Remembering Aramis Ramirez

When the Chicago Cubs acquired Aramis Ramirez in July 2003, I wasn’t sure he was the guy to be the answer to a question that had left unanswered by the likes of Gary Scott, Kevin Orie, Leo Gomez, Steve Buechele and others.

Will the Cubs have a quality third baseman ever again?

Ramirez began to answer that question in October, when his grand slam off Dontrelle Willis in Game 4 of the NLCS helped give the Cubs a 3-1 lead in the series. As it turns out, Ramirez is the key cog in what happens to be the last time the Cubs won a playoff game.

While we’re at it, October 2003 might be the last time Ramirez was unconditionally loved by Cubs fans.

Despite being a near-lock for 30 homers, 100 RBI and a .900 OPS, Ramirez was treated like a dog by a loud minority portion of a fanbase that acts like the Cubs hadn’t started Lenny Harris at third prior to Ramirez’s arrival. At some point during his nine-year stay with the Cubs, Ramirez offended Barry Rozner to the highest degree, thus, turning part of the Cubs media against him, too.

Ramirez was lazy, and never hit when it mattered were among the narratives spun by Rozner and some of his co-horts. Yet, the numbers tell a different story.

  • In 2004, Ramirez OPSed .924 in the first half, and .984 in the second half.
  • Similar story in 2005, when Ramirez OPSed .905 in the first half and .970 in the second half.
  • In the second half of the 2006 season, Ramirez OPSed 1.041 after OPSing a respectable .801 before the break.
  • In 2007, Ramirez OPSed .913 in the first half and .917 in the second half.

I think you get my point as long as you see the trend. And if you look at his career splits with the Cubs, you won’t see much of a difference between first and second half production.

Except in 2010, when Ramirez got off to his worst start as a Cub, OPSing .648 before the All-Star break. Ramirez returned to form and posting an .847 OPS in the second half.

He struggled in the 2007 and 2008 NLDS sweeps at the hands of the Diamondbacks and Dodgers, respectively. Who didn’t?

Ramirez was as consistent a batter the Cubs have had over the past nine seasons and won’t be easy to replace. Josh Vitters waits in the wings, but he’s looking more and more like he’ll be a never was, as opposed to a has-been. Maybe D.J. LeMahieu, who has been playing third during the Arizona Fall League gets a crack at the everyday job coming out of spring training.

Since the Cubs have no ideal heir apparent to Ramirez, I expect some sort of hybrid platoon for the short term while Theo Epstein and his gang of merry men come up with some formula to replace Ramirez’s production in the long term.

Here’s hoping you’ve appreciated the Aramis Ramirez Era as much as I did. If not, I’m sure you will once you realize Blake DeWitt will be your guy manning the hot corner in 2012.

State Of The Salukis (Oct. 2011)

Remember when we were a basketball school?

How about when we were a football school?

Oh, wait. Remember when we were a basketball and a football school?

SIU is a softball school, now. And there’s nothing wrong with that, if you ask me. The Saluki softball beat was my favorite to cover when I was on campus. This, coming from a guy who had several strong relationships with SIU men’s basketball coaches, and didn’t even get the stink-eye from Dana Eikenberg.

Still, the direction of the SIU men’s basketball and football teams is a bit of a concern for yours truly.

SIU Football

The Salukis are 2-4 overall, 1-3 in conference and far from the team many thought would be a virtual lock for postseason play. Saturday’s loss was a not-so-shining example of why it looks as if SIU will be on the outside looking in when the FCS playoffs begin.

Southern’s offense is a mismanaged mess. Remember when Phil Longo’s modified spread was fun to watch? Sighs. those were the days. Instead, the DeBoer offense seems to have little rhythm and clearly isn’t taking advantage of the team’s best assets. To further complicate matters, Dale Lennon has hitched his wagon to redshirt sophomore quarterback Kory Faulkner, who is replacing an injured Paul McIntosh.

Faulkner’s prep success and a year of being an understudy in the DeBoer system has yet to turn up anything vaguely productive. Not to anyone’s surprise, really. Faulkner redshirted his freshman year and threw all of two passes last season. Hard to expect much out of a youngster with minimal experience.

So, with that being said, why was Faulkner asked to throw 35 passes (and take 39 total drop backs, if you add in the four sacks he took) in the loss to Youngstown State?

Meanwhile, Jewel Hampton only received 20 carries — three of which resulted in touchdown scores.

Hampton is the big playmaker for this offense, especially with an ineffective and inexperienced quarterback under center. He is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and 9 rushing touchdowns. Southern’s star rusher has accounted for 56 percent of the team’s touchdowns this year.

Again, only 20 rushes (and 22 total touches) for the team’s best offensive weapon?

Somewhere, Mike Martz nods in approval.

SIU Basketball

In the opening scenes of Major League, the Cleveland Indians front office and fan base is seen going through the listed names on the roster, which is a who’s-who of “who cares?” and “I thought this guy was dead.”

SIU’s roster resembles that somewhat.

Head coach Chris Lowery is set to unveil a new-look squad for the third consecutive year. Two years after the Return to Greatness was permanently postponed, Southern Illinois looks for a return to respectability. 

Good luck with that.

SIU has eight newcomers, but only seven will play as the ultra-talented Desmar Jackson sits out a year after transferring from Wyoming. Of the five returnees, Davante Drinkard will take a redshirt and Kendal Brown-Surles will be out for a while due to academic concerns.

(I know, I know. “Here we go again.”)

It’s hard to take anything out of a scrimmage highlighted by a fair share of missed dunks and absolutely no defensive intensity, but I drew a quick conclusion after watching the 20 minute scrimmage.

SIU better score in transition.

I know that it goes against the principles of Lowery’s motion offense, which preaches patience and smart shot selection — even if the players in said system haven’t followed its steps to success. But without a go-to presence in the post, coupled with the lack of a consistent perimeter shooting threat, the Salukis should try to get into transition as often as possible and score early in the shot clock at every opportunity. It might be their best chance to get the maximum amount of high-percentage shots.

If it’s any consolation, I brought that up to Coach Lowery in our post-scrimmage chat. He agreed with me, noting he’d have to adapt to that style because of how this team was assembled.

While the cornerstone programs of Saluki Athletics are on the skids, Kerri Blaylock (452-205, overall; 202-79 vs. MVC) has her softball team coming off a 36-win season.

Did I mention we’re a softball school now?

TheoMania: Here’s To The Next Step

At the end of American Pie, Kevin, Jim, Finch and Oz gathered at their favorite high school hang out the morning after losing their collective virginity on prom night and toasted to the future.

It was a symbolic moment for the storyline of that film and the potential for growth of an entire American Pie franchise that has yielded two (soon-to-be three) direct sequels and spawned four other films with the American Pie name and a similar premise despite different casts.

“Here’s to the next step.”

Those five words should resonate with Cubs fans. Because much like the gang losing their virginity on prom night, hiring Theo Epstein is only the first step in the grand scheme of things.

Epstein won’t walk into Wrigley Field and make the Cubs 25 games better. Cubs fans must be cautious when proceeding and realize the Epstein regime won’t bring an overnight success story. It’s going to take some time, but like the kids in American Pie learn, it will be worth the wait.

Step One

Theo needs to bring in his own people. Scouting and development peeps. Folks who know the ins and outs of talent evaluation in the international and Latin American ranks. The Cubs organization needs a rom-com like makeover under Epstein. The Cubs front office is among the most understaffed in baseball. It goes back to the old Tribune days of withholding funds from scouting and player development. Hence, you’ve had an organization relying on free agents and trades, rather than improvement from within. Thus, stunting the growth of the organization as a whole.

Step Two

Fire Mike Quade, a nice guy and baseball lifer who got to live his boyhood dream of managing his favorite team. However, his mismanagement of the pitching staff, line-up and players are fireable offenses. Hopefully Epstein realizes that and brings in his own guy who shares a similar vision. Is it Ryne Sandberg? Maybe. I didn’t want the Cubs to hire Ryno last year because I figured this team would be bad. And as a Cubs fan, one of the last things I wanted to do was grow a level of hatred for one of my favorite players and watch him suffer under a lame-duck GM.
Step Three

Epstein needs to have a sit-down with Ricketts, VP of player personnel Oneri Fleita, as well as scouting director Tim Wilken and discuss everything that is wrong with the organization. Everything. No sugar coating of the situation. The best thing about the Epstein hire is that for the first time since Andy MacPhail and Ed Lynch were hired, the Cubs organization will get critiqued from a fresh set of eyes. An outsider with a vision of how a modern organization wins baseball games. Mr. Ricketts probably won’t like what he hears, but someone needs to drop the cold, hard truth on the fanboy owner.

Epstein’s Red Sox won 839 regular season games, had six 95-win seasons and — most importantly — won two World Series. They developed a boatload of prospects, some of which remain on the roster (Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard) while others have been used in trades to bring in Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez.

Unfortunately, Epstein won’t be bringing any of those guys with him if and when he is introduced in Chicago.

But as a Cubs fan, I can’t help but be excited about the direction the team will go in, in an effort to recreate the Boston model in Wrigleyville.

So, here I am. Boasting in my morning after glory.

Here’s to the next step.

A Wasted Season Will Only Lead To Murkier Future For Bears

You think you’re mad now, Bears fans? Just wait until season’s end and you realize that a season slightly better than mediocrity would have been good enough to make the playoffs.

The NFC is a steaming heap of mediocrity, save for the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints and — the newest inclusion — Detroit Lions. Being a tad bit better than bad probably gets your team into the NFL playoffs. And when you’re in the playoffs, anything is possible. Even though not everything is probable.

Then again, do Bears fans really want to see their team get pantsed on national television again?

Didn’t think so.

The Bears are already circling the wagons.

At 2-3 with numerous “haters” coming out of the woodwork, the Bears will have you think they have ’em right where they want ’em.

And why not?

Last year, they played the Us vs. Them card all the way to the NFC Championship game. In the coming days and weeks, they’ll play it again. And again. And again.

Unfortunately, I don’t see things playing out the way they did last year.

The Bears defense looks dead, despite the best efforts of Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Peanut Tillman and Julius Peppers. The offensive line plays dead. And if that keeps up, Jay Cutler will probably be dead by season’s end.

Oh. And it gets worse.

Pay Forte? That train will start losing steam soon enough. And not because Forte hasn’t been productive. In fact, Forte has been the most productive offensive asset, accounting for nearly half of the Bears’ total offensive yards from scrimmage.

At this rate, Forte is going to get his highest number of touches since his rookie season, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he won’t surpass that. And while it might add up to the kind of career year that generally results in a big pay day, this year is shaping up to be the kind of season that results in the beginning of a downward slope for a guy who takes a lot of hits who plays a position with a short shelf life.

The Bears are in a sticky wicket.

They’ll eventually pay Forte because of what he means to the offense. Unfortunately, it might come only after a season in which the team runs him into the ground, burns him out and wastes a productive year out of its most consistent player as the team hovers around mediocrity.

Remember how ineffective a battered Forte was in his second season? He saw significant dips in yards from scrimmage, yards per carry, touches and touchdowns scored.

The Bears might get that next year and in the following years when a battered Forte returns, a fraction of what he once was a year before after four years of poundings. That’s when fans will wonder why he got paid in the first place.

A poorly assembled offensive line, aging defense and its most productive offensive player heading toward decline sooner rather than later — and you think Jay Cutler wants to be a part of that much longer than he already has to?

Didn’t think so.

I told you the future was a bit scary.

Dana Eikenberg Resurfaces At Wichita State

Dana Eikenberg has had quite the fall from grace.

Eikenberg was the last Southern Illinois University Carbondale women’s basketball coach to lead the Salukis to a Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship. Two seasons later, she was out the door and off the public radar.

Alas, Eikenberg has resurfaced, in the MVC, no less, as the Director of Basketball Operations for the Wichita State Shockers. Eikenberg joins former top assistant Jody Adams, who currently serves as head coach of the Shockers, along with assistant coach Carlai Moore, who was the Salukis’ top scoring threat when Eikenberg coached the team to its championship run.

In 2009, Eikenberg and the Salukis split ways after a second straight losing season mired by departures and alleged abuse and misconduct. It goes down in the record books as a resignation, though sources indicated the parting of ways came with a negotiated buyout.

(FYI: The first round of allegations was soundly covered by my good friend, and co-founder of The Big Dead Sidebar, Matt Hartwig. You can read about them here.)

Eikenberg has yet to address the media since her departure from Carbondale. I would know, I was the sports editor of the Daily Egyptian (SIU’s student newspaper) and I did everything in my power to get Eikenberg on the record. It was a taste of real world journalism at the ripe ole age of 22. I acquired contract paperwork in a parking lot. Dug up unlisted phone numbers and made phone calls at all hours of the day. Staked out her house for hours at a time.

(Pardon me while I get nostalgic about journalism, because it’s something I legitimately cared about at the time.)

Eikenberg never did respond to any calls, texts or emails. Which was disappointing at the time, and even more so in retrospect. I was always curious to hear her side of the story. At least, some sort of statement in defense of the allegations being lobbed in her direction.

So, where has Eikenberg been between stops in the Valley?

The ex-Saluki head coach served as the president & Chief Executive Officer of Reinvent1 from January 2010 until September 2011. a consulting firm that specializes in “leadership development and support to leaders in the athletic profession, including coaches, administrative leaders and their staff.”

Interesting stuff, to say the least.

With 20 days until MVC Basketball Media day, I can’t help but wonder what kind of buzz is building about this hire, let alone the buzz that would surround an Eikenberg trip to Carbondale.

In any case, here’s hoping Eikenberg truly re-invented herself during her hiatus. And I can’t wait to hear the story behind it.

President Theo Epstein — Why Stop There?

“But what if Theo Epstein comes only on the condition you make him President?” you ask.

That sounds fine to me.

Does he need a presidential escort? If so, I’ll drive to O’Hare in my pajamas if it makes him happy.

He wants to be called Barack Epstein? So, be it.

How does Theo Obama sound to you? That works for me.

But why stop at President Theo?

Emperor Epstein has a nice ring to it.

Theo, The Sith Lord just rolls off the tongue.

Presidente. Prez. Chief. Czar. Shah. Premier. Prime Minister. Master. Whatever makes you happy, kiddo. Just as long as you end up working on the corner of Clark and Addison.

Somewhere, Crane Kenney is updating his résumé.

The courtship of the Red Sox GM almost sounds like something out of the olden days.

Tom Ricketts is asking for Theo Epstein’s hand in marriage. The Red Sox might ask for 40 acres of land and Ricketts’ finest mule in return.

And if that’s the case, as long as that mule isn’t named Starlin Castro or Brett Jackson, you’ve got to make the deal.

The Cubs would have to take John Lackey and the remaining $45 million left on his deal? Alright, you drive a hard bargain.

Though, Lackey’s 15-7 record, 3.17 earned run average, 1.20 WHIP in 31 starts (32 appearances) against National League competition make me wonder if a change of scenery out of the AL East and into the NL Central could rejuvenate what has turned out to be a free agent bust for Epstein.

Besides, the Cubs will need to fill the role of overpaid frontline starter once Carlos Zambrano takes his act to South Beach with Ozzie Guillen.

Long story, short: Theo Epstein is the ideal candidate to replace Jim Hendry as Cubs general manager. At age 38, he has proven he can handle the pressure of pleasing a rabid, irrational fan base by building two world championship teams and putting together a list of impressive prospects in the pipeline to win a few more.

Unfortunately, like Matt Garza’s 2008 ALCS MVP trophy, none of that helps the Cubs move forward in their quest to get out of the dumps.

However, what Epstein would bring to Wrigley Field is a baseball mind who would bring the archaic Cubs into the 21st century in regard to everything from sabermetrics, draft strategy, the emphasis on pitching and production from the farm.

Think Moneyball, with a healthy serving of HGH on the side.

The Red Sox have won 95, 98, 95, 86, 96, 95, 95, 89 and 90 games since Epstein took over after the 2002 season. While Boston has seven 90-win seasons in that time span, the Cubs have only one (2008) to go along with five seasons in which they’ve been above the .500 mark.

(Seriously, the standards are so low for some Cubs fans, pointing this out makes people believe Jim Hendry did an adequate job as GM. I digress.)

But don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if Epstein doesn’t come without a few black maks.

Carl Crawford is to Epstein what Alfonso Soriano was to Hendry.

JD Drew is what would have an oft-injured and over-hyped Milton Bradley mated with a lackadaisical Aramis Ramirez and was paid $70 million dollars.

$51 million to talk to Daisuke Matsuzaka and $52 million to sign him makes the Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster extensions look like child’s play, no?

Still, Epstein was able to overcome that with stellar draft choices such as Jonathan Papelbon (2003), Dustin Pedroia (2004), Jacoby Ellsbury & Clay Buchholz (2005) and Daniel Bard (2006).

That alone should send Cubs fans into a tizzy until this whole thing is resolved.

Now excuse me while I tidy up in the event Mr. President makes an announcement.

Chicago Bears overcome themselves, Carolina Panthers in victory

After watching Matt Forte carry a bulk of the load Sunday, Marion Barber plowed into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown, putting the game on ice for the Chicago Bears.

Barber then celebrated with an ill-advise — and poorly executed — backflip.

Welcome to the new era of Chicago Bears football where you watch someone else do the heavy lifting, then celebrate like you just clocked out after a grueling 9-to-5 day.

It’s almost reminiscent of the old era of Bears football, isn’t it?

The only difference is the Bears were only responsible for so much of the dirty work.

Devin Hester channeling his inner Aramis Ramirez by breaking out of a three-week slump by reminding the world that he’s always a home run threat. Then, there was D.J. Moore doing his best Mike Brown imitation with a touchdown off a tipped pass.

As for the rest, well, that was left for the Carolina Panthers.

Jeremy Shockey had a tide-turning touchdown grab taken away on a ticky-tack penalty. Olindo Mare left one field goal short and had another blocked. And as a team, the Panthers converted on only two of their 12 attempts on third down.

All in all, Carolina left 12 points (13, if you assume the PAT splits the uprights) on the field in a five-point Chicago win, proving the only thing worse than the Bears game plan was their Sunday opponent.

Even then, all signs point to the Panthers outplaying the Bears.

After the game, head coach Lovie Smith said: “We’re not apologizing at all for this win. We feel really good about it.”

How?

Carolina’s offense gained more than 500 yards of total offense, as its game plan of “Throw it to Steve Smith” from the 2005 playoffs still worked like a charm, six years later.

The Bears pass rush was hushed. In the secondary, even Brandon Merriwhether was launching himself like an uncontrolled missile, the unit was still getting torched. Jay Cutler played nothing like the franchise quarterback he was brought to Chicago to be, as for the third consecutive week, Cutler was outplayed by his counterpart.

Chicago made Cam Newton look like a Franchise QB, if only because for the third time in four weeks, the Panthers dug themselves a hole only a strong-arm and strong-willed signal caller could dig out of.

Meanwhile, there is no denying the productivity of the Bears rushing game, which had been non-existent in the three previous games. And while 31 attempts, 224 yards and a 7.2 YPC clip is nothing to scoff at, had the Bears not been able to put up those numbers against the 25th worst run defense in the NFL, they might as well have begun planning their own “Suck For Luck” campaign.

And wouldn’t that be quite the awkward situation for Team Cutler?

Four weeks into the 2011 season, we still don’t know who the Bears are or what they are going to be. They don’t seem to be as good as the team that dominated the Atlanta Falcons for three quarters in the season opener. And Chicago can’t be as look as bad as the unit that was throttled by the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome in Week 2.

Through the first quarter of the season, the Bears are the epitome of mediocre. They’ve put together just enough scoring drives, sustained just enough blocks from a patchwork offensive line and made just enough tackles to survive a relatively rough opening stretch of the season to have just enough confidence to think they’re good enough for an outside shot at the playoffs.

See a pattern?

The Bears are still a work in progress with square pegs trying to fit in round holes. They’re an aging defense and an inconsistent offense with just enough talent to avoid a disastrous season.

But, hey, at least they didn’t lose this week.