NFL 2K14

FOOTBAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALL predictions in one sentence or less, as per tradition.
( * for wild cards)

AFC

EAST

Patriots – Yeah.

Dolphins – Not an inspiring bunch behind the perennial leader.

Bills – Might not be terrible, depends on Manuel.

Jets – This, on the other hand, will be hilariously bad.

NORTH

Bengals – I’m not happy about it, because Dalton sucks, but they’re still the best.

Ravens – Hoping for some Ray Rice karma here.

Steelers – Feels like a 7-9 season.

Browns – Jason Whitlock’s “Johnny Bench” nickname for Manziel is the greatest thing.

SOUTH

Colts – Could be 10-6, but still the class of the division.

Texans* – Fitzpatrick being the QB is frightening for them, though.

Titans – Hard to see them getting much better.

Jaguars – Hard to see them getting much worse.

WEST

Broncos – Probably not as dominant as a year ago.

Chargers* – It’s less that they’re better…

Chiefs – …and more that the Chiefs will be worse.

Raiders – Another couple of years of awful football awaits.

NFC

EAST

Eagles – Fun to watch, and mostly good.

Giants – They zig when everyone thinks they’ll zag.

Cowboys – That defense… woof.

Redskins – Trying to make RGIII into a pocket passer seems like an odd fit.

NORTH

Bears – Sorry, Dennis.

Packers* – Always seem to get hurt, lost some of the offense.

Lions – All sizzle, no steak.

Vikings – Upward trending, but a few high fences to leap.

SOUTH

Saints – Though it’ll be close.

Falcons* – Back in black, and hopefully not as snakebitten with injuries.

Buccaneers – Sneaky good late last year.

Panthers – Lost a lot of key contributors.

WEST

Seahawks – A really, really good team, and it kills me to say that.

49ers – Feel like Harbaugh starts to wear on them this year.

Cardinals – A Carson Palmer team almost made the playoffs, and I’m not sure how it happened.

Rams – Bradford done, and so are they, even with a good defense.

Letting go

I was at work much later than I wanted to be today. A co-worker was having a crisis. I resented that initially, since it was Friday, we were well past closing, and I wanted to go home. I was already in the process of packing up when he came into my office, at his wit’s end on something that he was working on. This was, sadly, a familiar process to me, as he was relatively new to his position.

I turned, and he had my attention, even as I braced for the panic his whole body was resonating with. I thought back to my own initial stages in this job, how someone had always been there for me, and how I’d sworn I would be that for others. Patient, thoughtful, and trying to guide them through with the experience and intelligence I knew I had.

He spoke, frantic. “What do I do?” he asked me, as he had so many times before, on so many different things.

I had to take a breath, and marshal myself, feeling my irritation gnaw at me, wanting him to not burden me with this, to not dump this on me at the last-minute of my day, the freedom of the weekend so close. I was prepping for a speech. It’s what I do. I felt like I’d given him this speech hundreds of times. We talked mechanics, which he needed, but I got the sense he also needed a pep talk. Not from a manager who was frustrated, or a co-worker looking at his watch, but someone who’d been through the fires of learning and had survived.

“Look,” I said, trying to get him to look me in the eye, needing his attention, to feel as certain as I did about what I was saying, and how much I meant it. “It sucks that you’re in this spot. But you have to make the call. I can’t do this for you.” A pause, and I looked at him again. “I know you don’t see it now, but these files, all this crap, you get through them, you’ll be able to handle anything. You have to keep at it. You can’t dwell on the mistakes. “

Even then, I wondered if I could well have been speaking to myself. I didn’t have his immediate burden, but the mistakes, the doubts, the uncertainty, that I know, and remember, as much as anything I ever do. They stay with me.

I left a short time later, uncertain if his burden has been lifted. Mine wasn’t, but that wasn’t something I could solve. I had no speeches for myself. I wasn’t as compelling a speaker, looking into the mirror. Maybe I wasn’t as convincing as I thought, and the same tired act worked as well on him as on me.

Or maybe learning isn’t something that happens in a moment- it’s something that happens in time, in experience, as we grow and live our lives as best we can. Maybe we have to let go in our own time and space, and not dwell on things so much. Keep at it, and eventually, it happens and we never realize it. I haven’t lived long enough to know if that’s how it usually is, yet, but sometimes, I hope so.

Daring to dream

A short time ago, TheScore let a handful of its feature writers go. This was very distressing to me, for several reasons which I will go into here.

It wasn’t just that they were some of my favourite sportswriters going today, or that being of “my generation” meant they spoke in a tone I understood, and wrote at a level that many other more professional sports outlets in Canada (TSN, Sportsnet) couldn’t match. It was because them writing (and writing like I would WANT to, were I much more talented) was important to me.

I was having a conversation with Kari a while back about work, and she asked me what I would be doing in an ideal world. After some thought, I gave her the same answer I gave anyone: I’d be writing. About sports, probably, but as this blog demonstrates, I’m capable of drifting from topic to topic.

TheScore letting those writers go- feature writers, in-depth writers, who analyzed and probed and poked rather than reported news- was a directional shift for them. As someone who loved their work, I hated it. As a pragmatist, I could see their logic. They were focusing on their mobile experience. People clicked on news. People clicked on updates, delivered quickly, able to be consumed on a five-inch screen. One rarely sits down to read a well-thought out article on their iPhone.

*****

“So, are you planning on writing the next great Canadian novel?”

A former boss asked me this, just before she was about to offer me a full-time, better paying job than the one I had.

I laughed. She knew about my yen for writing, and was probing to see where my head was at. The pragmatist in me was weighing it quietly, even as she continued to speak, to “sell” me on a job where I would, in some ways, sell others.

I love writing. I can’t remember not loving it. Did becoming a banker mean giving that up? Only if I let that happen. I could always write “on the side”, even as I had a respectable 9 to 5 job that earned me money to live on.

I took the job, and wrote on, maintaining this blog-ish site where I have several drafts that have yet to see the light of day. Less than I’d like, but adult responsibility creeps in, and I have no regrets about where my time is spent, for the most part.

So back to theScore’s “restructuring”. The idea that someone COULD make a career writing, and writing well, was something that I still held onto and dreamed on, even as I continued in my other work. Even as media changed, there were people out there who were working hard, being creative in a medium I enjoyed, and making a living wage.

I’m not smart enough to comment in too much depth about changing journalism, though it’s a subject that’s fascinated me for some time, as we’ve seen the evolution of the internet, of mobile devices, of content being free or paid and different theories on which is right.

There was a logic to theScore’s decision: why pay someone very talented to write long-form posts when content farming news people could make five posts in the span that they made one? Who’s reading long essays on their iPhone? Just tell me where Lebron ended up.

I think back to that office, my manager offering me a job, one with much more security than my admired writers had. Writing is easy: anyone can fire up a blog and have it online and readable in the span of an hour. Writing well is hard. Real journalism is hard. When I thought about it, I figured that for me, writing was better fit as an indulgence than as a career. Did I want the pressure of needing it to put food on the table? Did I want to have to compromise my writing for the purpose of whoever I was working for? Was I good enough to make it in an evolving industry? I didn’t know the answers.

But seeing that others were writing, and doing it well, was something that kept me going, gave me some comfort and enjoyment as I appreciated their work. Seeing that change, the writing pushed aside for practicality… it hit home, a little more than I’d care to admit. Would we make the same decision? Did I?

Not entirely. I’m still writing, after all.

The ballad of Malcolm Reynolds

*****

“Mal: Ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross. You know what the first rule of flying is?… Well, I suppose you do, since you already know what I’m about to say.”

River: “I do. …but I like to hear you say it.”

Mal: “…Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turn of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens, makes her a home.”

*****

“You’d like Firefly. Forrest is a lot like Mal.”

My (internet) friend, Cathy, told me this several years ago, before I’d discovered Firefly. ‘Forrest’ was a character I’d written- an introspective, thoughtful, somewhat tortured sort.

Cathy had described some great one liners from the show, and I commented that this “Mal” actually seemed to resemble ‘Travian’ (another character I’d written) a lot more. Someone who was more prone to one-liners than Forrest.

I have a hard time describing why I love Firefly to anyone who’s not familiar with the show. It does hit a lot of my weaknesses: it’s science fiction, in space, with quick, clever dialogue, and characters that are more than they appear.

But one of the reasons was the main character, the captain, who was both thoughtful and sarcastic: Malcolm Reynolds. Capable of deep, resonating quotes like the above, and dispensing wit with a wink. The fact that he was an amalgamation of characters I already wrote and enjoyed greased the wheels for a love and appreciation I have a hard time explaining. But I’ll try anyway.

 

*****

Simon: “I’m trying to put this as delicately as I can: How do I know you won’t kill me in my sleep?”

Mal: “You don’t know me son, so let me explain this to you once. If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake, you’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.”

Simon: “…Are you always this sentimental?”

Mal: “I had a good day.”

*****

Cathy was close. It wasn’t just that he was what I was writing; it was that I was writing someone I wanted to be, in many ways, and he was close to that.

Malcolm Reynolds was a complex character. Looking and acting so much the hero, even as early on in the series it’s established that his ship and crew (on a SPAAAAAACEship) were criminals, acting outside the law, taking jobs to survive in a spread out universe. Are they right or wrong? It’s not black and white. In Firefly, the governing Alliance is presented as an omnipresent bureaucracy, cold and unfeeling, and would be easy to paint as the villains. But it’s not that simple. Even in the first episode, as Mal and the ‘good ship Serenity’ get away, it’s only because they trick the Alliance into thinking there’s people in trouble elsewhere.

When I first got into Firefly, I’d grown up on Star Trek, and was at a place where I was probably disillusioned with it. I’ve gone into that before, so I’ll summarize my problems with Trek here: I’d seen all the stories, and knew how they were going to end. There was nothing new in the universe that could be presented to me. The conflicts were flat, and the characters mostly repetitive. Occasional brilliance could not mask what I saw as a lack of creativity.

The characters I wrote, even in the Star Trek setting, were something of a reflection of that frustration: they were good, but not without their warts. One character I wrote, Forrest, was with a rebellion, but a “good person”, and constantly debating his own place in that rebellion. Travian, the other one, was with Starfleet (the “good guys”), but a mischievious, wisecracking person, who didn’t always play by the rules, and had dark secrets of his own.

I could easily overanalyze the how and why of the characters, the Trek universe, and what it had to do with me liking Firefly. Were those characters my own frustration, playing out in prose? Or did I see my own universe as complex, as more than rules and regulations and good and bad? Was I trying to figure out my own life through art? Was I seeing what I wanted to see?

Perhaps that was the case. But Firefly didn’t need my existential conflict for me to love it, and nor did Mal Reynolds need my own fictional avatars for me to admire him.

*****

Mal: “Well, would you look at this. Appears we got here just in the nick of time. What does that make us?”

Zoe: “Big damn heroes, sir.

Mal: “Ain’t we just.”

*****

Cathy was right: I liked Mal. I liked his cleverness, his steel, his smirk, the way he inspired people. I admired the complexity of the character, of the Firefly universe, how even in the middle of a normally dramatic situation (as above, during a rescue), they were cracking one-liners. It was a perfect reflection of the age I grew up in, which prized sarcastic detachment in any situation.

I wanted that detachment. I wanted Mal’s toughness, his leadership, the way he inspired people. As someone who struggled socially, who struggles in relationships, I wanted to seem cool, and collected, because I was never that. Mal was who I aspired to be, in a lot of ways. I fed off his wit, and through the lens of the show, saw how that detachment really affected him, how emotional he really was. I saw his struggle with intimacy, with relationship, and saw so much in there that I related to. That was me. Or least, that was who I wanted to be.

I would never be the hero, the leader who got respect like he did, strapping and decisive and clever. I would never live on a spaceship. But there was so much of Mal Reynolds I admired, so much I wanted to be, and so much of him I stole without even knowing I had. I knew the character before Firefly, in the avatars I’d already written.

*****

Simon: “You had the Alliance on you. Criminals and savages. Half the people on the ship have been wounded or shot at- including yourself- and you’re harbouring known fugitives.”

Mal: “We’re still flying.”

Simon: “That’s not much.”

Mal: “It’s enough.”

*****

Mal was a lone wolf, or at least he tried to be. That hit me too. Growing up, I isolated myself in some ways. Sometimes due to anxiety and fear, and sometimes because it was what the loner in me wanted. I got more comfortable in my own skin as I grew up, but I still wanted the ability to separate from a situation when it was murkier than I wanted. It was easier to stew in my thoughts and emotions than confront them. That caused me trouble, and more than likely cost me some friends.

One way good characters really impact me when I see myself reflected in them, or see what I want to be embodied in them. Firefly had wonderful characters, much beyond the lead, who were all relateable, in their own strange way. And the stories, for the one season it existed, were both familiar and original. There was a depth to the universe, to the plots, that hooked me right away. For a time, I could escape and get caught up in this place, this futuristic, wonderful universe, that was still somehow down to earth (that-was). The fact that it was only one season and one movie probably enhanced the legend, made the quality of it stand out more.

I would probably have enjoyed Firefly even if Malcolm Reynolds was different, or less effective. I’d probably still go to Firefly marathons every few years, and start Firefly quote trees on my Facebook wall every so often, and share these terrible in-jokes about the series with fellow geeks who loved the show. There was a lot to love about it, and I probably didn’t go enough into that here, for this post that will likely be my manifesto for Why I Love Firefly.

But much like the crew of the good ship Serenity, I found myself drawn to Mal Reynolds- the character, the man, and what he represented. He and the other characters on Firefly drew me to it, as much as anything else there. I can still easily get lost in Firefly; in a fun, imaginative, but still very relable universe, which still inspires me to this day.

*****

Mal: “Y’all got on this boat for different reasons, but y’all have come to the same place. And now I’m askin’ more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything, I know this- they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean.  A year from now, ten? They’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. But I do not hold to that.”

“So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.”

MLB 2K14

BASEBAAAAAAAAAAAAAALL

(* for wildcards)

AMERICAN LEAGUE

EAST

1. Red Sox – Smart, deep, and talented, basically the worst.

2. Rays* – Good at baseball, but also the worst, because they employ criminals.

3. Yankees – That infield could be the worst.

4. Orioles – Used to be the worst, then started getting kinda good.

5. Jays – Actually the worst, but could be better if they aren’t super unlucky.

CENTRAL

1. Tigers – Will probably sign Stephen Drew or something because they know how to act like a big market team.

2. Royals – I’ve got a feeling.

3. Indians – That tonight’s gonna be a good night.

4. White Sox – That tonight’s gonna be a good night.

5. Twins – That tonight’s gonna be a good good night alright I’ll stop.

WEST

1. A’s – Some injuries, sure, but they do this (almost) every year.

2. Angels* – Rebound potential in the lineup, though pitching still iffy.

3. Rangers – Might pass the Angels with some luck, but early injuries hurt them worse.

4. Mariners – Need more hitting.

5. Astros – The grand, awful experiment continues.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

EAST

1. Nationals – Back on top, baby!

2. Braves – Arms blowing out all over the place, could be a problem.

3. Phillies – The long, slow decline continues.

4. Mets – Some excitement, but need some more time.

5. Marlins – See above, except less good.

CENTRAL

1. Cardinals – Really, really good, you guys.

2. Reds* – Losing Choo, but pitching’s good.

3. Pirates – Sensing a fallback with Burnett gone, and Lirano (probably) worse.

4. Brewers – A full year of Braun gets them closer.

5. Cubs – Building, but not there yet.

WEST.

1. Dodgers – Way better than anyone else in the division.

2. Giants* – Like the Hudson signing for them.

3. Diamondbacks – Whatever hit the Braves pitchers hit them too.

4. Rockies – Not sure what’s going on here.

5. Padres – The least exciting name goes with what might be the least exciting team (non-Jays division).

Revisionist history: MLB 2K13

Clearing out the draft folder, looking back at terrible predictions. This may not be fun. Old in italics, new not. I haven’t updated with offseason stuff, I’ll save that for when I do previews.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

EAST

1. Rays – Portrayed as the plucky underdog, but that pitching staff has some thunder.

Actual finish: Second, won wild card game. Pitching staff fell off a little, offense struggled, but the Rays kept doing Rays things, finding guys off the scrap heap and getting every last bit of value out of them (including former Jays Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson). They’ll rinse and repeat until the pipeline of young talent stops.

2. Blue Jays* – Offseason winners after flashing some cash, but will be a very tight race.

Actual finish: Last. Everything that could go wrong did: Injuries and ineffectiveness out of the gate and throughout the year doomed the Jays. R.A. Dickey wasn’t an ace, Josh Johnson wasn’t even passable, and Brandon Morrow was hurt. Dead spots at 2B, LF, and C didn’t help, but the starting pitching was the biggest problem, and needs to be addressed (again).

3. Yankees – Lost a lot of punch, getting older/worse/hurt.

Actual finish: Third. At least this was kind of close, with injuries and age finally starting to show up for the Bronx Bombers. Eeven the reliable C.C. Sabathia started to slow down. Even if they re-sign Robinson Cano, they might have another couple years of bottoming out before being good again.

4. Red Sox – Not far off, but need some luck to make the postseason.

Actual finish: First, won World Series. The Red Sox are familiar with the Blue Jays’ plight, having been very unlucky last year (though having Bobby Valentine at manager didn’t hurt that). They may have overachieved some, but there is legitimate talent as well, and they didn’t overpay for what they got in the offseason. Aaaaaand they won it all. I’m almost at the point where I can say that rationally.

5. Orioles – Surprised a lot of teams last year, it won’t happen again.

Actual finish: Fourth. Their placement in the division is mildly misleading, as the Orioles are also a legitimately good baseball team, having grown some talent to go along with the close game luck they got in 2012. Some legitimate starting pitching would go a long way to putting them in the class with the Red Sox and Rays at the top.

CENTRAL

1. Tigers – Victor Martinez coming back and Torii Hunter coming in helps solidify their hold on the division.

Actual finish: First. Great pitching, good lineup, easy division. Max Scherzer being better than Justin Verlander is mildly terrifying going forward for a team that didn’t really need another ace-level pitcher. Given the weakness of the division, the Tigers should be good for a while.

2. Indians – Did good waiting out top free agents, but still need some pitching.

Actual finish: Second, won wild card game. The Indians rode surprising contributions from an unheralded starting staff and rode out disappointing seasons from their big money acquisitions (Bourn, Swisher) to a late season run that got them into the second wildcard. They’ll need to keep grooming young talent to stay here, but this has to be counted as a successful season for the Indians.

3. White Sox – Lost a couple pieces, need some help from replacements to go higher.

Actual finish: Last. Everyone got old at the same time in Chicago, except for beleagured ace Chris Sale, far and away the team’s best pitcher. With the old guard moving on, and a shallow minor league system, the White Sox may need to bottom out before getting better.

4. Royals – A curious offseason, trading one of the game’s best prospects for a good (but not great) starter.

Actual finish: Third. Hard to tell if this was a successful season or not for Kansas City, who elbowed their way into wildcard contention late on the backs of hot starting pitching. Shields and Santana worked as well as they could have, and Kansas City finished above .500. This might be the peak for them, and they need to improve to really contend for the postseason.

5. Twins – Barren farm system just starting to get restocked, and the major league club is a disaster.

Actual finish: Fourth. Turns out there was a team worse in the Central than the Twins, but less than 70 wins in a cupcake division isn’t much to celebrate. They’ve finally started to build again, and are now waiting for the high ceiling talent they started drafting a few years ago to bear fruit.

WEST

1. A’s – Won the division last year, and the two closest teams got worse.

Actual finish: First. Pretty happy to call this, even if outside of the easy logic I went with, it’s hard to see how they won the division with traditional measurements. Great depth across the board and unexpected no-name contributors (hello, Josh Donaldson) drove the second best team (by record) in the American League.

2. Angels* – Killer lineup, and some questions about the pitching staff.

Actual finish: Third. So much for that lineup. Mike Trout is still amazing, but Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols had bad seasons, and it’s uncertain as to whether they’ll ever live up to their big money contracts. And yes, the pitching stunk. There’s work to do in Anaheim before they’ll be good again.

3. Rangers – Strange to see the Rangers with good pitchers and uncertain hitting, usually that’s Anaheim’s thing.

Actual finish: Second. A late season rally got the Rangers into the second wild card tiebreaker, but they lost, and it might cost Ron Washington his job. There are arguments for that, but the Rangers’ fall had more to do with how much hitting they lost between the offseason (Hamilton, Mike Napoli) and in-season (Nelson Cruz). They’ve got a great organization, so they won’t be down for long.

4. Mariners – Extending Hernandez a great idea, but went after the wrong bats.

Actual finish: Fourth. So the all bats thing played out about as well as most people expected, and the improvement in offense (marginal)led to a downfall in defense. The pitching might be decent, and there’s some young talent here, but they might need a year or two before challenging the As and Rangers.

5. Astros – Beating the Twins out for the worst AL team this year, but bottoming out is probably the right idea.

Actual finish: Last. Yeah, they’re awful. Maybe this bottoming out thing will work- after several years of a barren farm system, it was probably the right call, but it’s a pain to watch. They have some young talent, but for now, they’re an automatic series victory for the majority of baseball.

National League

EAST

1. Nationals – Will be staring down at the division for a while, I think.

Actual finish: Second. A late run couldn’t quite salvage a dissapointing season in Washington. Some hitters underachieved, and occasional injuries kept them from what many assumed was a straightforward path to winning the NL East. There’s talent here, but there’s more to do before they’re back on top.

2. Braves* – Losing Chipper hurts, but the machine will keep rolling without him.

Actual finish: First. A hot start gave the Braves a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, despite an abysmal year from free-agent signing B.J. Upton. Pitching continues to be an organizational strength, and will keep them contending for a while as long as Jason Heyward and Justin Upton keep hitting.

3. Phillies – The solution for them wasn’t to keep getting older.

Actual finish: Third. The Phillies may actually- really- be starting a rebuild now, with a few late season trades, and Roy Halladay having broken down. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels will be rotation centerpieces, but with the entire infield getting creaky, this is a team in decline.

4. Mets – Will stay out of the basement (barely)…

Actual finish: Fourth. They did, in fact, stay out of the basement, and by more than I anticipated, courtesy of young pitchers Zach Wheeler and Matt Harvey, among other highly touted prospects. Harvey’s UCL injury puts next year’s progression in doubt, and the Mets need some hitting to go with their young flamethrowers to get anywhere.

5. Marlins – …Mostly because these guys sold EVERYONE to Toronto- thanks!

Actual finish: Last. The biggest difference between the Marlins and the Astros is that the Marlins are further along, and have some talent at the major league level (Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Fernandez). There’s still a couple years of growing, but there’s reason for all 12 remaining Marlins fans to be excited.

CENTRAL

1. Cardinals – A great lineup, solid pitching, and excellent prospects ready to step in.

Actual finish: First, lost World Series. This year went almost according to plan for  St. Louis in a surprisingly competitive division, as they kept graduating talented pitchers to the major league level behind an excellent team. The young pitching will keep them great for a while, even in a tough division.

2. Reds* – Not a slight on them, they should be with the Cardinals almost step-for-step.

Actual finish: Third, lost wild card game. Another good season for the Reds ends in disappointment with a wild card loss to the surprising Pirates. The addition of Shin Soo Choo made their offense elite, though their defense and pitching lagged behind. They might need some youth to stay competitive.

3. Pirates – Have started hot and faded the last couple years, figure that doesn’t change.

Actual finish: Second, won wild card game. The Pirates flipped the script a little, riding a hot start and challenging the Cardinals and Reds all the way, managing to sneak into the wild card game. Even with a playoff loss, this season is a success for Pittsburgh. Questions in the rotation remain, but they’re well positioned going forward.

4. Brewers – Have lost a lot of talent the last couple of offseasons.

Actual finish: Fourth. No surprises hear either, as the Brewers struggled to a fourth place finish. The suspension of Ryan Braun for PEDs didn’t help, but it’s unlikely that he would have made much of a difference. Though Braun will be here for a while, they’ll need a lot of reinforcements to make up ground.

5. Cubs – Still a long ways to go.

Actual finish: Last. Though this was another painful year in Chicago, the building plan is in place, and the path is clear. The trade of Matt Garza brought in more young assets, though a tougher Central division makes the climb a little more uphill for the Cubs.

WEST

1. Giants – Hit all the right buttons the last few years, is that going to change?

Actual finish: Third (tie). As a matter of fact, it did change for San Francisco, as starting pitchers who used to be very reliable struggled through down years. Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito leaving means there will be some changes, and with a veteran lineup, they may struggle to get back in contention.

2. Dodgers – Probably need to hide the chequebook from the owners, but the spending should almost have the desired effect.

Actual finish: First. Early on, the Dodgers scuffled, but the arrival of Yasiel Puig and the return to health of Hanley Ramirez drove a hot streak that gave them a division lead they would never relinquish. Yankees West has shown no fear of a salary cap, so as long as the owners keep fronting money, they’re not going anywhere.

3. Diamondbacks – Trading away talent for grit is a wonderful theory, until you discover that talent can’t be taught.

Actual finish: Second. Though second in the division, the Diamondbacks were a .500 team, with their pitchers struggling to match last year’s output, and yes, missing the talent of Justin Upton in the outfield. But their front office has shown an astute eye for judging talent, so they should be back next season.

4. Padres – Some sneaky-good youth there, but will be well out of the playoff running for now.

Actual finish: Third (tie). The strangest team name in baseball showed some signs of life this year, but franchise player Chase Headley struggled. If he returns to form, and they keep adding offense around him, the Padres might improve next season.

5. Rockies – Expensive offence, but at least the pitching is awful.

Actual finish: Last. Rinse and repeat for the Rockies, who can’t seem to muster enough starting pitching to go with a very good offense. Until that changes, there’s very little reason to think a veteran team will do any better next season.

Building blocks

For adults of a certain age- okay, probably a lot of ages, if we’re being honest- it’s easy to get nostalgic about Lego, the blocks that so many of us played with growing up. My brother and I were among those kids. I recall having a box just full of different blocks, and the hours spent building all sorts of fun things with them. I also remember getting sets and the fun I’d have building from instructions, and the one huge pirate ship that I wanted that was somehow $120- nope, Mom and Dad weren’t springing for THAT.

I walked through a Lego store several months back, and was struck by how much MORE there seemed to be now. It wasn’t a section in a toy store as I remembered, it was its own entity. They had Bulk Barn-esque bins for different kinds of a blocks, and different sections with an amazing amount of sets to build. And, yes, some were even more expensive than the mythical pirate ship that I remembered.

Between the store, and the continued evolution and tie-in of the sets and video games, it’s been interesting to see the presence of Lego again now in different things that I consume. While I don’t have the sets to build any more, I’ve played several of the Lego video games. They all follow a simple formula: take an established franchise, and make it fun, destructive, and easy to play. Batman, Lord of the Rings, the Avengers, and Harry Potter are just a few of the franchises who have been Lego-ized for video game (and probably building set) form.

But I was skeptical of the Lego Movie. This was different from the games, or the complicated sets in the store: they weren’t grabbing another franchise to use for their story (although they actually DID for parts of it, but no spoilers!). They would have to- pardon the pun- build their own. Would it work?

As someone who loved Lego growing up, I’m pleased to report that yes, it absolutely does. If you have a pulse, you can probably find something to enjoy in this movie.

There were a lot of kids in the theatre with my brother and I when we went to watch. That didn’t help my skepticism coming in, but the movie seemed to be universally getting great reviews, and people I knew who’d seen it were really recommending it. Even at work on Friday before seeing the movie with Dennis, I overheard a customer talking about it with a co-worker, as if confirming my decision to go.

“We’re going to see the Lego Movie this weekend.”

“Oh, I want to see that.”

“We’re actually seeing it again . It was great!”

“I’ve heard it’s so much fun.”

“Oh, it was amazing.”

In retrospect, the fact that they didn’t have a franchise or a story to build on made it easier for the Lego Movie: they could just make their own, much as many of us did with the blocks when we were younger. It started out fun and playful, and continued that way the whole time, rarely letting a light story get in the way of a well-earned laugh. And while it was a very kid friendly movie, there were a lot of references that people of my generation would appreciate, as has been traditional for animated movies for quite some time. The animation is delightful, and fits with what we know about Lego: they make Lego water WORK.

The story isn’t anything original, but the climax and resolution hit just the right notes, and is probably more aimed at adults than kids, which I found quite surprising. But it works. It all works. And the range of characters was surprising, and delightful as animated movies often do: Liam Neeson, Alison Brie, Will Ferrell, and Morgan Freeman, all completely in their elements, and giving us fun surprises that we don’t often see from them. I’d love to tell you about them- or share them with fellow moviegoers- but I’m sticking with the no spoilers policy here.

I mentioned really enjoying it on Facebook yesterday, and one friend of mine captured it well: “I did not spend more than a split second of the movie without a smile on my face, and said smile continued for quite some time afterwards. It was so much fun – and dare I say awesome..” Fun is the word. Fun was the objective. While it had a story, it was designed to make you smile, whether with knowing cultural references, winks to franchises and pop culture both current and past, or things about Lego that you already know and love.

I’ve become a bit of a cynic about new movies: there’s a lot of tie-ins, remakes, and obvious attempts to cash in on my childhood and what I enjoyed growing up. I’ve been surprised sometimes: the new Star Treks have been great, for example. And I’ve been proven right: the new Spider Man, while a fine movie on its own, was completely unnecessary with the recent iterations so fresh in our minds (and yes, served the sole purpose of allowing Sony to keep the rights and build new sequels).

I don’t want to build the Lego Movie up to an impossible height, but it’s easily the best movie I’ve seen in theatres in a while, and I’m already trying to find an excuse to go again (probably with the lady). It entertained me, and showed me something new and compelling, which is really all I ask for when I spring for a movie ticket. If you have a pulse, or spent sometime with those building blocks growing up, I think you’ll like it too.