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Good to be back. We assure you: no mention of the Terrell Owens-Randy Moss rivalry or shameless plug from Jim Belushi here.
The Blog spent a few days in Cincinnati last week, where it checked in on the surging Cubs. How are the Chicago players feeling about the weeks ahead? "It'll be interesting to see how everything plays out," says catcher Michael Barrett, who has put together a nice season (.302 average, 16 homers, .514 slugging percentage). "It's not going to be easy, but we'll see what happens. It's going to be a fight. I have faith in my team."
No, Barrett isn't talking about the uber-competitive National League wild-card race, in which the Cubs were a 1/2 game behind the Giants in your Tuesday morning paper; instead, the Cubs' fantasy football league is on this man's mind. "The Purple Cobras" (managed by Ryan Dempster) and the "Wood and Tanked-Its" (managed by Kerry Wood) were looking strong in first and second place. Barrett, GM of 10-Yard Fight, is in last. He's still mad at himself for taking Steve McNair in the second round, though he's quite pleased with snagging DeShaun Foster early.
Some thoughts from the home of Pete Rose and Nick Lachey:
1) The Cubs are the team to beat in the National League.
Here's why: Mark Prior and Kerry Wood have missed significant chunks of time this season, but their injuries are a blessing in disguise. Thanks to the time they've been sidelined -- they have made 37 starts between them -- the young aces are fresh for the stretch run. Prior looked in top form Monday afternoon in a big win against the Marlins -- 7 2/3 innings, five hits, nine Ks, one run -- and Wood has put together three straight good starts (3.43 ERA, 25 Ks in his past 21 innings). Over the weekend there were murmurs the Cubs could start Matt Clement instead of Prior in a postseason series and would instead use Prior out of the bullpen because of his recent inconsistency and questionable durability. But as long as Prior can pitch, he's a starter; Clement, meanwhile, could be valuable in the way that Carl Pavano was in relief for the Marlins last year.
Another factor working in Chicago's favor: the Cubs have the lowly Pirates, Mets, and Reds queued up before they take on the coasting Braves during the last weekend of the regular season. "You wonder why the last two World Series winners were wild-card teams?" asks an NL executive. "It's all about peaking at the right time, and the Cubs are putting it all together right now." As Prior and Wood heat up, so too is Sammy Sosa, who this summer has become as forgotten as Howard Dean.
2) That the Reds were in contention as recently as late July is, in retrospect, miraculous. This is not a good team. The Reds are not a big market franchise -- their 2004 payroll is $46.6 million -- and with $50 million tied up in Ken Griffey Jr. over the next four years, they can't afford to be big spenders any time soon. With the Pirates and Brewers on the rise, the Reds are the early favorite to finish last in the NL Central in 2005.
3) The Great American Ballpark has the least charm and, by far, the worst selection of concession foods of the new ballparks.
4) Forget the War in Iraq or the Presidential election. The top story on the front page of the Enquirer on Saturday was an account of Edward Furlong's recent wild night on the town. It's been a while since we've heard from Mr. Furlong -- the Blog is a big fan of Terminator 2 -- but the actor resurfaced last week when he was charged with alcohol intoxication after he and his friends were caught trying to free lobsters from a Kentucky grocery store tank. Got news on Corey Haim or Corey Feldman? I'm sure the Enquirer would love to hear from you.
Other notes from the road:
Happy Trails to the Marlins and Padres. See you next spring.
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In Monday's Blog, Chris Ballard said he counted 10 funny moments in the new Bernie Mac movie Mr. 3000. I tallied five, though I did doze off for a bit during the first hour. It's too bad, because Mac is a funny guy. And though the Blog thought B-Mac was one of the best things about Ocean's 11, it wondered how he'd fair as the lead of a feature film. Too many brilliant stand up comics have flopped when they've gone big to the big screen. Name a Chris Rock movie that was funnier than The Hot Chick. Head of State, Bad Company, and Down to Earth make Mr. 3000 look like Casablanca. Few people are funnier than Larry David when he does stand up, yet remember the David-scribed movie, Sour Grapes? (Sorry to remind those who did.) Speaking of David, when does Curb Your Enthusiasm get going again?
To borrow from Bill Maher ... New Rule: Sports pregame shows can no longer use silly graphics from a Madden NFL video game to break down a team or introduce a player. Surely they must have a clip of the real Terrell Owens archived somewhere.
This is the year that The Wire finally gets the recognition and audience it deserves. Here's a book recommendation for fans of the show, which premiered Sunday: Samaritan, a novel that recently came out in paperback and was written by one of the show's writers, Richard Price, author of Clockers. No one does dialogue better than Price.
Apprentice thoughts: It was predicted here last week that Stacie J. would get the ax, and the pick was looking solid until The Donald threw down a bombshell by throwing Bradford out of the Boardroom. We'll stick with Stacie J. this week -- she's always a safe bet -- though Ivana is making a good case for herself. Mosaic pick: we'll take Chris from Long Island, unless Pamela is put in a situation in which she must interact with children.
That's it for today, folks. Same time, same place next week. Enjoy the Bill Parcells-Joe Gibbs retrospectives.
Albert Chen is a staff writer for Sports Illustrated and writes a blog every Tuesday.