In baseball terms, these are “the dog days.” The All-Star break behind us, the country’s hottest temperatures baking outfields from Dodger Stadium to Fenway Park, with close to 50 games yet to play. However hot, though, however “doggish” the days may be, I’ve come to find August may be the single most optimistic month on a sports fan’s calendar.
Let’s stick with baseball, first. By my count 14 teams (out of 30) have legitimate shots at reaching the postseason. So virtually half the stadiums in Major League Baseball are welcoming fans with possibility and hope — the legs of optimism — on their minds. Unless you’re the third-place team in either of the eastern divisions, chances are a five- or six-game winning streak will vault your team into a playoff slot. Say what you will about three divisions per league and a wild-card team, but the expanded playoffs have boosted August’s “optimeter” exponentially.
Then there’s football. With the NFL’s lockout mercifully over, 32 teams are sweating through lighter, less-frequent workouts, each of them undefeated. Each of them convinced this could be a Super Bowl year. And why doubt any of them? Over the last ten seasons, ten different teams have represented the NFC in the Super Bowl (and former dynasty franchises in San Francisco and Dallas haven’t been among those ten). The challenge these days is naming five NFL teams that have no chance of reaching the Super Bowl. (Here’s an attempt: Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Oakland, Detroit. But the Browns are climbing.)
If optimism is the way of things in the NFL, consider the college-football landscape, with an extra dose of youth and rah-rah thrown into the mix. Might the Memphis Tigers shock the country by opening the season — on a Thursday night — with an upset of an SEC team? Could happen. Can Tennessee, in Derek Dooley’s second year at the helm, return to relevance in the SEC East? In August, the answer is hell yeah. Save your skepticism for September.
• On the subject of the NFL lockout, and the new collective bargaining agreement that has players in training camp, one new rule floored me. Teams are now allowed no more than 14 padded practices in the regular season. I must be misinterpreting this. (Please clarify for me if you can.) Teams playing 16 games of tackle football are allowed only 14 practices in full pads all season? Isn’t this akin to asking baseball teams to practice without gloves? If my math is correct, teams must pick at least two weeks to prepare for their next opponent without ever donning pads. (This information should be part of a team’s injury report so the gambling public has a fair shake for teams coming off “padless week.”) I’m all for protecting football players and reducing the number of head shots. But this is still football. We’re going to see tackling technique go down the toilet if players aren’t allowed to actually . . . practice.
• The Redbirds have two more homestands and are (barely) clinging to contention for a third-straight division title. Local baseball fans would do well to cheer a little extra for Nick Stavinoha as he steps to the plate over the season’s last few games. Wrapping up his fifth season as a Redbird, the 29-year-old slugger has climbed to the top of the franchise record book for career games (454 through Sunday), hits (500), home runs (68), and RBIs (292). Stavinoha played in 147 games for St. Louis over three seasons, but never found a position — even as pinch-hitter — to stick with the Cardinals. Amid an injury-plagued season this year, the Cardinals have never promoted Stavinoha. (He was removed from the club’s 40-man roster before Opening Day.) Like Stubby Clapp and John Gall before him, Stavinoha has become a local version of Crash Davis, the iconic character from Bull Durham who crushed minor-league pitching, but never found the calling he cherished in The Show. He’ll likely move on at season’s end. Here’s hoping he finds that calling (DH?) with a new franchise.