Monthly archives: April 2007
Weekend Recap: In Which Phil Makes Happy Faces
Some weekend for the defending champs of the world. The Bulls extinguished the Heat, as the hoary pun goes, in glorious fashion a sweep, in fact. Nine or ten years ago I'd have been far more excited about such an occurrence, but Michael Jordan's (second) retirement, the subsequent dismantling of the team, and the horrible mismanagement that followed made losing interest pretty easy. I instead devoted my full attention to baseball. But as a former basketball nut, I do appreciate the significance of the Bulls' first playoff series win against the defending champs, no less since I last really paid attention to the team.
The Cubs had a chance to accomplish a similar feat: A sweep of the defending champs. Granted, the Cubs aren't in the playoffs, and they have won a playoff series within the decade, but if it's close enough for me, shouldn't it be for you, too?
But, as you well know, the Cubs' hopes for a sweep were dashed due to the untimely death of Cards pitcher Josh Hancock. With Sunday's game postponed, the Cubs still managed a sweep of the abbreviated series, I suppose, if you want to get technical. "Series" denotes continuity, so the makeup game, whenever it's scheduled for, won't truly be a part of the series. And a series can be two games.
The point is, I'll take all the chances to gloat ("Remember when we swept you in April," I'll say to Cardinal-loving friends) that I can get. But it is unfortunate that it comes under such tragic circumstances.
Now to the games:
When Baseball Doesn't Matter
Tonight's Cubs-Cardinals game has been postponed due to the death of Cardinals reliever Josh Hancock. He was 29.
We Cub fans have seen it all this season: Wild pitches, passed balls, errors, picked off baserunners, overslid bags, missed bags, failed sac bunts, etc., etc. Heck, Cub pitchers are already leading the Central in walks!
The Cubs aren't going to get anywhere with such poor fundamental play. But perhaps we should take solace in knowing that the current situation...
... can't really get much worse. Last place is last place no matter how bad the record. (The funny thing about the diagram: History says it can easily be read right to left. Yes, it's sad, I know.)
Bullpen and hitting woes aside, the Cubs' real problem is in the fundamentals. Lou Piniella promised a fundamentally sound club, and it's nice to know he's at least trying to make good on his word by bringing in Bobby Dernier:
But only if Piniella and his staff make good on their promise will the team have a chance at October. The players will hit, but it won't do much good if they can't run the bases, field the ball, throw strikes, or just generally play smart ball. Even Matt Murton, supposedly a smart player on the diamond, has fallen prey.
The problem is there. Whether or not it's fixable has yet to be determined...
Cubs At The Plate: A Mixed Bag
Some team stats, with NL rank.
BA/OBP/SLG Overall: .272/.327/.412 (3rd, 9th, 7th)
w/ None On: .271/.327/.419 (4th, 5th, 6th)
w/ Runners On: .274/.328/.403 (4th, 12th, 8th)
w/ RISP: .257/.318/.369 (6th, 14th, 9th)
w/ RISP, 2 Outs: .213/.293/.303 (9th, 15th, 12th)
w/ Bases Loaded: .455/.417/.545 (1st, 2nd, 4th)
Close and Late: .197/.284/.235 (16th, 15th, 16th)
Innings 1-6: .297/.338/.465 (1st, 7th, 4th)
Innings 7+: .222/.306/.302 (14th, 14th, 16th)
GDP: 18 (4th most)
Cubs Win; Lee Homers
9-3 was the score. Derrek Lee took advantage of a fat pitch on the inner half and drove it to left for his first home run of the season.
Is my timing great, or what?
What's Wrong With Derrek Lee?
Much hullaballo has been made about Derrek Lee, or "The Savior" as he's known around these parts, and his lack of power – most noticable is his zero home runs. Thanks to nine doubles, his slugging percentage remains a respectable .481. But that number is far below his 2005 rate of .662, and is even surpassed by his career rate of .500.
So what, if anything, is wrong with Lee? Here are some notable trends.
Quite obviously (thanks to the graph from FanGraphs), Lee is hitting far more line drives and fewer fly balls this season than at any other point in his career. Since home runs almost always come on fly balls, it makes sense for Lee's power output to be down. For example, Alex Rodriguez, leading the Universe in every category possible, has hit fly balls on an astonishing half of all balls in play. With his powerful swing behind those fly balls, A-Rod's home run total has skyrocketed. It's possible that a similar jump in fly ball percentage could do wonders for Lee.
Smarter Pitchers: I can't say with certainty the reason for Lee's drop in power, or his sudden propensity for hard-hit liners, but the most likely cause is opposing pitchers. As mentioned in the comments of my last post, pitchers refuse to throw Lee anything on the inner half of the plate, instead content to pound the outside corner. When Lee was at the top of his game in 2005, he was hitting most of his home runs to left (see this chart). Pitchers have since wised up and are forcing Lee to hit to the opposite field, something he's doing successfully (.367 AVG) so far – but with no home run power. If Lee has opposite field power, and I think he does, he's going to have to start showing it, because pitchers are not giving him anything inside. It may take a serious change in approach, but it's a necessary one.
BABIP: Lee's Batting Average on Balls In Play is well above average – a consequence of Lee's line-drive hitting ways. From the Hardball Times:
Currently, Lee's BABIP is an incredible and unsustainable .468. This is a direct result of his high line drive percentage, which in turn is tied to Lee's high batting average. While a high BABIP is not necessarily a bad thing, since it does help out production, it is a point of concern here because of its direct relation to line drive percentage. If Lee's BABIP drops, a declining line drive percentage will probably be the reason. Ideally, Lee should replace some line drives with fly balls, and his home runs should increase accordingly. The end result should be the Lee of years past.
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Putting It Together: The point here is this: Lee is still managing to put together a productive season (.367 AVG, .457 OBP, .481 SLG, .938 OPS), despite his lack of home runs, thanks to an incredibly high BABIP, which, as mentioned above, is due to his line drive percentage. If Lee stops hitting line drives and doesn't start hitting fly balls with opposite field power, his value is greatly diminished. Pitchers seem to have figured out how to contain Lee's power, and perhaps that change in approach has led to Lee's increase in line drives. Or maybe Lee is trying to hit for power to right, but line drives are all that is coming of it...
Any way you look at it, Lee's in a bad spot. The Cubs need home runs from him, but by hitting the necessary fly balls to do so, he will see a massive drop in BABIP and his non-slugging numbers. And if Lee hits more fly balls but still doesn't show any power, the Cubs are stuck in an even worse situation.
The Injured And The Inevitable
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The Cubs will skip Miller's turn in the rotation this week, and Angel Guzman will take it over on May 1.
The Cubs should have given Guzman the spot out of spring training. He certainly wouldn't have done worse than Miller (10.54 ERA).
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As for Prior, I only have a handful of words: I would not be surprised if he never again makes a major league start.
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It is true that the Cubs have scored more runs than they've allowed (83 vs. 72). It's also true that the Cubs are sitting at 7-11, last in the Central. But what worries me about the run differential, and makes me think the Cubs really are playing like a 7-11 team, is the mix of blowout wins and 1-2 run losses. Seven of the team's losses have been by one or two runs, while the team has won by scores of 9-3, 7-0 and 12-4. If anything, that tells me the Cubs have played exactly as their record indicates, not above it. Until the Cubs can win the close games, doing the proverbial "little things" right (like getting bunts down, staying on the bag, running the bases wisely, etc.), they won't get over .500.
Bizarro Ball: Cardinals 2, Cubs 1
That had to have been one of the strangest games I've ever witnessed in person.
I guess I should have known – these are the Cubs, after all – that when Mark DeRosa couldn't find first base in the bottom of the first, there was more to come. DeRosa was trying to beat the throw from second to break up a double play. The throw from second was wide, drawing Albert Pujols off the base; DeRosa avoided the tag, but then missed first base. Pujols ran over and put the tag on DeRosa to end the inning.
The game moved smoothly through six. Ted Lilly was impressive again, keeping the Cards scoreless – until the seventh. Lilly's only mistakes on the day were a seventh inning walk to Jim Edmonds (he should have been an easy out) and a home run to Preston Wilson two pitches later. Even so, it was an excellent outing (7 IP, 4 H, 2 ER), and Lilly deserved to get a win.
But the Cubs' offense remains inept. They had several genuine scoring opportunities, but couldn't score more than a run. Take the first inning, as mentioned above. With one run already in and runners on first and second with one out, DeRosa couldn't get the job done, instead grounding into his odd double play. DeRosa squashed any hopes of a score in the fourth, too, with another double play groundout.
And then there was the seventh. Henry Blanco stepped up to the plate, runners on first and second and nobody out, with one objective: Get a bunt down, and advance the runners. Instead, he popped up a bunt attempt, prompting one of the oddest plays I've seen in a while.
The ball was popped about five feet up in the air, and roughly a few steps ahead of home plate. Blanco hardly moved, but Cards catcher Yadier Molina jumped at the ball, and Blanco happened to be in the way. Molina gave Blanco what looked to be a bear hug as he reached for the ball. I couldn't tell from my seat if the ball was caught, though ultimately it didn't matter. Molina grabbed the ball, threw to second to force out Jones, the runner at first. Then the ball went to third, where DeRosa was tagged out on his way to the base from second, and then back to first, for the force on Blanco.
The umps initially ruled it a triple play, and I'll admit, I was very confused. Piniella came charging out of the dugout, trying to figure out what happened. The umps conferred and decided Blanco was out on batter's interference and the play dead. The runners were returned to first and second, only one out recorded. Still a solid scoring opportunity. But Cesar Izturis struck out, as did pinch hitter Daryl Ward, and the inning was over, with the Cubs still down a run.
The Cubs and Cards traded zeros in the eighth, and Bob Howry and Neil Cotts combined for a scoreless ninth. The Cubs' situation entering the bottom of the ninth could have been worse, though. Leading off the top of the inning, Edmonds lifted a ball down the left field line, and Cliff Floyd made an ill-fated diving attempt at it. Edmonds ended up at third, with none out. But Howry and Cotts did their jobs, and the Cubs were still down just one run.
After Aramis Ramirez flied out leading off the inning, Mark DeRosa singled, then was removed for pinch runner Ronny Cedeno (Note to Lou: BAD IDEA). With a three ball count on the next batter, Jacque Jones, Cedeno took off for second. The pitch was a ball, giving Cedeno the base, but Ronny paid no attention. He overslid the bag and was tagged out, leaving the Cubs' momentum clearly destroyed. Lou argued the call, and the crowd wanted to see a tantrum, but nothing came of it. At this point, fans in the bleachers began, unfortunately, showering the outfield with trash, and cries of "Bull----" filled the stadium. Matt Murton popped out on the first pitch he saw, and the game was over. In all, a deflating and bizarre loss.
(I was going to take some pictures, and this would have been a great game for them, but I forgot the camera at home. I'm still kicking myself.)
Pie Up As Soriano Goes Down
It's been a tumultuous two days for the Cubs, not to mention for me. They're high, then low, good, then bad. It's been enough to give anyone a good case of vertigo.
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According to Cubs.com, Alfonso Soriano isn't expected to spend any time on the DL:
Felix Pie, called up to fill in for Soriano, was impressive in his debut, highlighted by a picture-perfect throw from center in the 10th to nail Russell Branyan at the plate and keep the score knotted at three. Sorry Alfonso, but we won't miss your glovework – not with Pie in center.
As for Pie's future with the club, it's all but certain that he'll be returned to AAA when Soriano returns to the lineup. By that time, Wade Miller, who was again unspectacular in the Cubs' loss, will have had another start, in which he hopefully convinces Hendry that Angel Guzman, not Miller, belongs in the rotation. Guzman, of 2.45 ERA in 7.1 innings and 8 K to 1 BB, certainly didn't deserve to be sent to Iowa. That distinction goes to Will Ohman, who maintained his 9.00 ERA by losing today's game in the 14th.
Back to Pie: I'm not completely sold on him yet, like some. One game in the majors and a handful in the minors shouldn't be enough to convince anyone of much of anything. I keep hearing about Pie's improved plate discipline, with the evidence being his nine walks and only five strikeouts at Iowa. Sorry, but I see 36 at-bats next to his name and the alarms start going off: "Small sample size! Small sample size!" Since we're looking at Iowa stats, why not pronounce Iowa first baseman Micah Hoffpauir, with his .700+ slugging percentage, the second coming of Lou Gehrig? Pretty preposterous, right? Plate discipline isn't something that suddenly rears his head in a player, so until Pie shows, over at least half a year, that he has truly accomplished a rare feat by changing his hitting approach, I'll remain unconvinced.
But if Pie tears up the minors over the next few months, I'll go out on a short limb and say Jacque Jones won't be a Cub come August.
Cubs Win; Phil Is Alive After All
Sorry for the dearth of posting last week. It seems there's a whole busy world out there that doesn't care about baseball or the Cubs.
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With seven shutout innings, and despite a tight strike zone that resulted in four walks, Rich Hill further confirmed his place as my Current Favorite Cub. There can be no denying it: Hill is good.
With Alfonso Soriano slumping, Aramis Ramirez undergoing testing, and Derrek Lee's home run swing still missing, the Cubs had to grind out their first few runs, taking a slim 2-0 lead into the bottom of the seventh inning. With the Cubs' shaky bullpen history, this year and in years past, I never feel safe late in a game with a lead any less than three. And even a lead of five, as we saw this week, isn't enough to make me feel entirely secure.
So I was ecstatic when the Cubs scored five in the seventh, capped by a bases-clearing double by Lee, to increase the lead to seven. Even the Cubs can't blow this one now, I thought to myself.
And the Cubs not only didn't blow it, they managed a shutout, the team's first of the season. Bob Howry and Ryan Dempster closed out the win with a scoreless inning each.
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I'm not too worried about Soriano's performance at the plate, and I think he'll come around pretty soon (though in his career he's hit .308/.346/.513 in April...), but his seemingly lackluster play on the basepaths is worrisome. I can understand getting picked off by, say, a lefty like Chris Capuano with a great move. But three times in 10 games? That's just not acceptable. And with a paltry .283 OBP this year, Soriano can't afford to give himself up on the bases.
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Derrek Lee, though he's batting nearly .400, has looked lost at times at the plate. On Friday, with a man on in the bottom of the ninth, Reds closer David Weathers pounded the outside corner against Lee, and Derrek looked out of it. He wasn't getting good swings in, and he did what so many youth players do when the ball is outside: Fling the bat weakly at the ball, with legs firmly planted in line with the pitcher, in hopes of making contact.
Yesterday, Lee did what I'd hoped he would with the outside pitch: In the seventh, Lee stepped towards the ball, his feet aligning with first base, not the pitcher, and promptly lined the ball into right-center for a three-run double. My guess: Lee picked up on the flaw, either in video or from hitting coach Gerald Perry, and then corrected it. And that is the mark of a good hitter. But we're still waiting for that first homer...
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Well, I'm out of time. I've got to mow the lawn for the first time this year, and it's really, really long.
The Curse Of The Unknown Pitcher
I wonder: Why is it that the Cubs continue to get dominated by no-name pitchers, often fresh from the minors? It happens time and time again, year after year. I'm sure it has much to do with the lack of information and at-bats against pitchers new to the league, and I doubt the problem is unique to the Cubs, but that doesn't make watching Unknown Pitcher Of The Day Chris Sampson throw five shutout innings any less painful.
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Also painful: Late-inning rallies that come this close to fruition, but ultimately only leave you emotionally exhausted and cursing that moment somewhere in the ninth inning when you foolishly decided the club actually has a shot at winning despite a multi-run deficit and the fact that, really, these are the Cubs, after all.
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Not so painful: Rich Hill throws tomorrow. :) I like our chances.
Rich Hill And Me
I like Rich Hill.
Since his first big league start in late July of 2005, a game I attended, I've liked him. Stumbling upon him after the game, only half-sure of who he was, as he headed to the player parking lot, and then getting an autograph probably has something to do with it.
But thinking about it, much of why I so enjoy watching Hill on the mound, and why he's my Current Favorite Cub, has to do with me. I see him on the mound and something clicks: I see myself.
His build is like my own: Long and lean, tall and thin (though the 6'5'' Hill has got me beat by an inch or so). But it goes beyond that.
He pitches just like I used to. I didn't have an overpowering fastball, which meant I was given little respect by players and coaches – until after the game, that is. All I heard from the opposing dugout at the start of each game was, "Move up in the box!" But the next time through the order, it was, "Watch the corners," because I could change speeds and throw strikes better than anyone in the league. I lived and died with my ability to keep hitters off balance, much like Hill, and it worked well.
Then there is his demeanor. Quiet and unassuming, Hill doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeve like Carlos Zambrano. I've always been the same way: Calm and reserved. When Hill got fired up after striking out Prince Fielder on a nasty, sidearm breaker, it was one of the few times I've seen Hill look excited on the mound, and it reminded me of my own rare outbursts.
And I can completely relate to Rich's hitting woes (.128/.150/.154 career line). I wasn't quite that bad, but I was never much of a hitter. Pitching remains my first love, and for good reason.
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On that note, I should mention that I've been told I look like Matt Clement sans goatee, who was, perhaps not so coincidentally, my favorite Cub player during his tenure with the team...
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I pass along this article from the Daytona Beach News-Journal about Jeff Samardzija and the Single-A Daytona Cubs, sent in by reader joejoejoe. Samardzija threw five innings in his debut, allowing one run on five hits.
Hold The Applause
I could look at Jason Marquis' altogether solid outing yesterday and cry out, "All is well in Cubdom! Our pitching actually will be good this year!"
But it's just one start, and making a claim like that would not be unlike calling Carlos Zambrano anything less than an ace just because of a few bad Opening Day starts.
And it certainly doesn't help that Marquis has, in each of the last two seasons, started strong, only to finish the season with an ERA over 4.
Marquis' ERA was 4.13 in 2005 and, as we all know well, 6.02 in 2006. So even if Marquis does well in his next few starts, I'll still be skeptical.
And That Makes One
Last night was Ted Lilly's Cub debut, and he made it all about him. After Big Z's shaky opener, it was thrilling to see a team that will only go as far as its starters will carry it get such an outstanding effort from one of their big, offseason acquisitions. Pitching Acquisition #2 goes this morning. Let's hope we get similar results today, but for now, let's fire some bullets.
April Is The Cruelest Month – For Zambrano
April has never been a kind month for Carlos Zambrano, and Big Z's poor outing today in the Cubs' 5-1 loss to Cincinnati was the third in a string of poor Opening Days for, undeniably, the Cubs' best pitcher.
But fear not: A slow starter he may be, Zambrano has always done well in May and beyond (4.05 career April ERA vs. 2.15 career May ERA).
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Time to give credit where credit is due: Aaron Harang was just plain good. The Cubs only had eight hits (all singles) for a reason. Nobody (with the exception of Mr. 2-3 Derrek Lee) seemed to hit the ball with much authority, and a fourth-inning Lee flyball out was the only Cub hit to force a Cincinnati outfielder near the wall. Harang worked out of a few two-out jams nearly unscathed – an errant throw by centerfielder Ryan Freel ended up in the Cubs' dugout in the fifth, giving the Cubs their only run, and unearned at that.
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Case in point as to why I much prefer AL-only fantasy leagues: Adam Dunn smoked two home runs today. Great for my fantasy team, not so great for the Cubs. Ideally, the Cubs would have won despite two home runs from Dunn, but instead I'm stuck between jumping for joy and curling up into the fetal position with tears spouting from my eyes.
Now isn't that a funny image...
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If there was one positive from the pitching staff today, it was the bullpen. Neil Cotts, (Cub Town favorite) Michael Wuertz, and Will Ohman combined for three scoreless innings in relief of the less-than-effective Zambrano.
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On a final note, I should probably talk about the sale of Tribune Co., and with it the Cubs.
But I won't, because I'd say Ivy Chat has got it pretty well covered.
Holy Crap! I Have a Blog!
It's funny how sometimes we forget things. We go to work thinking about how we need to pick up milk on the way home, only to find ourselves faced with dry cereal come morning. We know that taxes should be done by the same day every year, but it slips many of our minds until we're stuck in a post office line at midnight. Some of us even consider ourselves baseball bloggers despite weeks and weeks of neglect......but that's another story.
Thankfully, memory loss, or the fading of such that comes with time, can be a healing process as well. Otherwise, how else could one be as excited as I was for today's resumption of hostilities in Major League Baseball? By all rights, any fan of the Cubs should still be, despite any glow achieved from this offseason's dealings, feeling the pain from last year's flesh-eating-virus of a season. Yet, here I am - here we all are - raring to go from day one, blessed by the calendar's turns with the ability to move forward and enjoy the moment.
And so, in honor of the day, I fire a few salvos of celebration. The first, I dearly hope, of many.
It was a lackluster effort after several months of slaver-mouthed anticipation, but it was only one of 162, and while today was bad, the worst will be tomorrow's emptiness, as what we thought was the resolution of seemingly endless waiting simply morphs into yet another stint in hibernation.
Leaving The Mesa
"We ride East!"
The commander watched from outside his private dwelling as his men scurried about in response to his cry, packing equipment and rations for the long journey ahead. The army had set up camp deep in the desert atop a table-like mesa. Its sheer sides and a single, long, winding path to the top prevented any, unwanted disturbances.
We will do well this year, he thought to himself. His hair graying and with skin tanned from the sun, the commander had been training his General's best men for months, all in preparation for what was about to come. Smirking, he thought of the more than 50 soldiers who had first come here with him; half of their tents were gone, and only 25 men remained. Some hadn't been able to handle his rigorous regimen and were sent home, while others had succumbed to injury, and a few even met death. War is not for the weak.
Lord Victor turned his steed to face his second-in-command, Rammell al'Ant, as he approached with, most likely, an update from the camp. Rammell was a hard man, straightforward and unabashed, but did his job well. Like Victor, Rammell had been through more battles than could possibly be counted, and for that, he had earned the respect of his men and of his superiors.
"The men will be ready within the hour," Rammell announced as he reined in his horse next to Victor's.
"Thank you," Victor replied in his slow, deliberate drawl. "Now tell me, how do they look?"
"Well, they're certainly excited to be going. You do seem to have that effect on men. Their technique and teamwork is a bit sloppy at times"
"No, Rammell, tell me what you feel. When you look each man in the eye, what do you see? Does he wilt under your gaze, or does he stand firm? Does he yearn for greatness, or is he resigned to mediocrity?"
"There are a few, my Lord, with the fire in their eyes. One man, he is called al'Tor, stands no taller than I, but carries himself like a giant. And then there is the big one, a man with no name only a letter."
"Yes, this Z. I've been watching him for some time now. What do you see in his eyes?"
"A passion unlike anything I've ever seen. As if all the flames of the world are lying in his belly, driving him like a madman. I would not like to match steel with that one on the field, and I can only hope that I never will."
"Indeed, the General would be wise not to lose his talents. ... Are there no others?"
"One or two. But there is more to a soldier than passion. That can only take him so far."
"Truer words have never been spoken. But what of the General's prized recruit? What do you think of him?"
"He will do well, but he still struggles to adapt to his role. And I see not the same fire within. I fear he will fade after a few years of hard fighting."
"An apt assessment, Rammell. Thank you."
"If that is all, my Lord, then I must oversee the final preparations."
"Yes, of course, Rammell."
"Thank you, Lord. May your blade never break."
"And your shield never shatter," Victor replied according to the ancient custom.
As Rammell rode back to the camp, Victor thought to himself, If only everyone had such a fire in his belly. The journey to the Great Lake would be simple enough, but the war to come, for which Victor had trained his men, would demand the skills and talents of them all.
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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Write Derek at drksmart @ gmail.com