Saturday, February 28, 2015

My 2015 Women's Bracket

There are plenty of changes to the NCAA Women's Tournament this year.  For starters, they're moving the first day from Saturday to Friday.  All in preparation for two years from now, when the Final Four moves back to Friday-Sunday like it should be instead of the ridiculous Sunday-Tuesday it's been for the past few years. 

They've also done away with predetermined first- and second-round sites.  Over the past few years, there have been too many instances of a higher seed playing a road game in the NCAA Tournament, and they've also been limited as to where in the bracket they could put certain teams because they were hosting.  Worst yet, if a team was hosting but didn't get in, there goes the attendance.  So now the top 16 seeds host, providing they're able, which will help attendance in all rounds and give the 16 best teams an advantage they deserve.

The NCAA announced the top teams a few weeks ago, giving us some idea of who might end up hosting.  That doesn't mean the list is limited to those teams, but it made the picture a little clearer, and it'd be very surprising to see someone else be selected as a host.  The only exception to that rule is Princeton.  The undefeated Tigers are looking at a No. 5 or No. 6 seed, but were smart enough to put in to host.  And since Louisville will probably get a top four seed, but is hosting the men's tournament and, therefore, can't host the women's, I think we're going to end up seeing NCAA Tournament games in Princeton, New Jersey (which is weird, since the NCAA made this big point of taking NCAA events away from New Jersey since they legalized sports gambling).

Anyway, the top four overall seeds in the Tournament seem to be pretty clear, and I doubt they'll change.  UConn is the best team in the nation, and the defending champions will be the No. 1 overall seed.  While I don't think South Carolina is as good as their ranking, they're still a solid 1-seed, as is Tennessee, which I think is the second-best team in the nation.  The fourth 1-seed is a little more up for grabs, but it should go to Notre Dame.  We won't get a National Championship Game rematch, though.  Because I've got UConn and Notre Dame matched up in the Final Four.

Other than UConn going to Albany, the regional hosting gets a little wacky.  Someone has to go out west, and since Notre Dame's the lowest 1-seed, they get sent to Spokane.  And I've got South Carolina with the No. 2 overall, so they get Greensboro and Tennessee goes to Oklahoma City.  The interesting part is that I've got 2-seeds that are closer geographically than the 1-seeds in those two regions.  Let's take a look at what I'm talking about...

ALBANY
Storrs, CT: (16) Norfolk State at (1) Connecticut, (8) Pittsburgh vs. (9) Northwestern
Lexington, KY: (13) Drake at (4) Kentucky, (5) North Carolina vs. (12) Quinnipiac
Iowa City, IA: (14) James Madison at (3) Iowa, (6) Mississippi State vs. (11) Texas
Tallahassee, FL: (15) Central Connecticut at (2) Florida State, (7) DePaul vs. (10) Middle Tennessee

SPOKANE
Notre Dame, IN: (16) Southern at (1) Notre Dame, (8) Dayton vs. (9) Ohio State
Stanford, CA: (13) Fresno State at (4) Stanford, (5) Texas A&M vs. (12) Gonzaga
Stillwater, OK: (14) Stephen F. Austin at (3) Oklahoma State, (6) Syracuse vs. (11) St. John's
Corvallis, OR: (15) Montana at (2) Oregon State, (7) Minnesota vs. (10) Tulane

GREENSBORO
Columbia, SC: (16) Tennessee-Martin at (1) South Carolina, (8) Florida Gulf Coast vs. (9) Oklahoma
Durham, NC: (13) Ohio at (4) Duke, (5) George Washington vs. (12) Green Bay
Princeton, NJ: (3) Louisville vs. (14) Troy, (11) LSU at (6) Princeton
College Park, MD: (15) Army at (2) Maryland, (7) Seton Hall vs. (10) Georgia

OKLAHOMA CITY
Knoxville, TN: (16) Liberty at (1) Tennessee, (8) Chattanooga vs. (9) Nebraska
Berkeley, CA: (13) South Dakota State at (4) California, (5) Rutgers vs. (12) New Mexico
Tempe, AZ: (14) Hawaii at (3) Arizona State, (6) South Florida vs. (11) Iowa State
Waco, TX: (15) Albany at (2) Baylor, (7) Washington vs. (10) Miami

Conference Breakdown: ACC (8), Big Ten (7), SEC (7), Big 12 (5), Pac-12 (5), American (3), Big East (3), Atlantic 10 (2)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

My 2015 Men's Bracket

As we come up on March, that means everyone's attention is going to turn to college basketball.  Kentucky's pursuit of perfection has been making headlines, but they're still a long way from a national title.  It's obvious that the Wildcats are a cut above the rest, though.  And they'll be the no-brainer No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament even if they lose their remaining regular season games and their first game in the SEC Tournament.

So, it was an easy call to put Kentucky as the overall No. 1 in my mock bracket (which is obviously subject to change with two weeks left until Selection Sunday).  Two of my other three 1-seeds come out of the ACC, which has probably been the best conference this season.  Duke, which I think is the second-best team in the nation, is No. 2 overall, and I've got Virginia at No. 3, although I don't think the Cavaliers are as good as their one-loss record suggests.  The fourth No. 1 was a close call between Gonzaga and Wisconsin, but the one loss for Gonzaga was enough to trump last year's Final Four team, which gets the highest No. 2.

With those being the four No. 1 seeds, that sets up Final Four matchups of Midwest (Kentucky vs. West (Gonzaga) and East (Duke) vs. South (Virginia).   Kentucky's in the Midwest instead of the South because the regional's in Cleveland, while Duke gets the East and Syracuse as opposed to the South and Houston as the higher overall seed.

And now for the bracket...

MIDWEST (Cleveland)
Louisville: (1) Kentucky vs. (16) Eastern Washington/North Carolina Central, (8) Pittsburgh vs. (9) Cincinnati
Charlotte: (4) North Carolina vs. (13) Central Michigan, (5) Wichita State vs. (12) UCLA/Illinois
Columbus: (3) Notre Dame vs. (14) North Dakota State, (6) Georgetown vs. (11) Oregon
Columbus: (2) Wisconsin vs. (15) James Madison, (7) Mississippi vs. (10) Dayton

WEST (Los Angeles)
Seattle: (1) Gonzaga vs. (16) Lehigh, (8) Texas A&M vs. (9) Davidson
Jacksonville: (4) Louisville vs. (13) Murray State, (5) Baylor vs. (12) Iona
Omaha: (3) Iowa State vs. (14) UTEP, (6) Butler vs. (11) Purdue
Seattle: (2) Utah vs. (15) Texas Southern, (7) Indiana vs. (10) San Diego State

EAST (Syracuse)
Charlotte: (1) Duke vs. (16) St. Francis Brooklyn/Charleston Southern, (8) Tulsa vs. (9) St. John's
Jacksonville: (4) Oklahoma vs. (13) Valparaiso, (5) Arkansas vs. (12) Harvard
Pittsburgh: (3) Maryland vs. (14) Georgia State, (6) West Virginia vs. (11) NC State/Stanford
Pittsburgh: (2) Villanova vs. (15) Florida Gulf Coast, (7) Michigan State vs. (10) LSU

SOUTH (Houston)
Louisville: (1) Virginia vs. (16) Stony Brook, (8) Xavier vs. (9) Georgia
Portland: (4) Northern Iowa vs. (13) New Mexico State, (5) VCU vs. (12) Stephen F. Austin
Portland: (3) Arizona vs. (14) UC Davis, (6) SMU vs. (11) Colorado State
Omaha: (2) Kansas vs. (15) Chattanooga, (7) Providence vs. (10) Iowa

Conference Breakdown: ACC (7), Big Ten (7), Big East (6), SEC (6), Big 12 (5), Pac-12 (5), American (3), Atlantic 10 (3), Missouri Valley (2), Mountain West (2)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Anatomy of a Miracle

It's really cool that this weekend they had a Miracle on Ice reunion in Lake Placid on the 35th anniversary of the game.  People say they remember where they were when Kennedy was shot, when man landed on the Moon, when the Challenger exploded, on 9/11 and when the Miracle on Ice happened.  Well, I wasn't alive for three of those events, was three when the Challenger exploded and was in class on 9/11.  But, the fact that I'm younger than the Miracle on Ice doesn't mean I don't get its significance or get choked up at the mere mention of the game, which I've watched on ESPN Classic several times.  I cry at the end of Miracle and chant "U-S-A! U-S-A!" every time I see it.

I can't believe it took this long for a full-scale Miracle on Ice reunion.  The whole team lit the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony of the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, but Mark Pavelich was missing.  And they've gotten 19 of the 20 together at various other times, including the funeral of Herb Brooks, but never all 20.  This is as close as they've ever gotten.  All 19 living members were there, including Pavelich.  The only exception was Bob Suter, who died in September.  Suter was there, too.  In spirit.  His jersey was raised to the rafters as the final part of the ceremony.

Lake Placid was the perfect place for the reunion.  Because not only was it the site of their triumph, it also serves as a reminder that the Miracle on Ice can never happen again.  And the most ironic part of that is fact that the Miracle on Ice is exactly why the Miracle on Ice can never happen again.  It was truly a special moment in sports history, nestled into its tiny hamlet in Upstate New York.  That's where the memories belong.  Which is why Lake Placid was really the only place you could hold such a reunion.

The Olympics have changed a lot in 35 years.  That's why the Miracle on Ice will live on in history as something that can never be repeated.  The biggest change is the existence of social media.  Back in 1980, ABC was able to air the 5:00 game in prime time on tape delay with nobody finding out the results ahead of time.  NBC was criticized for its tape-delayed primetime coverage in London and Sochi, when showing stuff live in primetime was impossible!  But 35 years ago, that's just the way things were.  They didn't have Facebook and Twitter and bloggers and 24-hour news channels there to spoil the surprise ahead of time.

Then there's the venue.  Lake Placid is a small village of 2500 people that has a total area of 1.5 square miles.  It's in the middle of nowhere.  A tiny town in the Adirondack Mountains that's only about an hour from the Canadian border.  The hockey arena seats only 7,700 people and the speed skating oval of Eric Heiden's exploits was in the parking lot of the high school.  The Olympic Village is now a prison.

Yet this is a place that has hosted the Winter Olympics twice.  As the Olympics have gotten bigger and bigger, they've outgrown places like Lake Placid.  In a way that's sad.  Because these quaint little villages give the Olympics a unique kind of charm that larger cities can't.  Yet it's only the larger cities that can afford the Winter Olympics now.  It's no coincidence that the three largest cities ever to host the Winter Olympics were three of the last four hosts--Vancouver (2010), Torino (2006) and Salt Lake City (2002).  All of Lake Placid's Olympic memories are in the past.

And, of course, there were some serious political overtones in Lake Placid.  It was the midst of the Cold War.  The Soviet Union had troops in Afghanistan, the U.S. was threatening to (and eventually did) boycott the Moscow Summer Games, and tensions between the two countries were at an all-time high.  Well, the Cold War is over and politics, for the most part, have been kept out of the Olympics since it ended.  It's about the competition.  Like it should be.

Finally, there are the players themselves.  In 1980, the U.S. Olympic hockey team consisted of 20 college kids.  Amateurs you've never heard of that became household names because of what they did in the Olympics.  Nowadays, the Olympic hockey tournament is a star-studded affair featuring multi-million-dollar professionals.  I'm not complaining about that.  It's the best players in the world competing against each other for their native countries.  But it's also a level playing field.  You don't have the American amateurs taking on the very best of Russia's state-run sports system.  It's not David vs. Goliath anymore.

None of this is an indictment of what the Olympics has become.  I'm too young to remember the Olympics being anything different than what they are now.  But I kind of wish my "memories" of the Miracle on Ice were from having actually experienced it.  I'll never know how special that moment 35 years ago actually was.  It's impossible for me to.  All I have is what that moment means to me.  And that's still a lot.

"Do you believe in miracles?"  You're damn right I do, Al.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

NASCAR and the Movies

With the Daytona 500 and the Academy Awards falling on the same day this year, I was trying to figure out some sort of Oscar/NASCAR blog as today's post.  It's tough coming up with coming up with a post about two things that are so completely unrelated.  But then it dawned on me, "Why don't I just do one on the best NASCAR movies?"  There haven't been many, but there's certainly been enough for a list of the top ones.

As it turns out, the list of good NASCAR movies is fairly short.  Even if all forms of racing were included, you'd have films like Rush on the list, but it still wouldn't have that many that could truly be classified as "quality" movies.  It's so bad, that I was even considering ranking movies like 3, that terrible ESPN original about Dale Earnhardt they made when they were trying to break into scripted programming in the mid-2000s.  That very good IMAX movie about the history of NASCAR doesn't count because it's a documentary and I want this list to only include movies that have some sort of plot.

Another great documentary, Senna, doesn't qualify, either, mainly because Ayrton Senna wasn't a NASCAR driver.  He raced in Formula One.  If I did include those two movies on the list, Rush and Senna would probably rank 1-2.  But as it is, I think there are really only three movies with NASCAR-based plots that could really be considered true Hollywood classics.

The first doesn't even include real people.  Well, not really anyway.  It's Cars.  My three-year-old nephew is obsessed with this movie, and I can see why.  It really is a good movie.  I'd argue that Cars 2 is slightly better, but I'm not going to give the nod to the sequel when the original was just as good.  His favorite character is Lightning McQueen, while I'm partial to Mater.  If you don't know who McQueen and Mater are, I suggest watching Cars.  You won't be disappointed.

Ranked No. 2 on my list of greatest NASCAR movies is the Will Ferrell flick Talladega Nights.  As stupid as a majority of Will Ferrell's movies are, Talladega Nights is one of the best.  Don't get me wrong.  It's also incredibly stupid.  But it's great all the same.  One of the best things about this movie, which was pointed out in something I was watching, I just don't remember what, is that in a movie called Talladega NIGHTS, there isn't a single scene that takes place at night.

Both of those movies pale in comparison to the greatest NASCAR movie of all-time, though.  That movie, of course, is Days of Thunder.  It's actually the 25th anniversary of this American classic, which still ranks as one of Tom Cruise's best.  It's also the movie that introduced us all to Nicole Kidman, so extra points for that.

NASCAR die-hards by and large hate Days of Thunder, and the critics aren't really big fans of it either.  But there's no denying that the movie helped bring NASCAR into the mainstream.  It also helps that Cole Trickle, Cruise's character, was this young, good-looking guy from California breaking into the primarily Southern sport.  The real life Cole Trickle is Jeff Gordon, who was just beginning his brilliant career at right around the same time Days of Thunder came out.  Love him or hate him, Jeff Gordon has been the Face of NASCAR for the better part of two decades.

I'm sure there are others that I either haven't seen or forgot about, but Cars, Talladega Nights and Days of Thunder are my three favorite NASCAR movies of all-time.  None of them won any Oscars (nor did they deserve to), but they all have a special place in sports movie annals.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Lot to Talk About

There sure was a lot that happened in the world of sports today.  From baseball to football to NASCAR to soccer.  Even the NBA got into the act.

We'll start in NASCAR, which had perhaps the biggest news of all.  With the Daytona 500 coming up on Sunday, Kurt Busch has been suspended indefinitely.  This all stems from the domestic situation involving Busch and his former girlfriend.  A Delaware court pressed charges against him today, and NASCAR took swift action by keeping Busch on the sidelines until the matter is resolved.  Who knows how long his suspension is going to last, but NASCAR absolutely made the right move here.  Having Busch on the track wouldn't have been good for the sport.  Especially after everything that happened in the NFL this season.

Also on the NASCAR front, Jeff Gordon will be on the pole for his final Daytona 500.  He's announced his retirement at the end of the 2015 season, with his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame promptly coming as soon as he's eligible.  While I think this was Gordon's choice, the timing is convenient for Hendrick Motorsports.  They were looking for a car for Graham Elliott, who won the Busch Series title last year and appears to be as close to a sure thing as there is.  He'll take over Gordon's ride, which I'm sure will be renumbered.  He'll have a lot of pressure on him, but the last guy to take over for a legend worked out pretty well.  Kevin Harvick is the defending Sprint Cup champion.

Another retiring superstar is Kobe Bryant.  Kobe made his announcement today.  The 2015-16 season will be his last.  Again, I think this was a smart move.  And the timing was right.  Kobe Bryant's a shell of his former self, and so are the Lakers.  He's been injured pretty much nonstop for the last two years.  This eliminates all the questions.  Next season is it.  Kobe can have a Jeteresque retirement tour.  Injuries might derail the plan, but now we have some finality about it.  My only question is whether or not Kobe will be in Rio as a part of Team USA.

Peyton Manning is a subject of retirement rumors, too.  After the Broncos' playoff loss, when he revealed he'd been playing hurt for like a month, Peyton said he'd take some time to think about the future.  He's still thinking about it, but it looks like Peyton's leaning towards returning.  The Broncos want him to take a pay cut, but they want him back.  I think he wants to come back, too.  He's not going to end his career that way.  And this isn't going to turn into a Brett Favre thing.  When he wants to retire, he'll mean it.  He isn't there yet, though.

He'll definitely be retired before this happens, but the weirdest NFL story I've ever seen involves two of Denver's AFC West rivals.  Apparently the Chargers and Raiders are both interested in moving back to LA, and they're even talking about sharing the cost of building the stadium.  What?!  The Chargers and Raiders have hated each other for 50 years.  Now they're suddenly willing to work together so that they can both move.  To the same city!  And since the NFL wouldn't let them both stay in the AFC West, one would have to move to the NFC.  It's here that I again feel the need to point out that all four AFC West teams were original AFL clubs, with the rivalries between the four dating back to 1960.  For some reason, I don't see this happening.  One of them moving to LA?  Sure.  But they aren't both going there and sharing a stadium.  It sounds stupid to even be talking about it.

Oh, and it looks like the Patriots are going to come off scott-free in Deflategate.  Evidently a Patriots staffer put the underinflated balls in play because he was asked to by a former NFL employee who was trying to profit from game-used balls.  Really?  Sorry, but I still think there's more to this story.

Elsewhere in the NFL, the Lions GM has suggested that penalties become reviewable.  I like that idea.  He, of course, has a vested interest after the pass interference that wasn't in the Detroit-Dallas playoff game, but I agree with him.  If the officials miss an obvious penalty, or call one that clearly isn't, that should be something coaches can challenge.  Especially with the number of NFL games each week that turn on close calls like that.

Baseball's instant replay system is also undergoing a little bit of a change.  They're expanding it to include tag-up plays and the (incredibly stupid) collision rule.  And, as part of the wonderful "pace of play" initiative, managers can no longer casually stroll out while somebody else watches the video, then decide if they're going to challenge.  They've got to do it right away, and they're not allowed to leave the dugout.

That's just one of several new rules for this season that were originally suggested by the Pace of Play Committee.  We'll see how the batter's box rule works out, and I think the whole idea of clocks on the scoreboard is dumb (part of the beauty of baseball is that there is no clock), but I think these new rules could actually be somewhat OK.  My biggest worry was that they'd change the way the game was played as an overreaction to the length of games.  But what they've done isn't drastic enough to actually make a difference.  And I'm actually a pretty big proponent of shortening the breaks between innings and making the batter and pitcher both be ready to play as soon as the commercial's over.  Of course, that's not as much of a problem as the half-innings that take a half hour because of endless pitching changes, but this will definitely help.  And I kinda love the little twist of not getting all eight of your warmup pitches if you take too long to throw them.

Finally, we've got some news in the endless saga that is the 2022 World Cup.  FIFA has finally picked the dates, and it looks like we're going to have a November-December World Cup in Qatar.  That sure beats the February thing that some FIFA officials were pushing, but was never going to fly.  FIFA's not dumb enough to go against the Almaty/Beijing Winter Olympics, and they're the ones who screwed up, not the IOC, so it was up to them to change their dates, not the other way around.

The biggest concerns about the November-December World Cup was how the European club seasons would be affected, but they've got plenty of time to figure it out.  And I actually don't think it'll be as tough as everyone's making it out to be.  For starters, you won't need those international breaks that year, since no national teams would be playing anything other than friendlies in the lead-up to the World Cup.  All of those leagues take a Christmas break of roughly a month anyway, so you just make that break a week or two longer, start the season a week or two earlier and end a week or two later.  I mean, frankly, does it really make any difference if the Champions League final is on the first Saturday in June instead of the last Saturday in May?

November-December was the only solution to a problem that FIFA itself created.  Although I'm sure FOX isn't too thrilled about it.  They pay all this money to get the FIFA rights away from ESPN and they end up with a World Cup that's right in the heart of NFL season.  That World Cup Final, NFL doubleheader could be pretty cool, though.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Shot Clock's Running Down

The NCAA announced a couple weeks ago that during this year's NIT, they'll experiment with using a 30-second shot clock, as opposed to the 35 seconds that are used in the regular season.  While I question the timing of the announcement, and am opposed to the idea of having to adjust to a different rule only in the postseason, I'm very much on board with reducing the shot clock by five seconds.

I've always hated the fact that the shot clock in men's college basketball is 35 seconds.  There's absolutely no reason for it to be that long.  It's 30 seconds in the women's game, which is much lower-scoring.  If the women can handle 30, so can the men.  Especially since a shot's going up well before the 35 seconds runs out 95 percent of the time.

But even more significantly, the shot clock is 24 seconds in the NBA and international basketball.  That's 11 seconds less!  With a majority of NBA players coming out of the college ranks, wouldn't you want the college game to resemble the NBA game as much as possible?  Yet they leave college, go to the NBA and there's 11 seconds missing from the shot clock.  It makes no sense.  It also makes no sense that it's 35 in the NCAA and 24 internationally.  These guys go represent their countries in the offseason and they're using a 24-second shot clock, which doesn't seem to cause much of a problem.  Same thing with the foreign-born players who come to the U.S. for college.  They go from 24 to 35 back to 24.  Stupid.

When these teams go on offseason foreign tours, like Kentucky did over the summer to the Bahamas, they have to play by FIBA rules.  That means a 24-second shot clock.  And you know what?  It doesn't really effect them too much.  They're able to adjust just fine.  That should tell you all you need to know.  If you change the rules, they'll be able to handle it.  No experimentation process necessary.

It's ridiculous that the NCAA uses two separate shot clocks for men and women.  It's even more ridiculous that the women's rule is the one that makes more sense.  They moved the three-point line back for the men, then moved it back for the women a couple years later.  They only instituted the 10-second rule, at long last, for the women last year.  Yet there are still different shot clocks, and most people would agree that the 30 seconds used in the women's game is better.

FIBA's been trying to get as close to the NBA game as possible for a few years.  And they've done a good job.  The three-point line has been moved further back to where it's almost the same distance as in the NBA.  The lane has been extended to the same size as the NBA's.  The shot clock is 24 seconds.  All of these rule changes that they use internationally have worked fine.  Yet the NCAA hasn't followed suit, sticking with the outdated 35-second shot clock in men's games.

Well, that's about to change.  The NIT is just the beginning.  A majority of men's coaches favor reducing the shot clock, and the rule change is likely to take effect next season.  It'll speed up the game and create more offense, but more importantly, it'll make the game more uniform at different levels.  Some of the coaches favor going all the way to 24, but I think they'll make the more modest adjustment to 30, which is why they're going to try it in the NIT first.

This is a change that, in my opinion, is long overdue.  But they should wait to implement it until next season.  It will probably work out fine in the NIT, but changing a rule for a postseason tournament that you don't use in the regular season is always odd.  Like when the NFL changed overtime for the playoffs, but didn't change it in the regular season until a couple years later. 

Yes, the NHL plays it out in playoff overtime rather than a shootout and grand slam tennis matches everywhere but the US Open don't have tiebreakers in the final set, but I think you see my point.  Those rule differences go way back and have long been accepted as part of the game.  They weren't arbitrarily instituted in the middle of the season.

Again, I'm not opposed to the rule change.  Quite the opposite, actually.  I just don't see any reason to start it so soon.  A rule change for next year should be just that.  A rule change for next year.  They don't need to test out the 30-second shot clock.  Mainly because everyone knows it's going to work.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Yankees Announce the Inevitable

We all knew when the Yankees decided last year, during Derek Jeter's Farewell Tour, that Monument Park wasn't full enough, that the three number retirement/plaque dedication ceremonies in 2014 were just the beginning.  We already knew that the Bernie Williams number retirement was going to be this year.  But the Yankees also announced today that Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada will be joining him on the wall, while Willie Randolph will be getting a plaque.

Some critics/Yankee haters might say this is overkill, but which of the four can you honestly say is undeserving?  My only concern is how they're going to fit four more numbers on the wall, which got filled up with Joe Torre's No. 6 last year.

Willie Randolph's Monument Park plaque seems long overdue.  He was a Yankee for 13 years and a team captain.  He played more games at second base than anyone else in franchise history, won two World Series rings as a player, then four more as a coach.  Willie's not at the same level as the players from the 90s dynasty, which is why he's not having his number retired, but he's definitely worthy of a plaque in Monument Park.

No one has worn No. 51 since Bernie's final game in pinstripes.  We all knew it was going to be retired eventually.  He was the heart and soul of the dynasty, playing center field, hitting in the middle of the lineup, always coming up with the clutch hit.  Bernie Williams was the consummate Yankee.  For 16 years.  He's up there on every all-time list in the major hitting categories, and he has more postseason home runs (22) and RBIs (80) than anyone else in franchise history. 

Andy Petttitte?  Another no-brainer.  This is the one that got the most reaction.  Chuck Knoblauch, that Yankee legend himself, for one, thinks Pettitte's being named in the Mitchell Report should get him blackballed by all of baseball for all eternity.  Never mind the fact that Pettitte immediately admitted what he did and why (to speed up recovery from an injury) and apologized for it, then went on with his career and was just as effective as before. 

But those that don't have grudges against Andy Pettitte acknowledge that he holds a place among the greatest pitchers in franchise history.  Five World Series rings, more postseason wins than anybody else, started and won the clincher in all three playoff series in 2009.  He also started more games than any other Yankees pitcher, has the most strikeouts in franchise history, and 219 wins is third.  Pettitte's going to get a lot of Hall of Fame support once he becomes eligible.  Putting No. 46 on the wall was as inevitable as No. 51 going up.  And just as appropriate.

Posada's probably the one that's going to give people the most trouble.  Well, you know what, he might not be as deserving as some of the others, but I think most Yankee fans would agree that Posada deserves to have his number retired nonetheless.  After all, he won five World Series rings in 17 seasons, and that longevity is one of the things about Posada that was the most appreciated.  Besides, there's one overriding thing that made his number retirement seem likely.  He's the fourth member of the Core Four.  Derek and Mariano are first-ballot Hall of Famers, and Petttitte's number was definitely getting retired.  Such a tradition-rich organization wasn't going to recognize three-quarters of this group without celebrating all four.

As soon as each of these three players retired, I knew it was only a matter of time before the Yankees retired Nos. 20, 46 and 51.  There's a reason they haven't handed any of them out since Bernie, Jorge and Andy retired.  Aside from the LaTroy Hawkins debacle, no Yankee has worn 21 in 15 years, either.  I know he got a plaque last year (I made it a point to go to that game just so I could be at the ceremony), but Paul O'Neill deserves one more honor.  He should be on the wall next to his four teammates.

Notice I said four teammates.  The fourth is fairly obvious.  Derek Jeter Day won't be this season, but I think that's on purpose.  He's one of the most revered players in franchise history.  He was the last Yankee ever to wear a single-digit number.  But he was also the last guy from the dynasty to retire.  And as such, they want to put No. 2 on the wall after the others.  When Derek Jeter's number goes on the wall, it will truly close the book on the Yankees' dynasty of the 1990s.  That book's not complete, however, without the chapters about Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Paul O'Neill and Willie Randolph.