MILWAUKEE BUCKS: SLIM PICKIN'
Artie: I'm not sure you'll be able to understand me. I think I dislocated my jaw practicing how to pronounce the kid's name.
Frank: The Journal Sentinel gave it as “Ahn-teh-toe-KUHN-poe.” I guess the first name is “Gee-AHN-is.”
A: To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it's the name that none dare try to speak. I'll just call him “G.A.” And speaking of pronunciation, I hope the undrafted Vander Blue signs up for one of those Rosetta Stone courses; Bulgarian ain't something you can pick up overnight.
F: You could call G.A. by his nickname, “Greek Freak,” though it sounds ominous.
A: But it's positive, as in he's freakishly talented for 6-foot-9.
F: Have you actually seen him play?
A: Just a few video clips during the week before the draft, when he made some lists of foreign players with plenty of potential. And wow, this guy can really handle the ball! He was grabbing rebounds and racing upcourt like a point guard, then going to the rim. Of course the competition wasn't NBA caliber...
F: Only the second division of the Greek league, right?
A: But you could see the skill set is there. He also showed a good outside shot, including a couple of legitimate three-pointers. Now, they may have been two shots out of fifty... But another good thing about landing a young foreigner is this: What does he know about America?
F: Meaning what?
A: A hot shot from Kentucky probably says, “Milwaukee? What about New York or L.A.?” But a Greek teen has gotta be thrilled to be anywhere in the good ol' U.S. of NBA.
F: So you think the Bucks did well.
A: Well, it's hard to say. Another beanpole, Yi Jianlian, was supposed to be great in '07. But the Bucks shipped him out after one season and now he's back playing in China. But G.A. sure seems to have an “up side,” as they say.
F: But for a team that's floundered for most of this century, and has so many question marks right now, isn't this yet another plea for fans to be patient?
A: True, there may not be much in the way of immediate results, such as hanging on to that “all-important” eighth seed in the East. But it might not take too long for this kid to really contribute. The Bucks drafted Ersan Ilyasova when he was 18 and he's become a real fine player.
F: But they shelved him in Europe for a couple of years to gain experience. They apparently want G.A. to do his developing here.
A: That might make it easier to put more meat on his bones, and he could still grow an inch or two. With those ball skills, and playing with other youngsters like Larry Sanders and John Henson, this could really be something!
F: But again, will the fans stay patient, especially when you consider that the Bucks will soon be pushing hard for a new arena?
A: They could have tried to “trade up” for one of the top picks, but even so what would they have gotten? From everything I read, it's next year's draft that's really loaded with talent. Now, I'm not going to use a phrase like “tanking,” but next season it wouldn't hurt to be in the lottery—especially if they're likely to be close to it anyway.
F: One result of picking G.A. is that the Bucks now seem fully committed to keeping Brandon Jennings. I know you don't like that.
A: Except that re-signing him doesn't mean they can't trade him.
F: But presumably it would have to be for another point guard.
A: Yeah, but I'll say this: I'm really high on Nate Wolters, whom they acquired in second-round maneuvering. I saw him a couple, three times with South Dakota State and he can score! He's 6-4, a great shooter and a true point guard, not somewhere in limbo between that and a “2” guard.
F: Which Jennings often plays like. But whatever happens with him, you're pleased with this draft.
A: Cautiously optimistic. Like I always say about the Packers' drafts, it takes two or three years before people can really make judgments.
F: Last week I offered the Chief Dan George answer to any second-guessing—"Well, sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't." There's a companion answer, just as perfect, for the initial questions about how a sports move will turn out. And that is, "We'll see."
A: Can't go wrong with that.
A TALE OF TWO TEAMS, AND MORE
F: My most recent trip to New York was just great. Two Yankee games, two wins—one on an Ichiro walk-off homer—two Mariano Rivera appearances, and even two giveaway caps only four nights apart!
A: I know the Yanks have been struggling the last couple of weeks, but I'm still amazed they're around .500 with all the injuries they've had. I mean, Lyle Overbay starting at first base?
F: The ex-Brewer is actually doing pretty well, although he looks overmatched against left-handers these days. But yeah, Mark Teixeira's season is over with only 15 games played, Kevin Youkilis is finished with 28, Curtis Granderson has managed only eight games so far, Derek Jeter is still on the shelf, A-Rod... Well, nobody really seems to care if A-Rod ever comes back.
A: Might as well just jump a couple of steps in the drug investigation and ban him for life, ain'a?
F: At any rate, the lineup I was seeing had third-stringers, at best, playing first, third, shortstop, left field and catcher.
A: The Yanks are the AL version of our Brew Crew.
F: And as if the Brewers needed any more bad news, Corey Hart won't play at all this season because now he needs surgery on his left knee—after trying for months to recover from surgery on the right one.
A: What a turnaround, from “quick healer” to no healer.
F: And just as with the other knee, no one seems to know how the injury came about.
A: Who knows, with a tall guy like that there could be some kind of genetic thing that just kicked in.
F: Or just the wear and tear of more than 900 big-league games. He had been a regular since the latter part of 2006.
A: So much would have been different if Hart had even made it back by May, which was the original timetable. The Journal Sentinel ran a stat last week that through 78 games all the guys who've filled in at first base...
F: Seemingly a whole roster in themselves...
A: They'd hit a combined .187 with eight measly homers. Hart would have surely done better than that.
F: Two other stats last week were really striking. When Johnny Hellweg started Friday night in Pittsburgh he was the eighth Brewer to make his major-league debut this season, and the 10th pitcher to start a game.
A: That sounds like a Little League team of first-timers—”Who do we have who can get the ball to home plate?”
F: It hasn't helped that some of the emergency reinforcements didn't exactly rise to the occasion. Caleb Gindl, for one, was quickly sent back to Nashville after costly errors in left field in those two losses to the Cubs.
A: Caleb Gindl. Wasn’t he a character out of “Lord of the Rings”? I don't remember anyone playing baseball in that.
F: It wasn't just Gindl, though. In three games Wednesday through Friday, the Brewers allowed eight unearned runs.
A: And meanwhile the offense wasn't producing much at all—just when most of the pitching was really strong. Through 80 games the Crew's run differential was a crummy minus-56. I saw a report last week about how Ryan Braun “remains unable to swing a bat” and I thought, “Just like the rest of the starting lineup.”
F: There are only three teams with worse run differentials—Houston and Miami, of course, and Seattle. At 32-48 entering this week the Brewers were six games behind last year's pace, but a year ago they were six games out of first in the NL Central. Now they're 18 1/2 games out!
A: And 13 behind in the wild-card standings. That was worse than everyone except the hapless Astros and Marlins. And who was leading the NL Central with the best record in baseball? The Pirates, who swept the Crew by allowing just five runs in 32 innings.
F: Maybe this is the year the Pirates can convince themselves that they can extend a strong first half over the full season. By the way, one big reason for their success is closer Jason Grilli, who's 27 for 28 in save opportunities. And do you remember who his agent is?
A: None other than Milwaukee's least-favorite Brewer alumnus, Gary Sheffield.
F: While I was back East The New York Times ran a big feature about Sheffield and Grilli, under the headline, “With Guidance of Renowned Slugger, a Journeyman Pitcher Is Now a Star.”
A: That's the first time I've ever heard “guidance” and Sheffield mentioned in the same sentence.
F: Not with Sheff as the guider instead of a very needy “guidee.” But this piece made him sound like a real mogul, saying he also owns the land of a Florida beach resort and has “a cigar line.”
A: A Gary Sheffield cigar. Gotta be the kind that explodes in your face.
F: There was a nice photo of Sheffield behind a big desk with a phone in his ear.
A: Oh man, this is just like a Three Stooges short, with Moe in charge of some business. You just know everything's gonna go to hell.
F: Or someone else behind the desk with his nameplate saying, “I. Fleecem.”
A: Sheffield must have gotten hold of some performance-enhancing drugs for the brain. That's the only thing that could explain this.
F: As you remember, Sheffield was a training partner of Barry Bonds for a year or two, and later testified that he took those substances called “the clear” and “the cream” but didn't know they contained steroids.
A: “I thought it was suntan lotion.” You betcha.
F: One last thing about my trip. At Yankee Stadium Mr. Rivera comes in to the song “Enter Sandman,” and when the first notes are played the crowd goes nuts. A guy sitting next to me found it amusing that Mariano, a devoutly religious guy, is forever associated with this Metallica song that sounds, well, kind of diabolical.
A: Yeah, it should be something out of Godspell or Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
F: Of course Mariano never chose the song; it's just something that started years ago and stuck with him. But I was thinking about your fantasy of coming up to bat with certain music playing...
A: Yup, something classic from the Great American Songbook. But not just one song, a whole raft of standards and show tunes, varying with my moods. From West Side Story, for instance—something tough like “When You're a Jet,” or maybe even “I Feel Pretty” if I thought I was swinging really sweet that day.
F: So the song would change even within a game.
A: Yeah, I'd give the folks in the control room a list of, say, 50 choices and give them a call before each at-bat. “Let's see...Yes! I think it'll be ‘Some Enchanted Evening.'”
F: An enchanting notion, to be sure.
Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek has gone undrafted for decades.