The Ultimate Mega-Best Extreme Spring Sports Preview Ever 

THE METS
THE STORY SO FAR

The sad truth for 2008 is that, until they’re mathematically assured a spot in the post-season, the story that will follow them around, day in and day out, is of their monumental 2007 collapse, which saw them squander a nine-game lead with 17 left to play, winning only five games in the last three weeks of the season and ultimately failing to make the playoffs. And for the first three-quarters of the offseason, it didn’t look like they were planning to do much about it. They said goodbye to over-achieving catcher and PR nightmare Paul Lo Duca, replacing him with the offensively challenged Brian Schneider, who they acquired from the Washington Nationals in exchange for the once-hot prospect Lastings Milledge. The got the relative no-name right-fielder Ryan Church in the same deal, officially relegating Endy Chavez to the role of bench player. And that was pretty much it. Until they signed the best pitcher in the game. Spurning arguably stronger offers from American League opponents the Yankees and Red Sox, the Minnesota Twins dealt their 28-year-old ace, Johan Santana, to Flushing in exchange for prospects. Santana signed a blockbuster contract extension, and just like that everything turned around. Merely days after experts picked the team to finish third in the NL East, behind the Braves and the Phillies, the Mets became everyone’s pick to win the division, and possibly much, much more. With David Wright and Jose Reyes returning and, presumably, continuing to improve, not to mention a starting rotation that’s suddenly looking pretty formidable, especially now that John Maine was unhittable all spring, it’s looking more than ever like it could be their year. But we’re not saying anything. Not till the post-season.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Couple things you’ll want to pay close attention to this year. How will Johan Santana fare in New York? A famously quiet guy, Santana spent the first part of his career in Minnesota, a city whose biggest sports story in recent memory was when the long-retired and incredibly bloated Kirby Puckett got all creepy with that woman in the restaurant bathroom. For the most part, it’s a pretty quiet town, without much in the way of media scrutiny. Will Santana cave under the pressure of the Big Apple? Or is his stuff just so good it won’t even matter? Will Jose Reyes be able to play his best for 162 games? If you think back to last season’s embarrassing ending, the pitching was certainly the main culprit, but it didn’t help that Reyes all but disappeared down the stretch. Also, will he start running out ground balls? We hope so. For all the star-power Santana brings to the pitching staff, there’s still some uncertainty when it comes to the rapidly aging Pedro Martinez and the injury-prone Orlando Hernandez. Assuming one or both of them will miss substantial amounts of time (Martinez is already out with a bad hamstring), who will step up to take their place? Will closer Billy Wagner continue to get saves in every single game he pitches, except for the ones that actually mean something?

THE YANKEES
THE STORY SO FAR

The Yankees have some exciting young arms of their own, with polished southpaw Phil Hughes and closer-of-the-future Joba Chamberlain­ — the reason both that the team could make a legitimate run at Santana and for the relative lack of urgency in their pursuit. Taking the flack for their inevitable growing pains is the manager’s job; after more than a decade of détente with owner George Steinbrenner — like Castro a once feared and reviled feudal lord propped up by his handlers until evidence of his creeping senescence became undeniable — sagacious four-time world champion Joe Torre left for the Los Angeles Dodgers rather than reestablish his credentials with George’s son Hank, who’s always reminded us of the kid who in the back of his mind knows that his friends only come over to play with his toys. In keeping with the section of the team charter dictating that the manager must always be a lovably gruff Italian-American ex-catcher, Joe Girardi fills Torre’s shoes, having been fired from his previous managerial post with the Florida Marlins for feuding with the team’s uncommitted corporate-raider owner Jeffrey Loria, perhaps secure in the knowledge that the Yankee job awaited. And the best player in baseball, the transcendentally talented, fearsomely driven, hilariously insecure and socially inept third baseman Alex “Tabloid Whipping Boy-Rod” Rodriguez continues to chase most of baseball’s significant offensive records while taking flack for his perceived (though factually unsupportable) failures in the clutch, and weathering the accusations of steroid use and crimes against bro-dom leveled against him by the neckless Nabokov, Jose Canseco, in his latest Pulitzer shortlistee Vindicated.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

The Yankees, as ever, face down the defending world champion Boston Red Sox in a rivalry invigorated — as is much of the rest of baseball in this transitional era — by fresh blood, like Hughes and Chamberlain for the Yanks and, for the Sox, pin-up centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury (who won the starting job down the stretch last year and hit .360 in the postseason) and starter Clay Buchholz, who tossed a no-hitter in his second big-league start.

LEAGUE WIDE
THE STORY SO FAR

Baseball as a whole is still reeling from the general hilarity of the offseason unveiling of the Mitchell Report, in which it took an ex-Senate Majority leader 20 months and 20 million dollars to determine that pharmaceutical enhancement was the norm during that period of baseball history that saw Sammy Sosa’s biceps expand to the width of an asteroid belt while a twerp like Brady Anderson hit 50 home runs in a season. Although the parts pertaining to Paul Lo Duca’s semiliterate paper trail were fairly amusing, as was the inclusion of Chuck Knoblauch.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR
In shortstop and reigning NL MVP Jimmy Rollins, and power-packed second and first basemen Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, the Philadelphia Phillies, who swept into first following the Mets’ collapse, have the horses to beat any team in baseball in a short series, but iffy pitching beyond breakout candidate Cole Hamels means they’re unlikely to beat the newly focused Mets in the long haul. Everyone’s tapping the deep, balanced Chicago Cubs to win the NL Central and vie for the pennant with the Mets — but we like the top-heavy Milwaukee Brewers, led by the worst fielder and most prolific slugger in the league, Ryan Braun, and roly-poly first baseman Prince Fielder, who weighs more than most little league teams and hits tape-measure bombs to rival his estranged father Cecil (a comparison that doesn’t exactly portend well for his career longevity, but still…). The fluky defending NL champs, the Colorado Rockies, will have it up to here just getting out of the Western division: expect a wire-to-wire race with the Arizona Diamondbacks, similarly packed with emerging talent, and give AZ the edge on account of their superior pitching staff, anchored by groundball artist Brandon Webb. The deep-pocketed Dodgers have a shot, provided Torre can massage the overpaid egos of waning talents Nomar Garciaparra and Juan Pierre as he guides their asses to the pine. If anyone can do it…

The balance of power in the American League may reside in Detroit, where the Tigers restocked their offensive juggernaut with Miguel Cabrera, a perennial MVP candidate just entering his prime, acquired for prospects from the perpetually rebuilding Marlins. Figure in ace power pitchers Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman and it should be enough to overtake the hungry Cleveland Indians — despite five-tool centerfielder Grady Sizemore and Santa Claus lookalike C.C. Sabathia, the reigning AL Cy Young Award-winner pitching for a big payday when his contract expires at year’s end. Out West, the Seattle Mariners think they have a shot because they acquired the Overpowering Ottawan, Erik Bedard to go along with the often dominant Felix Hernandez. But they don’t have a chance, because the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (despite their geographical identity crisis) have the division’s deepest lineup, and also because Seattle is depending for middle-of-the-order power on first baseman Richie Sexson, who couldn’t strike out more if the bat swung him.

BLUFFER'S GLOSSARY

30: The number of teams in the league now. It’s ok if there were only 26 the last time you paid attention.
The Clear/The Cream: Steroid compounds (you rub The Cream on; you inject The Clear) made famous during the course of a federal investigation into Bay Area lab BALCO, which provided ‘roids to, among other future hall-of-famers, all-time home run champ Barry Bonds. (Who doesn’t want to talk about it, but is still unsigned if your company’s softball team needs a lefthanded bat.)
BABIP: Batting average on balls in play. According to exhaustive research by baseball’s stathead (“sabermetric”) vanguard, if you take out strikeouts, walks and home runs (the “three true outcomes”), then every pitcher allows a .290 batting average on balls hit in play, with any deviation pretty much a product of defense and luck. (Despite whatever platitudes players and pundits use to retroactively explain away streaks with a combination of jargon, pop-psychology and moral determinism.) There’s a bit more variation in a hitter’s BABIP, but the same principle applies; if someone is abnormally lucky or unlucky compared to his career norms, expect him to become less so over time.
Jay Bruce: Smooth-swinging 20-year-old Cincinnati Reds outfielder who many are saying could be the game’s next great all-around hitter.

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BASKETBALL
THE STORY SO FAR

It hasn’t been a good year for Knicks fans. Actually, notwithstanding the occasional slashing drive by Latrell Sprewell, it hasn’t been a good century. Shockingly, this season may be the most ignominious yet: not only do the Knicks pair one of the leagues worst records with one of its highest payrolls, they’ve endured a sexual harassment scandal involving all-time great point guard, current moron and recently ousted team president Isiah Thomas; a courtside fracas between teammates involving a water bottle; and the disappearing act (literally and figuratively) of overpriced ball-suck Stephon Marbury. As for the Nets, they’re boring, they’re on, and they’ll be in Brooklyn soon enough.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
For Knicks fans, not much in terms of on-court action, but it looks like Thomas’s days are numbered: the owner James Dolan has retained the services of Donnie Walsh as president — but you just never know in the crazy clusterfucklandia wherein the Knickerbockers dwell. Anyway, for the rest of us, there are the actual playoffs to consider, which, in the East, come down to Lebron vs. Beantown. Can King James defeat Boston’s veteran super-trio of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett? No, probably not. And Detroit? Naw, not this year.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Not too many talking heads think the East has a real chance at the title this year, but if the Celtics make it out of the conference, remember two things: whoever makes it out of the West (high-scoring Phoenix and their Shack/Nash one-two? Showtime Kobe and the Lakers? Perennially good, perpetually boring San Antonio? Overachieving New Orleans? Underachieving Dallas?) will have had the crap beaten out of them by the time they make the finals — as of this writing, the final playoff team in the East (currently the Hawks) has a record of 35–40, while in the West, the eighth place Nuggets have a record of 46-29. Wow. The second thing to remember is that Boston’s all-world power forward, Kevin Garnett, has played his entire career in the West, and he knows these front lines pretty well. After all, the Patriots lost, so Boston’s due right? [Massholes.]

BLUFFER'S GLOSSARY
Pick and Roll:
This is why some people think the NBA is boring. Two really talented guys (a really tall offensively gifted player and a less tall offensively gifted player) stand around and get in the way of the defense while one of them scores at will.
The Steve Nash Garbage Shoe: Average Joe MVP Nash is a professional athlete with a political conscience. At the 2003 all-star game he protested the then-popular Iraq invasion with a “No War. Shoot for Peace” t-shirt. Now he’s doing his part to address the environmental crisis by sporting sneakers made from manufacturing waste off the factory floor. Go Steve.
Pau, Manu and Yao: Proof that immigration can be good for America, Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili and Yao Ming are three fer’ners who may just be the key to the Western Conference battle royale. Gasol gives the already dangerous Lakers an inside edge, Ginobili is the beating heart of the Spurs, and if Ming can recover from his foot injury, the already hot Rockets could be scary in the playoffs.
Back door: Haha, grow up. A good back door play, from the schoolyard to MSG, can be one of the prettiest in sports: basically, an offensive player without the ball slips behind his defensive man and heads to the basket; the man with the ball passes it among the trees into the empty space soon to be occupied the guy streaking to the hoop. Dunk ensues.

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SOCCER
THE STORY SO FAR

Locally, we’re a long way from the glory days of the New York Cosmos, who once filled Giants Stadium with their star-studded lineup and partied at Studio 54. Alas, like Steve Rubell’s legendary club, they too imploded in a puff of financial ruin along with the dysfunctional North American Soccer League. The current locals, the New York Red Bulls, play in the less glamorous, more fiscally responsible Major League Soccer (MLS) circuit, but still offer a pretty entertaining on-field product. True fans of the sport, however, know that the best “footie” is played overseas. Although the English Premier League title chase seems all but over thanks to Manchester United’s late surge, intriguing international matches await those with the time and inclination to spend their daytime hours in pubs.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

Red Bulls fans hope Colombian super-striker Juan Pablo Ángel will continue his awesome scoring prowess (19 goals in 24 games last season), now that he has sensibly discarded the dreaded “Alice Band” that once held his stringy locks in place. Guess someone told him that stuff don’t play stateside. Internationally, the Champions League had narrowed the field to the best eight club teams in Europe with four (!) English teams still in contention building toward the May 21 final. Then all eyes shift to Austria and Switzerland as they co-host the European Cup of nations from June 7-29.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Fans and paparazzi alike have already circled the June 19 Bulls’ home game against the LA Galaxy’s David “Golden Balls” Beckham, who, despite an avalanche of hype, played only five games in his inaugural, injury-plagued season. Euro 2008 is the summer’s big show, and is a sort of mini World Cup — a football meritocracy that doesn’t have to adhere to the regional tokenism of the bigger tournament. Purists will enjoy the consistently high level of play, and will be spared the condescending descriptions of soccer minnows “just happy to be there.” Competition is arguably fiercer as well, with only the best 24 nations representing a continent rich in soccer royalty. Unfortunately, this year that means no England. Crikey!

BLUFFER'S GLOSSARY

Injury time:  Also known as “time added on”, it’s the extra minutes of game time added at the referee’s discretion to the end of each 45-minute half to account for stoppages due to injuries (feigned or otherwise) and general lollygagging.
Handbags: Ironic Briticism that describes soccer players’ tendency to settle disputes with effeminate displays of aggression reminiscent of old ladies swinging their purses at one another.
Hairdryer: Euphemism that alludes to an unhappy team manager’s act of chewing out his underperforming squad and the hot angry air that emanates from his gullet. The term has most famously been used in reference to Man United’s Sir Alex Ferguson and his legendary hair-raising pep talks.
Set Piece: Plays that result from a dead ball situation, i.e. corners, free kicks and the like. Specialty of the aforementioned Beckham — he of the “bend it like” notoriety.
Shambolic: Term of disgusted derision, suggesting play that has gone to shambles, as in, “their defending on set pieces has been utterly shambolic.”

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HOCKEY
THE STORY SO FAR

William Faulkner, after witnessing his first ever ice hockey game at Madison Square Garden in 1953, described the spectacle before him as “discorded and inconsequent... bizarre... almost beautiful.” Dude would have been one hell of a color commentator. One wonders what he would have made of the current edition of the Rangers, whose personality has transformed from swift-skating Euro underachievers to gritty, take-no-crap types, à la instigator-extraordinaire Sean Avery. Across the river, the perennially playoff-bound New Jersey Devils occupy a new arena in Newark, but still play the same somnolent defensive style that endears them to no one. Meanwhile, the Islanders keep waiting for a new arena like Vladimir and Estragon, as the Stanley Cup banners hanging from the rafters yellow with age.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
The playoff match-ups are still in flux, but at press time the Rangers were only a point away from a first round meeting with the Devils. It’s a clash both teams’ fans are secretly hoping for, despite the fact the Blueshirts have absolutely owned the neutral-zone clogging Devils this year.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Rangers’ dominance of New Jersey may explain Devils goalie Martin Brodeur’s baffling and, frankly, pretty lame attempt at getting inside the head of Ranger goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. “The way he plays is not something I like too much… Lundqvist is weird.” The unflappable Swedish net-minder just shrugged and proceeded to beat Marty again. The team the rest of the league is talking about is Pittsburgh, who won the draft jackpot in consecutive years and landed two franchise players — aw-shucks Canadian superstar Sidney Crosby and Russian phenom Evgeni Malkin. The two kids’ combined ages are still less than 46-year-old Chris Chelios, who leads the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference. The dream scenario for fans would have the Penguins facing Washington in the first round and league-leading scorer Alexander “The Great” Ovechkin, who’s so young, contract negotiations are handled by his mom. If the Capitals squeak into the postseason, we’d be seeing the three best players in the world on the ice together — a gift from the hockey gods .

BLUFFER'S GLOSSARY
Holding the stick:
One of several minor penalties that will earn a player two minutes in the penalty box and unlimited opportunities for snickering double entendres.
Playoff beard: Tradition that began with the early 80s NY Islanders, who superstitiously let their beards grow throughout the postseason. It has now become de rigueur and makes teams advancing to the later stages of the playoffs look like indie rockers on skates.
Hockey Hair: Term used to describe the frozen pond version of the mullet. Relatively rare since famous adherents like New York’s Jaromir Jagr have gone business in the back, but a few diehards like Colorado’s Ryan Smyth keep the faith.
Gordie Howe Hat Trick: Variation on the traditional three-goal variety, it consists of a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game. Named after the Detroit Red Wing legend who played until he was even older than Chelios.

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THE BEIJING OLYMPICS
THE STORY SO FAR

In spite of the recent, brutal suppression of democratic liberation movements in Tibet, there will be no boring Jimmy Carter-style boycott of these Olympics. Who can afford to be on human rights watch now? With the dollar dwindling to comically low exchange rates, and China an emergent military and economic superpower, and proud owner of a huge share of America’s debt, we’ll be just another Maoist colony any day now. Thus even those not typically predisposed to the gala pageantry of the Summer Olympic Games may wish to take note of the 2008 gathering: what could be more useful than an up close and personal (if stage-managed and polished) look into the culture and practices of our future East Asian overlords? Consider it an exercise in diplomatic fealty replete with water polo.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

The Beijing Olympics are set to commence on August 8, 2008 with an opening ceremony starting precisely at 8:08:08 pm. If this fetishistic numerology is any indication, we may all gleefully assume that we are headed for the weirdest games ever. The slogan for the 2008 Olympics, “One World, One Dream”, also seems completely crazy (whose dream is this, anyway?), as do the official mascots — five diabolically cheerful emoticons known collectively as “The Friendlies”. Relative to the rest of the sports world, there is a certain teeming exoticism about the hot plate news of every new Olympics: in 2008, for instance, women will compete in the 3000 Meter Steeplechase for the very first time. Also, in table tennis, teams will replace doubles events, and in fencing women’s team foil and women’s team saber will replace men’s team foil and women’s team epee. This is not a drill people. This is all really happening.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Well for God’s sake, take your pick. The buffet-style offerings of this two-week sprawl have something for just about everyone, and some things for absolutely no one. Those basketball acolytes left unsated by the NCAA tournament and NBA playoffs will watch to see if Kobe Bryant and company can continue to rehabilitate the international stature of US basketball, while prodigal hero Yao Ming attempts to deliver the gold to his home country. Once a hallowed breeding ground for future legends, the boxing competition has felt increasingly perverted by a bizarre scoring system in recent games, but nevertheless remains the best place to review the fight game’s next transcendent superstars. Pharmaceutical enthusiasts and those interested in a quick-fix fitness routine will no doubt wish to keep an eye on the track and field competition, which has evolved into a sort of 500 meter sprint to discover the perfect masking agent. While some may count this analysis overly cynical, and we will no doubt be chastised by Marion Jones on her prison blog, we could not be more sincere in our endorsement of jet-fueled, super humans launching steel balls and spears through the humid August night. To each his own sentiment, but given a choice between the clean and wholesome athletes of yesteryear and pole-vaulting androids, we’ll take the latter.

BLUFFER'S GLOSSARY
25m Rapid Fire Pistol
: Both a medal event in men’s and women’s competition, and  a dependable tactic for the quieting of nettlesome, rabble raising monks. Other dual purpose disciplines good for both the medal hunt and the trampling of political opposition: judo, archery and synchronized clubbing.
Pommel Horse: An apparatus used in men’s gymnastics, requiring tremendous physical strength in the execution of spindles, flairs and handstands. The name derives from the notorious problem of dismounting without pommeling your nuts.

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