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SPORTSTALK

For those interested in seeing the future of professional baseball, there likely will be no better showcase this year than the Southern League All-Star Game — and certainly not one you can see live in Jacksonville.

Suns manager Andy Barkett’s team is not having an amazing year, though it certainly is better than the debacle faced by the Jacksonville Suns’ parent club, the Miami Marlins. Nevertheless, Barkett helms the South Division All-Stars this year, and six Suns were chosen for the squad, including four pitchers — starters Adam Conley, Sam Dyson and Jay Jackson, and reliever Michael Brady. Dyson is sidelined with a back sprain and on the disabled list.

Jake Marisnick joins the squad from the Suns’ outfield. Kyle Jensen, had he not been promoted to New Orleans already, likewise would've been an All-Star. Jensen has Major League ability already, and it’s only a matter of time before he's showing it in the National League.

Suns fans know what to expect from these players. They know, for example, of Marisnick’s power — something fans in Miami might well be seeing in a couple of months after September call-ups, and something that might be seen in the bottom of the first inning at Bragan Field, as Marisnick will be leading off for his squad. They know how left-handed pitcher Conley can strike out virtually anyone at any time, and the efficiency of Dyson, who might not be related at all to the vacuum cleaner company, but who keeps the base paths clear of runners more often than not. They know that batters hit a bit more than .200 against Jackson, and they know that Brady closes games virtually every time out.

Beyond the local heroes, there are some must-see players on the South squad. For starters, a trio of .300 hitters — Montgomery Biscuit Kevin Kiermaier, Justin Greene from Mobile and Mississippi’s Jose Martinez. On a circuit where pitchers generally prevail, a .300 average is …   More

SPORTSTALK

The dreadlocks are back.

I note that because to the best of my knowledge — I was the only commentator to note that Maurice Jones-Drew cut his dreads within days after being drafted by the Jaguars in 2006. My theory then (and now): Jones-Drew was making a naked grab for endorsement dollars in a market that's never been wholly receptive to the stylistic flourishes of Jaguar players. Despite cutting his dreads, Jones-Drew overcame my initial concerns about his lack of size and mid-career questions about his ability to come back from injury to become one of the best running backs of his generation (despite whatever happened at the recent Reggae Sunday at St. Augustine's Conch House).

Problem is, that generation is about over. Jones-Drew is 28 years old — young for politicians and grandmothers; old for ballet dancers and NFL running backs. His age is especially significant when one considers how many on the Jaguars offense ran through him during Jack Del Rio's time as coach (seems an epoch ago, even though Del Rio's been gone only one season). Jones-Drew had a lot of work in that offense, which focused on the running game in a quarterback-driven league that stacked the rules in favor of passing offenses. As we know, the results of that work have been awesome on the stat sheet, but not so much in terms of that all-important win-loss column.

The Jaguars have only won one playoff game in Jones-Drew's career with them, after the 2007 season. Referees assisted on that 31-29 victory over the Steelers, I'd argue, by missing holding calls on what turned into the best highlight-reel scramble of David Garrard's career. Even in that game, with a reduced role at tailback, Jones-Drew tallied almost 200 all-purpose yards and earned co-MVP honors along with Garrard. The future seemed so bright, we had to wear shades. Since then, though, nothing in terms of playoff victories and national relevance.

And no one's forecasting much better for the upcoming season, …   More

SPORTSTALK

The first rule of "Fight Club" was that you don't talk about it. However, boxing fans from around the region are talking about pro boxing coming back to the area in a major way for the first time this century, courtesy of ESPN's "Friday Night Fights."

As of press time, the undercard is still taking shape. The main event is an intriguing battle between two middleweights — Los Angeles' Sergio Mora (@TheeLatinSnake) and Grzegorz Proksa of Poland. Both of these fighters are working their way back into contention after the kinds of losses that move fighters away from the big paydays, so there is a career-defining sense of urgency in this battle.

The 28-year-old Proksa is on the comeback trail after WBA and IBO title-holder Gennady Golovkin wrecked him in New York last September. Since then, he has had one fight — a six-round exhibition against a tomato can with 20 losses — so it is that his fight in Jacksonville could well be make-or-break for his career.

"The fight with Mora is set, the contract is ready, and I can't wait until June 28," Proksa told World Boxing News earlier this month. "This is a great opportunity for me as I have always wanted this kind of fight.

"Sergio Mora is a greatly skilled boxer and to fight with him is a big honor for me. He was on level what I want to be, so I need to win to get closer to my goal after I lost against Golovkin."

That loss was huge, exposing Proksa for the first time in his career. He couldn't really connect against Golovkin and ended up succumbing to a TKO. The left-hander had no answers, as Golovkin pummeled him throughout the fight. To hear the Pole tell it, though, there were extenuating circumstances.

"I want this second fight with Golovkin as I took the fight with just five weeks to go without a proper camp," he told World Boxing News. "I just wanted to fight for a world title, but I lost, and it has learnt me a lot. The Mora fight is now a chance to get back and I am going to prove …   More

SPORTSTALK

LeRoy Butler is as local as Famous Amos, the Pecan Park Flea Market and sclerotic traffic on I-95 North. The Lee High School grad had a standout career as a defensive back at Florida State University, then went on to play a complete career helming the strong safety spot with the Green Bay Packers.

Like former Packers defensive player (and long-deceased) Reggie White, Butler is a committed Christian. Getting beyond that, though, there are certain differences in the way they approach witnessing for the Lord.

One such difference has to do with the Packers' respective understandings of homosexuality, and how it factors into the Christian life. White opposed gays' civil rights struggles. During a 1998 address before the Wisconsin Legislature, White rejected comparisons of the gay rights movement to the civil rights movement, saying, "Homosexuality is a decision. It's not a race."

White's position is not an unfamiliar one, especially to those of us who have spent significant time in places where the culture is determined by evangelical Christian churches. The old "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" canard — if you took a drink every time you heard that, you'd be pickled by noon.

In the 15 years since White courted controversy and endeared himself to a moralistic swath of the Christian right, we have a much greater understanding of sexual orientation, as well as an understanding that sexual identity is not a matter of conscious choice on the level of "I'd rather go to Carrabba's than Olive Garden."

Butler was booked by a Wisconsin church to speak to a youth group on the subject of bullying and was to receive $8,500 for his efforts. All would have been fine had he avoided tweeting about Jason Collins' decision to become the first openly gay male athlete currently in American major team sports.

The tweet was an innocuous message of congratulations; the firestorm that followed, ironically, is far more instructive, in that it shows the …   More

SPORTSTALK

Local sports radio listeners were fired up over Jaguars legend Mark Brunell this week. Not for anything he did on the field, but for what he said regarding the franchise being a relocation target.

"You know, it wouldn’t surprise me," Brunell said when an ESPN host asked him if he thought the Jaguars topped the list of franchises that could move to Los Angeles or London. "I hate to say it, but we’ve got an owner in Shad Khan that’s bought the soccer team over there and all indications are that we’re headed that way. It’s not good for Jacksonville. You don’t hear a lot of that talk in Jacksonville right now but everywhere else, someone mentioned it the other day it’s the Jacksonville Jaguars of London. I want them to stay. That’s my home. I love the franchise. I love the organization, but it wouldn’t surprise anybody if in a few years it happened."

The callers I heard during my commutes, and the hosts, trotted out the familiar refutations. No blackouts here in a long time. A lot of "tickets distributed" every week …though it seems to most that most of those tickets must only be good for the first half. Et cetera.

It is hard to argue that Jacksonville has done anything but support this franchise in recent years. A concerted civic effort did a lot to make that happen. But, as I have argued in print and on radio, the question will always be one of "how long can 'save the whale' type efforts actually work?"

Never mind corollary questions. Given the quality of play on the field since, well, the beginning of Obama's first term, and given the microscopically low expectations about a franchise perpetually rebuilding, and given other issues (like a generation of fans that would rather watch their fantasy football assets than the Chad Henne offense), one wonders if the issue with football in Jacksonville has that much to do with an underperforming fanbase.

Could it be that fans' failure to sufficiently …   More

SPORTSTALK

Being in a position of authority regarding the Olympics can be a thankless job. Imagine being Mitt Romney, for example, who was instrumental in ensuring the Salt Lake City Olympics did well, but who wasn't really able to translate that into political capital. Or the Russians, preparing for the Sochi Olympics and facing international criticism for that nation's laws repressing homosexuality.

Most decisions made on the Olympic level are going to attract more criticism than compliments. In part, it's because the Olympic Games serve as an effective microcosm of global relations themselves — fractious, driven by sophistry and national self-interest. Despite these issues, sometimes the International Olympic Committee gets it right.

One example: The IOC reinstated wrestling as an official Olympic sport — provisionally, at least — reversing its plans to drop grappling as of the 2020 games. In a century that so far has been less than hospitable to amateur wrestling, this is a much-needed move that could, if not save the sport, at least buy it a little bit of time and perhaps give it a platform to gain some forward momentum after suffering more setbacks than Blaine Gabbert.

Advocates for the sport with Florida connections are enthusiastic about the IOC decision. Gerald Brisco, a former mainstay of Championship Wrestling from Florida during the 1970s, who also played a pivotal role with World Wrestling Entertainment for many years thereafter, commented on his Facebook page in the wake of the IOC's historic reversal.

"[This] shows that wrestlers never give up. The wrestling world came together worldwide to work to save our great sport," Brisco wrote. "[You] can't keep a wrestler on his back for long."

David Williams, longtime wrestling coach at Bishop Kenny High School, had this to add on the importance of wrestling in the Olympics.

"I'm very pleased that wrestling has been reinstated. For many minor sports like wrestling the pinnacle of …   More

SPORTSTALK

When considering how successful the Jacksonville Suns have been over the decades, it's a good idea to allow for more than just the win/loss record. The Suns — owned by the Bragan family since Jacksonville was a much smaller, more provincial city — have adapted with the times. Still, some things remain the same. One thing is a robust schedule of crowd-pleasing promotions designed to keep people coming to the park all season long.

The team just wrapped up its first homestand against the Jackson (Miss.) Generals, and the promos were all centered on Peter Bragan Sr., the legendary owner who died last July. Bragan was honored with a talking bobblehead giveaway and a distribution of Bragan Field baseballs. These are the kinds of keepsakes that diehard Suns and Minor League Baseball fans will cherish for years and are great kickoffs for what will be a special season. There'll be many events, and while there's not enough space to cover them all, a few highlights should be noted.

All-Star Blitz: Why not showcase some of the best talent in the Minor Leagues — the Southern League All-Star game in July? Bragan Field is the crown jewel of the parks of the Southern League, as locals know, and the Suns are among the minor league's preeminent franchises. So it makes a perfect locale for the All-Star game on July 17, as well as the Homerun Derby, a favorite of kids of all ages. The day before the game, go by The Jacksonville Landing and check out the MLB All-Star Game “Watch Party” on the big screen.

Rocker Around the Clock: The team is bringing two former Atlanta Braves from back in the day. A hero to every 30something Southern male who ever played outfield and swung for the fences every time he stepped to the plate … Dale Murphy hits town May 6. On June 6, fireballer-turned-conservative-flamethrower HYPERLINK "http://www.johnrocker.net/"John Rocker visits. He made some controversial comments about New York City’s ethnic …   More

SPORTSTALK

"What was silent in the father speaks in the son, and often I found in the son the unveiled secret of the father."  ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Ric Flair's son was found dead March 29, according to WrestlingObserver.com. There is no good way for a man in his mid-20s to die, and the speculation — given his predilections — was that his death was due to a drug overdose. A sad end to a life that seemed to have so much potential.

The American public's first introduction to Reid was on an episode of "WCW Monday Nitro," in which the young man appeared in a segment with Eric Bischoff in 1998, in which he showed a remarkable sense of timing and ability, even at the age of 9, to move as a pro wrestler should. I thought at that time that Reid would be a future world champion. It never came to pass. He spent most of his life dealing with what are so euphemistically called demons. And there seemed to be plenty.

Having Ric Flair as a father certainly must have been a mixed bag. For Reid and his brother David, they elicited instant interest from wrestling fans; in the parlance of the game, both were pushed "too hard, too soon." In the 1980s, Reid's drug use might not have been a dealbreaker — as any survey of YouTube indicates, there were no shortage of wrestlers with obvious issues. In the more corporatized world of 2013, however, his rep seemed sealed as that of a washout.

Ric had worked a deal with a Japanese federation to help get Reid some ringtime, and with Reid's sister Ashley in WWE Developmental Territory NXT, it seemed logical that Reid may join her. Obviously, that won't come to pass.

Ric's own career is in serious jeopardy. He has been working as a non-wrestling performer for WWE of late, but a blood clot in the leg ensured that he couldn't work TV this week, and he has been advised not to fly going forward. It is terrifying and heartbreaking to imagine what is going on in Ric Flair's mind right now, and the closest analogue this …   More

SPORTSTALK

With reports that Tampa is benching Josh Freeman effective immediately, the question might as well be raised: should the Jaguars trade for him? And if so, what should they trade?

What is clear about the Tampa situation is that Freeman could no longer coexist with head coach Greg Schiano. Those things happen when new coaches come in. Recall that former Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio benched Mark Brunell at his first opportunity, went with Leftwich, and never looked back.

Freeman is in the last year of his rookie deal. He has motivation to show and prove somewhere this year for obvious reasons: his next contract will be the one that secures his financial future.

Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley says all the right things about Blaine Gabbert, but when a starting quarterback comes available for what will be a fire sale price, why not at least take a look? A late round draft pick likely would be enough to secure an audition.

This franchise needs to stop pretending that Blaine Gabbert is a franchise quarterback. The fans don't buy it, and won't, pending him winning multiple games in a row. Seems simple enough for a top 10 pick, but as I type it, it sounds utterly implausible.

An alternative take here from Alfie Crow at Big Cat Country:

 

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SPORTSTALK

People often discuss the idea of Old Florida — the time before suburban sprawl and superhighways, when roads like U.S. 1 were the main thoroughfares into the cracker boroughs of Northeast Florida. That Old Florida ethos — of Rebel flags and casual violence against varmints — is a thing of the past … for the most part. Some vestiges, however, live on.

In Glen St. Mary, on a lovely late-winter Sunday afternoon the first week of March, the cops busted a cockfighting ring. The police found 19 men and women and nine children, some as young as 3, watching or participating 
in the action. Six people were arrested; 10 others face charges.

There's no doubt that cockfighting is a vicious sport (if you want to call it that): roosters peck at each other, ripping at eyes and organs, drawing blood, while a mob surrounds them in a perverse pastiche of family values. Show that to the kids — build a bridge over the generation gap from feathers and viscera.

But in some ways, there's an honesty to that — though probably not one appreciated outside cockfighting circles.

I reached out to Lauren Trad — a local activist who did as much as anyone to ensure that Duval County residents have the right to have hens in their yards — to get her take on the bust. She was unsurprisingly horrified. "I only advocate for hens," she says. "Eggs. Not fighting. Backyard hens are treated like pets, and their lives are filled with love and caring. Cockfighting is barbaric and cruel."

She's right. So, too, was Mark Twain, when he called it an "inhuman sort of entertainment."

Nonetheless, we must admit there is a strong case that cockfighting is part of a larger tradition of entertainment for rural people with little else to do beyond imposing violence on the natural world by setting animals athwart each other in a life-and-death struggle. After all, it's taken place in North America for centuries — as late as the late 1930s, in fact, Florida was a nationwide hub — …   More

 
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