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Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2010

Badger Fans, Feel Free to Raise Your Hopes

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It's a time for athletic dreams in Wisconsin. Fans expect big things from the Packers, and this weekend the Wisconsin Badgers open their football season amid lots of buzz from national media. Meanwhile at Miller Park, a new statue honors Bud Selig, who 40 years ago fulfilled the dream of returning baseball to Milwaukee and keeping it here.

And speaking of returns…

Frank: So we're back after a one-week, um, hiatus.

Artie: I wasn't sure that holdout idea was gonna work.

Frank: Asking for $5 million guaranteed and up front may have been a mistake.

Artie: I was never able to spell "leverage" anyway.

Frank: Well, back to work. Do you think the Badgers have some leverage in the Big Ten?

Artie: Absolutely! This could be an exceptional season in Madison.

Frank: The good news is that most of the preseason rankings have Wisconsin in the Top Ten or close to it. The bad news is that some of them rank two other Big Ten teams higher.

Artie: It seems like everyone has Ohio State at No. 2 behind Alabama. Then it's either Iowa or UW toward the back of the Top Ten and the other close by. The Associated Press has Iowa ninth and the Badgers 12th; The Sporting News has the Badgers eighth and Iowa 13th.

Frank: None of the three teams will be ducking the others. It'll be a round robin, ending with OSU at Iowa on Nov. 20.

Artie: But the Badgers have to play the other two in successive weeks—hosting the Buckeyes on Oct. 16 and going to Iowa City on the 23rd. Who the hell dreamed that up?

Frank: The same guy who dreamed up last year's schedule, which gave the Badgers the same teams back-to-back but with the opposite home fields. And UW dropped both games.

Artie: Iowa's a good, good team, and it'll be tough going there after what could be a really emotional game against OSU. If the Badgers win that one, they'll be sky-high and maybe ripe for a letdown.

Frank: Last year both games were closer than the scores indicated. Iowa rallied in the second half in Madison to win 20-10, and Ohio State asserted itself defensively in the 31-13 game in Columbus.

Artie: In ’08 when the Buckeyes came to Madison, it went down to the wire. Terrelle Pryor led a late TD drive and an interception sealed OSU's 20-17 win.

Frank: At least the Badgers won't play Penn State for the second straight year.

Artie: But this year that's not a good thing. The Nittany Lions aren't expected to be a power. I'd much rather have Iowa on the "miss" list; that defense is just rabid.

Frank: UW looks real solid on offense, with the usual caveat that injuries could strike.

Artie: Scott Tolzien emerged as a solid quarterback last year and John Clay rushed his way to the Big Ten offensive player of the year award. Most people are picking Pryor for that prize this year, but I'm still not convinced he's the real deal as a passer.

Frank: I agree, although Pryor had some good throws in the Rose Bowl.

Artie: Clay is just a monster. The Badgers' whole running game is great. They also have Montee Ball and Zach Brown and this freshman, James White, who from what I've read is a total change of pace. The others are Ron Dayne types, but he's like a Chris Johnson.

Frank: So they could have "Thunder and Lightning," like the Giants touted with Dayne and Tiki Barber. Except that they didn't get much thunder.

Artie: So the QB is above average, the offensive line is really good, the running backs terrific, the receivers solid. Most of the big questions are on the defensive side. They have to replace guys like O'Brien Schofield on the line and Chris Maragos in the secondary. But the potential is there.

Frank: It'll be mighty tough to beat Ohio State and Iowa back-to-back. But it sure ain't impossible, and if they do it, they should be off to the races. Maybe off to… dare we say it? The Big Ten title and BCS championship game?

Artie: Northwestern and Purdue could be spoilers. The Badgers always seem to have crazy games against Northwestern, like last year's 33-31 loss.

Frank: Is there any chance they'll lose any of their "cupcake" games—UNLV, San Jose State, Arizona State and Austin Peay?

Artie: No… Well, there's always a possibility. But realistically, no. It's gonna be an exciting season. Fans, there's no reason not to dream about a BCS bowl game—maybe even the Big One. Bring on ’Bama!

The Energizer Buddy Gets His Due

Frank: I was at the ballyard the other day and saw the Bud Selig statue. It's very nice.

Artie: Did they capture the commissioner's leadership on the steroid issue? How do you translate heel-dragging into bronze?

Frank: The statue is firmly flat-footed. And really, everyone had a hand in the procrastinating—Major League Baseball, the players' union, the media and fans. Everyone was on board in 1998 when Big Mac and Sammy revived the game, even though everyone probably had suspicions.

Artie: Everyone dug the long balls.

Frank: But I think Bud did something very smart when Congress stuck its nose into this thing a few years back. My initial reaction, and perhaps Bud's, was, "Great, now these gasbags will put on a show of righteous indignation for their own benefit."

Artie: It's what congressmen do, ain’a?

Frank: But I think Bud realized that if he didn't squawk about the hearings in March 2005, and instead took his lumps, Don Fehr and the union would come out looking worse than MLB. And that's what happened. Some testing was in place already, but a few months later the union agreed to much tougher penalties.

Artie: Selig's leadership style often seems like a lot of waiting to see which way the scale tips, and then he goes that way.

Frank: He's not a showman, he's a consensus builder, and sometimes that's vexing. But he doesn't give up on the things he wants, and he doesn't go away.

Artie: Like a pebble in my shoe. Or the bunny in the battery commercials; he's the Energizer Buddy.

Frank: The statue symbolizes Bud's determination in bringing baseball back to Milwaukee in 1970. After the Braves left he was in the wasteland, plugging away, and he succeeded. Then in the ’90s when it was clear that a new stadium was needed, he got that done.

Artie: Not quickly or easily, but it happened.

Frank: If you agree with the premise that big-league baseball, on balance, is good for this town—even as it raises questions about the priorities our society should have—then Bud is truly a hero.

Artie: Not that the baseball has been good in many of these 40 years.

Frank: When he ran the Brewers I thought Bud got too wrapped up in the mantra of "Woe is us, we can't compete with the big markets." It became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and maybe led the team to not do enough to improve the scouting and make better decisions in the draft.

Artie: And not re-sign Paul Molitor in 1993. So Selig was really proactive in getting us a team. But on other things he just waits.

Frank: Still, as commissioner he's presided over big changes—expanding the playoffs with the wild cards, interleague play, things to spice up the All-Star Game. Which makes me surprised that he isn't more open to greater use of replay to help umpires.

Artie: You mean, like, he's foot-dragging? He's gonna take some heat if this year's playoffs have messed-up calls like last year's did.

Frank: But Bud is willing to take the heat, and the owners love him for it. After all, he's their employee, with the job of keeping the business profitable—even if it means that what I pay for a single beer at the ballpark can buy a 12-pack in the real world.

Artie: A 12-pack? Hell, for the kind of beer I drink, that's a case!