Calling time on baseball to talk basketball, football

The Baltimore Sun

As part of my continued therapy for fantasy baseball malaise, I'm letting my mind drift to other subjects - from top football picks to the fantasy fortunes of next month's NBA draft choices. I promise I'll return to meaty analysis of actual baseball players next week.

Lack of interest in the NBA seems rather prevalent among the sports fans I know. I guess the prospect of another San Antonio-Detroit series doesn't exactly evoke memories of Lakers-Celtics from 1984. But it's hard not to grow a little excited thinking about the feats ahead for Greg Oden and Kevin Durant.

Now that we basically know Oden is going to Portland and Durant is headed for Seattle, we can project some fantasy numbers.

Oden will start from Day One, and he's such an awesome specimen that I figure he'll bump into at least 15 to 17 points, eight to 10 rebounds and three blocks a game. Pair that with a high shooting percentage and he's an instant top-five center, maybe top two given the frailties of Marcus Camby, Shaquille O'Neal and Yao Ming.

The best thing is, we probably didn't see Oden's whole offensive game last season because of his wrist injury. I have to admit I remained an Oden skeptic as he failed to dominate for much of the college season. But against a Florida team chock-full of NBA lottery picks, he was clearly the best player on the floor, and that counts for a lot.

On the other hand, I loved Durant from Day One. He can score in so many ways and has the long body to get his shot off against anyone. He would be going to a messy team in Seattle, but the SuperSonics play an up-tempo game and it's not hard to imagine him slotting in for free-agent-to-be Rashard Lewis and averaging 20 to 25 points a game with a nice mix of rebounds, three-pointers and blocks.

Durant's shooting percentage might hurt at first, as I imagine he'll settle for too many jumpers on some nights. But he could turn into a great scorer and will give basketball purists ample reason to stay up late for West Coast games.

Football fodder

A colleague asked me last week to name an early top five for fantasy football.

After LaDainian Tomlinson laid waste to the league last season, it's hard not to pick him first. The San Diego Chargers didn't overwork him, and he has been the game's safest choice for five years.

Larry Johnson is the reflex No. 2 choice, and his 2,199 total yards and 19 touchdowns from last season look splendid. But Johnson carried 416 times, and the history for running backs after that sort of workload is grim. Anyway, it's hard to bump him given his production, but running backs wear out fast in the NFL, and I hope Johnson does not end up on my team this fall.

Steven Jackson is listed as a No. 2 choice on and other sites. I might agree. You have to love the 2,334 total yards and 16 touchdowns, and he carried 70 fewer times than Johnson. Jackson probably won't catch 90 passes again this season, but his receiving ability should still mitigate against weeks when the Rams face tough running defenses.

Frank Gore was a chic pick last season and certainly exceeded even the brightest predictions. I love that he amassed his 1,695 rushing yards on only 312 carries and showed pronounced improvement from his rookie year. He also catches plenty of passes. With the San Francisco 49ers' overall offense on the rebound, I expect Gore to score more this season, and I'd actually rather have him on the way up than Johnson on the way down.

The fifth slot is up in the air. I love Brian Westbrook's versatility, but I always fear that the Philadelphia Eagles will forget how to get him the ball for weeks at a time. Rudi Johnson is incredibly reliable but lacks the upside we look for at the top of the first round. Peyton Manning remains brilliant, but last season's totals don't put him far enough in front of the other quarterbacks to merit a top-five choice. My heart says Willie Parker, who was such a stalwart for me last year as a second-round pick. But my head sees his declining yards per carry and wonders if he's suited to being an every-down back. Eh ... I'll go with him at five for now.

Game returns

Awhile back, I rhapsodized about ESPN's Classic Baseball simulation in which you could assemble players from throughout baseball history and pit them against other lineups from yore. Well, predictably, ESPN discontinued the product a few months later.

Fans still ask me about the game, however, and I'm pleased to note that there are two similar alternatives. Devotees of the discontinued ESPN game started, where teams cost $19.95 (compared to the old $50 at ESPN). More recently, Stats Inc., which provided the simulation engine for ESPN, sold the game to, where team prices start at $12.95.

I haven't tested either, so I can't make a recommendation. But I find simulation games pleasantly diverting during the baseball offseason or during times when my fantasy teams are going down the tubes (such as right now).

Giving credit

Finally, I spent the early part of this week in Cooperstown, N.Y. As I toured the Baseball Hall of Fame, I wondered if our fantasy game will ever be a permanent part of the exhibit. You know, maybe they could display an old napkin from the La Rotisserie Francaise bistro, where the founders dreamed up the rules.

Seriously, though, I know many baseball people look askance at fantasy. But Major League Baseball certainly doesn't. Check out the ever-expanding fantasy section of The league knows a revenue boon when it sees one.

Beyond that, I think fantasy is a wonderful complement to the real game. It provides an outlet for so many fans who are stuck rooting for lousy franchises. We should celebrate anything that keeps so many people engaged with baseball for so much of the year. So I hope that when I tour the Hall of Fame in, say, 20 years I'll be able to see that aforementioned napkin.

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