May 31, 2012

The greatest bet of all time.

It was going to be the finest meal of my young life. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, it all fell apart.

This is the story of our generation's greatest wager.

John Carter, the first live-action movie from Wall-E director Andrew Stanton and the first starring role for "Friday Night Lights" heartthrob Taylor Kitsch, was set to open in thousands of theaters on March 9.

I thought it was going to bomb at the box office. Hard. In fact, I was so certain that I bet a burrito on it.

You couldn't convince me otherwise; John Carter was destined for disaster. I would launch into lengthy rants at the drop of a hat, complaining about the stupid-looking alien world or noting the complete lack of interest in such an unknown property (it was based on a book published in 1917).

Who was Taylor Kitsch? For that matter, who the hell was John Carter? So why would anyone pay $10 to see a guy they don't know playing a character they've never heard of?

I felt it was quite persuasive, but my good friend and roommate, known to many as the Sultan of Swole, disagreed. He believed in John Carter, or at least felt I was being far too harsh.

He started to form a John Carter defense. It had the Disney marketing machine humming behind it at full force. It had the coveted "From the director of Wall-E" proclamation stamped all over every TV ad and billboard. Kitsch was pretty darn handsome. It was about space and adventure, and people like space and adventure, right?

It wasn't the worst argument I'd ever heard. Still, to me, believing in John Carter was a fool's errand. The real winner this summer movie season was sure to be Battleship.

Yes, it starred the same unknown Taylor Kitsch. And yes, it was being mocked mercilessly on the Internet, mostly because a movie studio had the sheer audacity to spend $200 million on a movie based on a board game.

But that sounded like a classic example of "there's no such thing as bad publicity." Hell, the Transformers movies have made what, a billion dollars? And they're based on a bunch of action figures. This is what big-budget movies are nowadays: A comfortable, well-known premise surrounded by splashy special effects and handsome stars.

To me, Battleship was the known commodity. John Carter was the vague, unfamiliar shot in the dark.

So it became Battleship versus John Carter, friend versus friend, with the reward for victory being a delicious dinner at the Qdoba or Chipotle of your choice. Some of our other pals started to join in the conversation, picking sides and awaiting a chance to analyze the earliest box-office returns. It became more than a bet; it became a showdown, a test of our mettle and pop-culture acumen.

Finally, to what seemed (to us) like the world's great excitement, John Carter was released into the wild.

It tanked. Reviews were not flattering. The first week gross in America (our bet was domestic only) came in at just about $40 million; only $17 million was added on in week two. The final take? A shade over $72 million.

I began to mock my friend mercilessly. This was exactly what I'd expected. Our bet was all but decided. I could already taste the burrito in my mouth, in my belly, slowly digesting, providing my body with useful energy.

But what I didn't count on, what may up end screwing me in the end, was the public's complete and utter disdain for Battleship.

I thought that Battleship would be an entertaining romp that poked fun at its silly origins. I figured Middle America would see it because it was a big movie with explosions and bombs, and that's what they're into. I calculated that Liam Neeson, Rihanna, Brooklyn Decker and the sexy guy from "True Blood" would bring in a relatively diverse crowd on the coasts.

Wrong. Or maybe just far too optimistic. It didn't matter. The time for predicting and analyzing was over; now all that mattered was results.

The reviews have been worse than John Carter's. The box office returns have been miniscule. Suddenly, the Sultan is the one with the taste of burrito in his mouth. He's the one who's already thinking about which restaurant to choose, who gets to taunt me about how much he'll enjoy the first bite of his deliciously hard-fought-for, chicken-packed tortilla.

My only solace is that it's not over yet. Prometheus doesn't come out until next weekend. Battleship is only roughly $24 million behind John Carter. One more solid weekend and the dream is in sight.

As one of the leaders of the Battleship army, it's time to do my part. I'll go to the movies tonight and offer up my $12. I'll do my best to enjoy the spectacle that Peter Berg and company have so lovingly crafted for me, and I'll hope that others out there are doing the same.

But I fear it's too late. Barring a miracle, my chances of winning this bet are probably as dead as Taylor Kitsch's dreams of being a leading man after appearing in these two hideous stinkers.

Burritos may never again taste as sweet.

May 24, 2012

Swirling emotions and the Los Angeles Kings.

When Mike Richards and Jeff Carter led the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010, the city was theirs. A series win would have solidified the duo as the hottest young stars in the area.

Well, we all know how that ended. But now, so soon after falling just short of their goal, Richards and Carter have another shot at the most famous trophy in all of sports.

As members of the Los Angeles Kings.

This, of course, has become a hot-button issue in Philadelphia. Carter and Richards making the Finals immediately after the team "gave up" on the two is bound to sting, especially when the Flyers wilted in the middle of their own Stanley Cup chase.

I think most fans aren't quite sure how to view the forever-linked forwards. Did they hurt the team by partying too much? Maybe. Alright, more than maybe. Did expectations grow too high and too fast after that unexpected Finals run? Were they moved too soon? Was there a chance that they'd grow into complimentary roles around future superstar Claude Giroux, that they'd learn to mesh with Chris Pronger and Peter Laviolette?

Either way, Paul Holmgren and the Flyers brass grew weary of it all. And even though I was in praise of the trades -- "let's roll with this unique brand of balls to the wall hysteria" -- it was obvious that the two were extremely talented players who would probably blossom with a change of scenery. They were best buds who didn't know professional life outside of Philadelphia, and being shipped out of town could very easily end up being the boot to the ass they both needed.

Richards stumbled into the best possible situation: the bright lights and big dreams of the up-and-coming Los Angeles Kings. Meanwhile, Carter was banished to Columbus, maybe the saddest place to play in the National Hockey League.

But fate intervened (and Carter apparently bitched incessantly behind the scenes), and the two were eventually reunited in L.A. A few months (and 12 playoff wins) later, the Kings are by far the favorite to take home this year's championship.

It's been a long, strange saga, and I don't blame some fans for disliking Carter and Richards (and, by proxy, the team that they now play for). But after thinking about it (and watching the Kings play), I would like to see Los Angeles win the Stanley Cup. I sure as hell would prefer that to the New Jersey Devils or New York Rangers winning, and I'm impressed at how Mikey and Jeffy have helped turn the Kings around after the midseason slump that nearly cost them a playoff spot.

I just wish the Flyers had gotten there first. That's the stinger. Wayne Simmonds, Jake Voracek, Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn; Holmgren brought in some amazing young talent for his two big-name forwards. The team's future remains bright. Both Los Angeles and Philadelphia got what they wanted; the Kings are just reaping the most immediate, and prominent, benefits.

At the end of the day, this is Jonathan Quick's coming-out party far more than it is Richards and Carter overcoming whatever labels were attached to them in Philadelphia. They're a piece of the puzzle in Los Angeles, not the stars, and that seems to be what suits them best. Anze Kopitar's the stud, Dustin Brown's the captain, Quick is the superstar goalie. Richards and Carter just are. And it's looking like that formula will lead all of them to a Stanley Cup.

May 16, 2012

An early assessment of the 2012 Phillies.

Now that we're just about at the one-fourth point of the 2012 season, where do the Philadelphia Phillies stand?

With a record of 18-19, good for last place in the National League East, you'd have to say "on rocky ground."

But at the same time, it's kinda been what we've all expected. Injuries, especially those suffered by Cliff Lee and some back-end bullpen contributors, have been ill-timed and unfortunate. But we knew the bats would be meh (142 runs, 19th in Major League Baseball) and we assumed the pitching would be solid (3.48 ERA, 10th in MLB). And they both, mostly, have been.

So here the Phillies stand, almost even, seemingly an aging team holding on by a thread. But I still maintain, as I did about a month ago, that there are reasons to be optimistic. Let's take a look at what's stunk and what hasn't so far.

Carlos Ruiz is a ray of sunshine! Quietly one of the best defensive (and most beloved) catchers in baseball, he's developed into one of the best offensive, too (.337/.379/.577). He's third amongst all backstops in on-base percentage, behind only Joe Mauer and Carlos Santana. He's hit six home runs already, tying his total from last year. Send him to the All-Star Game!

Hunter Pence can hit! For all his defensive flaws (which are ample), he's socked nine homers with 25 RBIs. He might be the team's only non-Chooch deep ball threat. Yet his .798 OPS is behind guys like Martin Prado and Alejandro De Aza, He's the new Ryan Howard!

Placido Polanco isn't dead yet! A .288/.321/.368 slash line isn't much to write home about, but it's more than I expected from a 36-year-old who started off the season ice cold. Trade for the right third baseman in a few months and Polly might become an extremely useful utility infielder.

And the aces are the aces. I'm obviously including Joe Blanton in that group, he of the 2.96 ERA and 5.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The team can't seem to get Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee a win (three in 13 starts this year) but 28 quality starts (tied for most in the National League) mean at least the potential for victories, and 246.2 innings pitched (tops in the NL) have meant plenty of rest for the bullpen.

Keeping all those relievers on the bench has been key, too, because their 5.19 ERA is the worst in all of baseball. Jose Contreras looks cooked, Chad Qualls shouldn't be pitching anywhere near the 8th inning and Antonio Bastardo has not recaptured his early 2011 form. Meaning he's been excellent (1.64 ERA, 1.091 WHIP) but not utterly dominant (0.82 ERA, 0.76 WHIP before last year's All-Star Game).

In other bad news, John Mayberry's line (.247/.269/.337) has us all wishing for Greg Golson back. And Jimmy Rollins (.231/.278/.293) has been even worse. Maybe his contract was the one we should've been bitching about all offseason, not Jonathan Papelbon's (10 saves, 2.40 ERA, 0.867 WHIP).

Meanwhile, everyone keeps saying "Wait until Ryan Howard and Chase Utley get back." But no one knows exactly what those guys will bring to the table. Their names may still strike fear into the hearts of managers who don't read FanGraphs or pay attention to injury reports, but their level of tangible production remains to be seen.

My diagnosis: It could be worse. Unexpected contributors are keeping the team afloat, by which I mean "slightly below average." Ty Wigginton and Juan Pierre have been serviceable, and Vance Worley has given the team 44 innings that were much like the 131 and two-thirds he gave them last year.

But Wigginton and Pierre could turn back into pumpkins at any moment, and Worley's already on the DL with ominous-sounding elbow trouble. To keep this team competitive, the two stars will have to return (even if they're propped up with sunglasses on like Bernie) and Ruben Amaro Jr. will have to swing one of his patented trade-deadline deals. No one wants to empty the prospect cupboard anymore than they already have, but if they're close, it'll be up to Amaro to push them over the top again and take one more crack at this.

Either way, they'll need to play some damn good baseball from here on out to catch the pesky Washington Nationals and/or the battle-tested Atlanta Braves. And if things are still going sour in July, for the first time in a while, heads will start to roll.

Basically, I have no idea. And neither do they, I think. All we have, 37 games into 2012, is more questions.

May 8, 2012

It's all over.

This series was over even before Brendan Shanahan suspended Claude Giroux for Game 5.

Why, you say? From the start of Game 2 to the end of Game 4, the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils played roughly 197 minutes of hockey. And by my admittedly unscientific calculations, the Flyers have controlled about 20 minutes of those three games.

Twenty minutes. That's it.

Unexpectedly, but thoroughly, the Devils have dominated the Flyers.

Not in a Pittsburgh Penguins sort of way, a "10 goals in 60 minutes" clusterfuck that leaves a team dazed but intact. New Jersey has been slow and methodical. Their forecheck has been excellent, and so has their puck movement. They're in front of every Flyers shot, and they're winning every single board battle.

They're not reinventing the wheel, nor are they doing anything that Peter Laviolette and his team haven't seen before.

And yet it's all still working. The Flyers have no answer for any of it. Game 4 was their chance to take back the series, and it ended up being maybe their worst effort of the playoffs.

A good deal of it appears to be hustle and hard work, or a complete lack thereof. Wayne Simmonds will give up the puck if you blow on him, and Jaromir Jagr just looks out of gas. Poorly timed line changes, taking frustrated penalties, a failure to backcheck properly; they've committed all the cardinal sins.

At first it seemed like the Flyers were looking past the Devils; now they just look flummoxed. Some have even suggested that the younger guys were thrown off their game by the wackiness of the Penguins series and aren't sure how to readjust to this type of pressure.

I just can't see how that could be the case, or even an excuse. Besides a series of hidden injuries that are crippling the team's best players, there are no excuses. Until that bit of information comes out (and you know it will, at least a little), all we can say for sure is that Peter DeBoer is outcoaching Peter Laviolette, and the Devils are outworking the Flyers.

The sad part is, the good Ilya Bryzgalov finally showed up for Game 4. And he was OK at worst, solid at best for Games 2 and 3. On a list of what's wrong with the team, Bryz doesn't even crack my top 10.

But it doesn't matter at this point. Even at his best, Bryz isn't close to what Jonathan Quick or Mike Smith have been in these playoffs; I don't see him outright stealing one game, let alone three. Especially if the Devils keep camping out in the Flyers' end. And I see no reason to believe they won't; the Flyers have convinced me that whatever they had going for them previously is irreparably broken.

This is a young team with a lot of promise and some legitimate stars-in-the-making. Their future remains bright. But after taking down Pittsburgh, I thought the future might be now. At the very least, I thought a Rangers/Flyers match-up in the Eastern Conference Finals was all but a certainty.

It would seem that most of us looked past the New Jersey Devils. Or maybe we gave the Flyers far too much credit for beating a sloppy Penguins team. Either way, short of a miracle that, in my mind, would be equally as impressive as coming back against Boston in 2010, tonight's game should be the season's last in Philadelphia.

As my dad texted me late on Sunday night, "I am running out of years for another Cup. Hopefully it'll happen before I am senile." He'll be 54 in a few days. I still like his odds, but a week ago I liked them a hell of a lot more.

May 3, 2012

Tonight, tonight.

For about 50 hours, the Philadelphia Flyers seemed unbeatable.

After one of the worst first periods you'll ever see, the Flyers dominated Game 1 against the New Jersey Devils, the 4-3 final tally not reflecting how badly the Devils were outmatched over the last 30 minutes.

And once Matt Read tallied an early goal two days later in Game 2, the confidence came in waves. The Flyers were just more talented than the Devils. New Jersey was nothing more than a speed-bump on the way to a destined Eastern Conference Finals showdown with the New York Rangers.

But then, just like that, the tide started to turn. The Devils started applying pressure. None of the Flyers' shots from the point were getting through. The ice, as it so often does in the Stanley Cup playoffs, was beginning to tilt.

Thankfully, Ilya Bryzgalov was tending goal like a $51 million man should. The second period was probably Bryz's most impressive as a Flyer: 12 saves, a key postseason game, almost all the action in his own end.

And it should've been a rally starter. Your goalie -- and the horn -- save the day, and a quick locker-room pep talk gets everyone's legs moving for the final 20 minutes.

But not on Tuesday night. After a brief early Flyer flurry in the third, the Devils finally snuck one past Bryzgalov. Then another one. The third was a dagger; the fourth, an afterthought.

Suddenly, the Devils were looking a lot more pesky. And the Flyers seemed flabbergasted. They, like the rest of us, must've thought it was already over.

Maybe they were already looking past New Jersey. Maybe they just forgot that every team in the Stanley Cup playoffs, even the ones that were lucky enough to play Florida in the first round, are dangerous.

Whatever it was, they can make up for it tonight. Come out, battle like you battled in Game 6 of the Pittsburgh series and beat the tar out of New Jersey on their home ice. The series is back in your hands, and everybody remembers that it's supposed to be Flyers and the Rangers dueling for a shot at the Stanley Cup.

But Jaromir Jagr suddenly looks very old, and nobody fully trusts Bryz, and Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle are being relied on for a buttload of minutes. The Flyers are more talented, but how much more talented? And nothing in the hockey postseason, not even talent, guarantees victory.

Besides, it was supposed to be Phillies/Rangers in the 2010 World Series. Hell, it was supposed to be Phillies/Rangers last year, too. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley: It didn't matter. In the end, being the better team wasn't enough. The hottest, the smartest, the timeliest; that's what counted.

If the Flyers don't play smart, timely hockey and recapture that momentum, much like the Rangers did last night in DC, then this seemingly inevitable date with destiny might end up being nothing more than a pipe dream.