkansas Travelers, the Angels’ Class AA affiliate, is the only other minor league team with even four hitters among the team’s top 10 prospects.

With a starting lineup whose average age is nearly three years younger than the rest of the South Atlantic League, Hickory’s talent has keyed the Crawdads’ run to first place in the Northern Division.

“For me being the older guy,” Rua said, “it’s fun to watch them and their talents they have at such a young age.”

While manager Corey Ragsdale said the players aren’t close to where they need to be as hitters, he also said there isn’t another minor league team he’d trade his for because of its sheer talent.

“This is their first full year of baseball,” Ragsdale said. “A bunch of them would be freshman in college right now. Some of the Latin kids would even be seniors in high school still. It’s a pretty big jump; they’re facing kids older than them every day of the season.”

Third baseman Joey Gallo, 19, and center fielder Lewis Brinson, 19, have accounted for nearly a third of the team’s home runs and more than a quarter of the team’s strikeouts. The two were drafted 10 picks apart last year and have roomed together for two years.

Gallo led the minors in home runs before suffering a groin injury that has kept him out for a short stint. He has what one scout called “majestic power.” Brinson is an excellent defender with power and speed. He has 17 home runs and 16 stolen bases.

Even though they signed for a combined $3.875 million, the two live small. Gallo grew up in Las Vegas, where he often would head to the Strip for dinner and a show on the weekend. Now, he and Brinson spend a lot of time playing video games.

“Maybe we can go out to eat a little more, but that’s about it,” Gallo said.

The other three young potential stars arrived through a different route. Catcher Jorge Alfaro, 20, right fielder Nomar Mazara, 18, and first baseman Ronald Guzman, 18, signed with Texas in international free agency. Mazara got the biggest bonus of the group: $5 million.

The three live together in an apartment with shortstop Luis Marte. Mazara, Guzman and Marte, along with 11 other Crawdads played last year for Ragsdale in Arizona, where they won the Arizona League rookie title. Since they’ve been together for more than a year, they have chemistry and can overcome a language barrier.

“We always mess around, saying stuff in Spanish–mostly bad words because that’s all we know–and they say a lot of bad words in English to us,” Gallo said. “We all get along really well, and it’s a lot of fun being with people that are from different places in the world and grew up a little different than you did.”

After finishing a half-game out of first place in the first half, the Crawdads now are third in the Northern Division. For the season, they are 2 1/2 games out of first.

The fans have taken notice of the team’s talent and success; attendance which had been falling during recent years, is up slightly to 2,075 fans per game.

The players also see how special this team is and sometimes envision themselves playing together with the Rangers in the future.

“We have a tremendous amount of talent on this team,” Gallo said. “I don’t see why this whole team can’t move up together and make it up to the top.”

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Hickory Crawdads Podcast

I’ve gotten to write a lot of stories for the Charlotte Observer this summer, but this one has been my favorite this far. I went an hour north of Charlotte to Hickory to watch the Hickory Crawdads play.

Besides the fact that they’ve got a great team name, the team is incredibly interesting. They’ve got five of the Rangers Top 10 prospects–they received a combined $13.7 million bonus–and that doesn’t even include the minor league leader in home runs.

Joey Gallo. Lewis Brinson. Nomar Mazara. Jorge Alfaro. Ronald Guzman. Even Ryan Rua and Nick Williams. The list of talented players goes on and on.

You can read the full article here, but there’s more content I want to share that I couldn’t fit in the article. That’s why I made the 5th installment of The Knuckle Cast.

This podcast features interviews with Gallo, Brinson, Rua, Williams, and manager Corey Ragsdale. My interviews with Mazara, Alfaro, and Guzman were over the phone and needed a translator, so they’re not really worth sharing.

I had a lot of fun with this project, and I hope between the article and the podcast you enjoy it a fraction as much as I did.

The Knuckle Cast Episode #5

(This may take a minute to load, but I promise it’s worth the wait.)

_

(The Observer link is now broken, so I copied it here.)

Baseball history is being made by the Hickory Crawdads this summer.

The Crawdads have passed their season record of 135 home runs–and there’s still a quarter of the season left. And they’re well on their way to shattering a Class A record set in 1998.

But with the home runs come a lot of swings and misses. The team also is on pace to break the minor league record for strikeouts and become the first team to whiff 1,400 times.

The Crawdads have struck out 10 times or more in more than half of their games, and they’re hit multiple home runs in more than a third of their games. This has led them to be the fourth-highest scoring team in teh South Atlantic League and the second-worst team in batting average and on-base percentage.

Cradads second baseman Ryan Rua leads all of minor league baseball with 29 home runs. At age 23, he is older than most players in the league, and there isn’t much precedent for sluggers his age making it from Class A to the majors.

But he is playing on a team filled with potential and loaded with some of the best young talent in baseball.

On a rainy afternoon last month in Hickory, seven scouts watched the Crawdads, the youngest South Atlantic League team.

The club includes five of the Texas Rangers’ top 10 prospects, according to Baseball Prospectus, an amateur baseball scouting service. The Rangers, Hickory’s major league parent club invested $13.7 million in those five players.

That collection of talent on one Class A team is rare. The Arkansas Travelers, the Angels’ Class AA affiliate, is the only other minor league team with even four hitters among the team’s top 10 prospects.

With a With a starting lineup whose average age is nearly three years younger than the rest of the South Atlantic League, Hickory’s talent has keyed the Crawdads’ run to first place in the Northern Division.

“For me being the older guy,” Rua said, “it’s fun to watch them and their talents they have at such a young age.”

While manager Corey Ragsdale said the players aren’t close to where they need to be as hitters, he also said there isn’t another minor league team he’d trade his for because of its sheer talent.

“This is their first full year of baseball,” Ragsdale said. “A bunch of them would be freshman in college right now. Some of the Latin kids would even be seniors in high school still. It’s a pretty big jump; they’re facing kids older than them every day of the season.”

Third baseman Joey Gallo, 19, and center fielder Lewis Brinson, have accounted for nearly a third of the team’s home runs and more than a quarter of the team’s strikeouts. The two were drafted 10 picks apart last year and have roomed together for two years.

Gallo led the minors in home runs before suffering a groin injury that has kept him out for a short stint. He has what one scout called “majestic power.” Brinson is an excellent defender with power and speed. He has 17 home runs and 16 stolen bases.

Even though they stigned for a combined $3.875 million, the two live small. Gallo grew up in Las Vegas, where he often would head to the Strip for dinner and a show on the weekend. Now, he and Brinson spend a lot of time playing video games.

“Maybe we can go out to eat a little more, but that’s about it,” Gallo said.

The other three young potential stars arrived through a different route. Catcher Jorge Alfaro, 20, right fielder Nomar Mazara, 18, and first baseman Ronald Guzman, 18, signed with Texas in international free agency. Mazara got the biggest bonus of the group: $5 million.

The three live together in an apartment with shortstop Luis Marte. Mazara, Guzman and Marte, along with 11 other crawdads played last year for Ragsdale in Arizona, where they won the Arizona League rookie title. Since they’ve been together for more than a year, they have chemistry and can overcome a language barrier.

“We always mess around, saying stuff in Spanish–mostly bad words because that’s all we know–and they say a lot of bad words in English to us,” Gallo said. “We all get along really well, and it’s a lot of fun being with people that are from different places in the world and grew up a little different than you did.”

After finishing a half-game out of first place in the first half, the Crawdads now are third in the Northern Division. For the season, they are 2 1/2 games out of first.

The fans have taken notice of the team’s talent and success; attendance which had been falling during recent years, is up slightly to 2,075 fans per game.

The players also see how special this team is and sometimes envision themselves playing together with the Rangers in the future.

“We have a tremendous amount of talent on this team,” Gallo said. “I don’t see why this whole team can’t move up together and make it up to the top.”

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When In Chicago – Kanye Top 20

I spent four nights in Chicago while my brother visited colleges, and I came up with this idea. Kanye West is the greatest artist of this generation–I don’t want to hear an argument against this–so I figured I’d make a Top 10 of Kanye West songs.

Then after second thought, that would be too hard, and it wouldn’t do justice to Yeezy’s work. So I expanded to a Top 20.

But even a Top 20 doesn’t do him justice because I ended up leaving off some great songs. That just goes to show how enduring and powerful his music is.

And I know what you’re saying: “Ben, this is a sports blog, not a music blog!”

“Ben, rap music is shallow and churlish and trash!”

“Ben, Kanye West has nothing on Trinadad James and Juicy J!”

Well then just skip this post. (Warning: Kanye uses a bit of language in his songs, and I’m keeping quotes true to the songs)

20. New God Flow

CruelSummercoverCruel Summer – 2012

I’m not a huge fan of Cruel Summer, since it feels more like a DJ Khaled album than a Kanye Album, but Kanye kills it on this track. I barely put this in over Love Lockdown because it’s a little too auto-tuney and doesn’t have many great lines for a Ye song, plus another song higher up on the list better represents 808s and Heartbreak. Anyway, Pusha T opens with the first two verses of the song, which have some clever rhymes, but I’m completely ignoring the Ghostface Killa part at the end, which doesn’t even appear on the Single version.

Highlights:

“Did Moses not part the water with the cane? / Did strippers not make an ark when I made it rain?”

“Hold up, I ain’t trying to stunt, man
But these Yeezys jumped over the Jumpman
Went from most hated to the champion god flow
I guess that’s a feeling only me and LeBron know”

“What has the world come to, I’m from the 312
Where cops don’t come through and dreams don’t come true
Like there the god go in his Murcielago
From working McDonalds, barely paying the car note
He even got enough to get his mama a condo
Then they ran up and shot him right in front of his mom”

19. Through The Wire

Kanyewest_collegedropoutThe College Dropout – 2004

This was Kanye’s first song after his near-fatal car accident, where he talks about… his near-fatal car accident. And how he’s “the hottest rap label around”. His first verse is full of clever rhymes, and he really opens up in this song.

Highlights:

“Dawg, don’t you realize I’ll never make it on a bad plane now? / It’s bad enough I got all this jewelry on!”

“But I’m a champion, so I turned tragedy to triumph / Make music that’s fire, spit my soul through the wire”

“And just imagine how my girl might feel
On the plane, scared as hell that her guy look like Emmett Till
She was with me before the deal, she been tryna be mine
She a Delta, so she been throwin’ that Dynasty sign”

18. Dark Fantasy

My_Beautiful_Dark_Twisted_FantasyMy Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – 2010

Dark Fantasy is the first song in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, setting the tone for his fifth album, which Entertainment Weekly named the 8th greatest album of all-time. Nicki Minaj starts it off with a twist on Roald Dahl’s take on Cinderella from Revolting Rhymes. Her shift from happy-sounding to angry let’s you know what’s coming in MBDTF.

Highlights:

“The plan was to drink until the pain over / But what’s worse, the pain or the hangover?”

“You might think you’ve peeped the scene
You haven’t, the real one’s far too mean
The watered down one, the one you know
was made up centuries ago
They made it sound wack and corny
Yes it’s awful, blasted boring
Twisted fictions, sick addictions
Well gather ‘round children, zip it, listen”

“Stupid, but what the hell do I know / I’m just a Chi-town n***a with a Nas flow”

17. I Am A God

Yeezus_Kanye_WestYeezus – 2013

This is an… interesting song. Taken out of context, misanthropes will say this is why everyone hates Kanye: He’s egotistical and arrogant. But check out Psalm 82.6: “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.” I Am A God also has the most quotable line from the entire album and a whole lot of screaming.

Highlights:

“I am a god
Even though I’m a man of God
My whole life in the hands of God
So y’all better quit playing with God”

“I just talked to Jesus
He said, “What up Yeezus?”
I said, “Shit I’m chilling
Trying to stack these millions”
I know he the most high
But I am a close high”

“In a French-ass restaurant / Hurry up with my damn croissants”

16. Flashing Lights

Graduation_(album)Graduation – 2007

This is one of Kanye’s tamer songs, where he talks about his relationship with the media by personifying them as a girlfriend he can’t get out of his mind. This one’s actually okay for your grandma to listen to! At least the clean version…

Highlights:

“She don’t believe in shooting stars / But she believe in shoes and cars”

“I’m more of the trips to Florida / Ordered the hors d’oeuvres, views of the water / Straight from the page of your favorite author”

“In my past, you on the other side of the glass
Of my memory’s museum
I’m just saying, hey Mona Lisa come home
You know you can’t roam without Caesar”

15. Can’t Tell Me Nothing

Graduation_(album)Graduation – 2007

It sounds like Kanye is saying he won’t listen to anyone because he has money, but he’s actually mocking people who believe that. He already has his money right. Fun fact: I always think of The Hangover when this song comes on.

Highlights:

“Life is a, UH, depending how you dress her / So if the devil wear Prada, Adam Eve wear nada / I’m in between but way more fresher”

“I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven
When I woke, I spent that on a necklace
I told God I’d be back in a second
Man it’s so hard not to act reckless”

“I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny
And what I do, act more stupidly
Bought more jewelry, more Louis V
My Momma couldn’t get through to me”

14. Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix)

Late_registration_cd_coverLate Registration – 2005

Most people like the origional version of this song better, but I’m partial to the Remix. Kanye simultaneously talks about the internal struggle over Blood Diamonds–which he dubs “conflict diamonds”–and his relationship with Jay-Z–where their symbol for Roc-a-fella Records is a diamond–over Shirley Bassey’s Diamonds Are Forever track. Jay-Z closes the song with the great line: “If you’re waiting for the end of the Dynasty sign / It would seem like forever is a mighty long time.”

Highlights:

“See, a part of me saying: “Keep shining”
How? When I know what a blood diamond is
Though it’s thousands of miles away
Sierra Leone connects to what we go through today” ”

“Over here it’s a drug trade, we die from drugs / Over there they die from what we buy from drugs”

“The diamonds, the chains, the bracelets, the charmses
I thought my Jesus-piece was so harmless
Til I seen a picture of a shorty armless
And here’s the conflict:
It’s in a black person soul to rock that gold
Spend your whole life trying to get that ice”

13. Stronger

Graduation_(album)Graduation – 2007

This was Ye’s big hit off his third album, his second ever single to reach #1 on the Billboard Top 100. Using samples from Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, Stronger has a fun beat and it’s one of his best known songs, but it’s not as deep as a lot of other songs on this list. But what makes a good song? Popularity or the message?

Highlights:

“Now that that don’t kill me / Can only make me stronger”

“Damn, they don’t make ’em like this anymore / I ask, cause I’m not sure / Do anybody make real shit anymore?”

“Bow in the presence of greatness
Cause right now thou hast forsaken us
You should be honored by my lateness
That I would even show up to this fake shit”

12. Runaway

My_Beautiful_Dark_Twisted_FantasyMy Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – 2010

A beautifully sad song, this song might sum up My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy best. Kanye talks about how he can’t keep a relationship with women and tells them not to settle with bad men. Also, this has one of the best music videos I’ve seen, which ties in several other songs from the album. That’s art.

Highlights:

“And I always find, yeah, I always find something wrong
You been putting up with my shit just way too long
I’m so gifted at finding what I don’t like the most
So I think it’s time for us to have a toast”

“Let’s have a toast for the douchebags
Let’s have a toast for the assholes
Let’s have a toast for the scumbags
Every one of them that I know
Let’s have a toast for the jerkoffs
That’ll never take work off
Baby, I got a plan
Run away fast as you can”

“And I don’t know how Imma manage / If one day you just up and leave”

11. Lost in the World

My_Beautiful_Dark_Twisted_FantasyMy Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – 2010

It’s a simple song, short and repetitive, but a great one. When I first played this song in the car with my brother, he asked “Is this music?” because the Bon Iver beginning is very, well, Bon Iver-ish. But apparently Kanye’s first eight bars were his favorite ever to write.

Highlights:

“You’re my devil, you’re my angel
You’re my heaven, you’re my hell
You’re my now, you’re my forever
You’re my freedom, you’re my jail
You’re my lies, you’re my truth
You’re my war, you’re my truce
You’re my questions, you’re my proof
You’re my stress and you’re my masseuse”

“I’m lost in the world, I’m down on my mind / I’m new in the city, and I’m down for the night”

“Lost in this plastic life / Let’s break out of this fake ass party / Turn this in to a classic night”

10. Homecoming

Graduation_(album)Graduation – 2007

Kanye had been working on this song a while before it came out in 2007, and it’s one of his best. He gives an ode to his home town of Chicago–he moved their at age three after his mom’s divorce–by personifying Chi-town as a girl from home. Once you figure out that much–he spoils it at the end–you can see how well his lines talk about both a girl and his hometown. That’s why this is my favorite song on Graduation.

Highlights:

“I met this girl when I was 3 years old
And what I loved most she had so much soul
She said “Excuse me lil homey, I know you don’t know me
But, my name is Windy and I like to blow trees” ”

“And when I grew up she showed me how to go downtown
In the nighttime her face lit up, so astounding
I told her in my heart is where she’ll always be
She never messed with entertainers cause they always leave”

“Now everybody got the game figured out all wrong / I guess you never know what you got ’til it’s gone / I guess that’s why I’m here and I can’t come back home”

9. Coldest Winter

808s_&_Heartbreak808s and Heartbreak – 2008

There are only nine different lines in this song, but they’re haunting. The heavy drums in the background play up the lyrics even more. 808s and Heartbreak came on the heels of his mom’s death (we’ll see her importance to him in a few songs) and the breaking off of his two-year engagement with Alexis Phifer, and this song best represents that time in his life. Fun fact: the holiday season has the highest suicide rate of any time of the year!

Highlights:

“On lonely nights, I start to fade
Her love is a thousand miles away
Memories made in the coldest winter
Goodbye my friend, will I ever love again”

“It’s 4 a.m. and I can’t sleep / Her love is all that I can see”

“If spring can take the snow away
Can it melt away all of our mistakes
Memories made in the coldest winter
Goodbye my friend, I won’t ever love again, never again”

8. Black Skinhead

Yeezus_Kanye_WestYeezus – 2013

This is where Kanye’s songs take a leap; these next eight songs are fantastic. Although this was the second song on Yeezus, it sets the tone for the hwole album with rebellious lyrics, coarse music, and screams. And this beat is impossible not to love. He killed it on SNL, but sadly left out the line “My homie was number one draft pick / They still burned his jersey in Akron” in the album version. It’s also a little unclear if Black Skinhead means he hates how black people are acting or if he thinks blacks are superior. Maybe both.

Highlights:

“They see a black man with a white woman / At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong”

“Four in the morning, and I’m zoning
They say I’m possessed, it’s an omen
I keep it 300, like the Romans
300 bitches, where the Trojans?
Baby we living in the moment
I’ve been a menace for the longest
But I ain’t finished, I’m devoted
And you know it, and you know it”

“So follow me up cause this shit ’bout to go (down)
I’m doing 500, I’m outta control (now)
But there’s nowhere to go (now)
And there’s no way to slow (down)
If I knew what I knew in the past
I would’ve been blacked out on your ass”

7. No Church in the Wild

Watch_The_ThroneWatch the Throne – 2011

No Church in the Wild is probably the best song on Watch the Thone, in large part to Jay-Z killing his verse, but I’m only considering Kanye lines. This song is used in about two dozen commercials and previews, much like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ Can’t Hold Us, but it has crazy good staying power. I could write an entire essay on this song. I probably will some day.

Highlights:

“Human beings in a mob / What’s a mob to a king? What’s a king to a God? / What’s a God to a non-believer who don’t believe in anything?”

“Two tattoos: one read “No Apologies”
The other said “Love is Cursed by Monogamy”
It’s something that the pastor don’t preach
It’s something that a teacher can’t teach
When we die the money we can’t keep
But we probably spend it all cause the pain ain’t cheap: preach”

“We formed a new religion
No sins as long as there’s permission
And deception is the only felony
So never fuck nobody without telling me”

6. N****s in Paris

Watch_The_ThroneWatch the Throne – 2011

Huge hit. Lots of quotable lines, too. What’s not to love? These guys are so good they can thrown a couple lines from Blades of Glory on the record and still make Top 5 on the Billboard.

Highlights:

“Doctors say I’m the illest, cause I’m suffering from realness
Got my n****s in Paris and they going gorillas, huh
I don’t even know what that means
(No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative)
No it’s not, it’s gross (Gets the people going)”

“That shit cray, ain’t it Jay? What she order, fish filet?”

“Excuse my French but I’m in France, I’m just sayin’ / Prince William ain’t do it right if you ask me / Cause I was him, I would have married Kate and Ashley”

5. Hey Mama

Late_registration_cd_coverLate Registration – 2005

I’ll be perfectly honest: this song makes me cry. Hey Mama was the first song Kanye ever wrote, which gives a shout out to the most important person in his life: Donda West. A lot of people haven’t heard this song, but it’s undoubtedly one of his best. Watching him break down crying while singing this live kills me.

Highlights:

“(Hey Mama), I wanna scream so loud for you, cause I’m so proud of you
Let me tell you what I’m about to do, (Hey Mama)
I know I act a fool but, I promise you I’m goin back to school
I appreciate what you allowed for me
I just want you to be proud of me”

“I wanna tell the whole world about a friend of mine
This little light of mine and I’m finna let it shine
I’m finna take yall back to them better times
I’m finna talk about my mama if yall don’t mind”

“Seven years old, caught you with tears in your eyes
Cuz a n***a cheatin, telling you lies, then I started to cry
As we knelt on the kitchen floor
I said mommy I’mma love you till you don’t hurt no more
And when I’m older, you ain’t gotta work no more
And I’mma get you that mansion that we couldn’t afford
See you’re, unbreakable, unmistakable
Highly capable, lady that’s makin loot
A livin legend too, just look at what heaven do
Send us an angel, and I thank you”

4. Gold Digger

Late_registration_cd_coverLate Registration – 2005

For starters, Jamie Foxx does a fantastic Ray Charles impersonation coming off his Academy Award-winning performance in Ray, and it’s more than ironic that he takes the I Got A Womanhook and completely flips the meaning. This was Kanye’s first #1 Billboard song, and it’s fun. An awful story, for sure, but it’s fun.

Highlights:

“Now I ain’t saying she a gold digger / But she ain’t messing with no broke n****s”

“You will see him on TV any given Sunday
Win the Super Bowl and drive off in a Hyundai
She was supposed to buy your shorty Tyco with your money
She went to the doctor got lipo with your money
She walking around looking like Michael with your money
Should’ve got that insured, Geico for your money”

“18 years, 18 years / And on the 18th birthday he found out it wasn’t his?!”

3. All of the Lights

My_Beautiful_Dark_Twisted_FantasyMy Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – 2010

This is a lot more radio-friendly than Power, but it’s doesn’t have a strong a message. That said, his story of a dysfunctional family is also meant to illustrate Kanye’s relationship with fame is still great. Imagine that, another song where Kanye personifies a facet of his life as a woman. But it’s catchy, the music is great, and all the featured artists (including Elton John!!!) do a great job. Except Fergie. The radio edit is better since she’s not on it.

Highlights:

” I made mistakes, I bumped my head
Courts sucked me dry, I spent that bread
She need her daddy, baby please
Can’t let her grow up in that ghetto university”

“All of the lights, all of the lights / Turn up the lights in here, baby / Extra bright, I want y’all to see this”

“I did that time and spent that bread
I’m heading home, I’m almost there
I’m on my way, heading up the stairs
To my surprise, a n***a replacing me
I had to take him to that ghetto university”

2. Power

My_Beautiful_Dark_Twisted_FantasyMy Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – 2010

I had this at #3 for a while, but his SNL performance, in which he includes a much more show-friendly second verse, and music video push it over the top. I don’t have much more to add beyond the fact that it’s a really great song, probably the best single on his best album.

Highlights:

“No one man should have all that power
The clock’s ticking, I just count the hours
Stop tripping, I’m tripping off the power
Till then, fuck that, the world’s ours”

“The system broken, the school is closed, the prison’s open”

“My childlike creativity, purity and honesty
Is honestly being crowded by these grown thoughts
Reality is catching up with me
Taking my inner child, I’m fighting for custody
With these responsibilities that they entrusted me
As I look down at my diamond encrusted piece”

1. Jesus Walks

Kanyewest_collegedropoutThe College Dropout – 2004

Kanye West is extremely religious, so it’s only fitting that this is his top song. You can pretty much just cut to the last nine lines for the message, but the whole song is incredible from the drill sergeant orders to the choir voices to Kanye being Kanye. Strange that his best song came nearly a decade ago, but he was able to make a religious hip-hop song become ultra-successful in the mainstream.

Highlights:

“So here go my single dog radio needs this
They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies, videotape
But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?
Well if this take away from my spins
Which will probably take away from my ends
Then I hope this take away from my sins
And bring the day that I’m dreaming about
Next time I’m in the club, everybody screaming out (Jesus Walks!)”

“God show me the way because the Devil trying to break me down
The only thing that I pray is that my feet don’t fail me now
And I don’t think there is nothing I can do now to right my wrongs
I want to talk to God but I’m afraid because we ain’t spoke in so long”

“A trunk full of coke rental car from Avis
My momma used to say only Jesus can save us
Well momma I know I act a fool
But I’ll be gone ’til November I got packs to move I hope”

_

…debate

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Charlotte Observer Update

For those of you who don’t know, I’m interning at the Charlotte Observer this summer. I’ve already been working for four weeks now, and I’ve gotten some awesome opportunities to cover events from the Charlotte Hornets press conference to prep lacrosse to the Coca-Cola 600.

I’ve been updating my Charlotte Observer page, but in case you haven’t seen them, here are a list of my articles so far in the paper. I’ll also be updating the Observer page on my blog and occasionally posting articles on the home page.

_

Kent Emanuel leads Day 2 MLB draftees with Carolinas ties

2013 MLB draft: Players with Carolinas connections selected in 1st round

Providence Day wins state title

9-year-old Charlotte girl makes hole-in-one

Charlotte Knights club seat tickets on sale for 2014 seasons at BB&T Ballpark

Loss drives Charlotte Latin to second state lacrosse title

10 fans injured, cars damaged when Fox overhead camera rope snaps

Sports Illustrated: UNC field hockey star Loren Shealy is College Athlete of the Year

94-year-old Charlotte golfer makes hole-in-one

Charlotte Country Day wins NCISAA girls’ lacrosse title

Charlotte Latin tops Providence Day for NCISAA boys’ lacrosse title

Surging Chargers race past Cougars

Catholic among final 4 in 3A dual-team tournament

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Tyler Beede (Young Beedah) Knuckle Cast

It’s been a solid five months since my last podcast, but I’m really excited about the third installment of The Knuckle Cast. This episode features my interview with Vanderbilt sophomore pitcher Tyler Beede, who was drafted in the first round of the 2011 MLB draft but came to Vanderbilt instead.

As you’ll soon find out, Beede also raps, where he goes by the name Young Beedah. As a fan of Vanderbilt, baseball, and rap, Beede may be my favorite student-athlete on campus.

Luckily, I got the chance to interview the right-hander for a feature I’m writing for the Vanderbilt Hustler baseball preview, which is coming out in about a week. In the mean time, I hope you enjoy the third episode of The Knuckle Cast.

The Knuckle Cast Episode #3

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