It's been awhile--I apologize for my summer break, which involved a lot of travel. We will cover a lot of ground as I comment on progress (or lack thereof) in a number of my favorite topical areas.
Baseball: There's about 20% left of the regular season, and the races for the postseason spots are fairly clear. There have been about five or six good teams, seven or eight terrible ones, and the rest have been thoroughly mediocre (or inconsistent).
It is shaping up as a good season for the California teams: three of the five are sure to make the postseason (Dodgers, A's, and Angels), with the Giants a likely contender for one of the contested wildcard spots. (Only the Padres are out of it.) The two teams with the best records in the majors (I hate the expression "in baseball", when referring to the North American MLB , as it disrespects the Japanese league) are Los Angeles de Anaheim and the Oakland A's in the same division, the AL West. One of them will be cruelly set into a one-game playoff against the survivor of a close three-way race (the Yankees, Mariners, and the AL Central runner-up); that survivor will probably be on something of a hot streak, so that Angels-A's contest (they have a big series this weekend) shapes up as perhaps the most important down the stretch..
In the National League, barring a collapse, four teams we should expect to advance are Washington in the East, Milwaukee and St. Louis in the Central, and the Dodgers. The Central should end up being close, while the other wild card looks to be a three-way contest between Atlanta, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh. (My Reds had a golden opportunity to make the postseason, but lack of depth has led to a recent, definitive collapse.)
In the AL, Baltimore emerged as the best team in a shockingly bad Eastern division (faded glory), while Detroit failed to evidence its expected quality and is now in a tight race with the Royals in the Central. Milwaukee, Baltimore, and Kansas City have been the teams showing significantly more than expected, with the Washington Nationals re-emerging to the form of two years ago, while the list of disappointing teams (or ones handicapped by injury) is long.
My preliminary picks for the World Series would be the Dodgers against the AL West division winner; most of the contending teams have stocked their rotations enough to be threatening in a short series, but I think the Dodgers are the only NL team strong enough to put up a good battle in the Fall Classic.
A final comment, regarding the AL's apparent superiority: It is somewhat real (hard for me, an NL fan, to admit), as it has a 147-126 edge in interleague play (with 27 games left to go), but five of the six divisions have an aggregate won-lost better than .500. It is only the NL West, despite the presence of the Dodgers (along with Washington, the best team in the league) and the respectable Giants, which has absorbed all the other divisions' positive records: With three bad teams (the Padres, and the awful Rockies and Diamondbacks) the NL West is at -31. .
NBA: A lively offseason sets up a season of change. The big move was LeBron James moving from Miami back to Cleveland (yes, they forgave him, and quickly), and Cleveland then shored up their lineup with rebounding/scoring big forward Kevin Love. The return of Derrick Rose to active duty in Chicago (I should mention also the addition of Paul Gasol) makes the Bulls and the Cavaliers the early favorites in the Eastern Conference, which overall at least should be more competitive with the West this year. (Besides those two, Miami remains a playoff team, the Knicks signed strategic superstar Phil Jackson to build around re-signed Carmelo Anthony, and the Nets and Pacers remain potent, if weakened, squads.)
Crunch time is coming for teams such as defending champion San Antonio (basically unchanged, except its aging core a year older, which could be offset by continued development of their emerging star Kawhi Leonard), the LBJ-less Heat, the Bulls, and, most emphatically, the Oklahoma City Thunder, which has two years left to show Kevin Durant that the combo with him, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka (but without James Harden) can win in the postseason.
I will hold off on predictions for the season until the summer ends, hoping that the USA basketball team will not suffer any more injuries such as the one which knocked Paul George (and probably his team, the Pacers) out of this season.
Soccer: Personally, my soccer mind is still trying to recover from those two shocking blowouts at the World Cup: Germany 7-1 over Brazil, and Holland 5-1 over Spain. I think the latter one may have more impact on the 2014-15 club season: I can't imagine the teams from La Liga dominating Europe the way Spain's teams did last season.
To my view, it was a busy--no, chaotic--summer transfer season, and I'm not sure it's over even yet. The prevailing move was the sale of one big-money player to have the funds to buy another. It reminds me of those puzzles where you can only move one piece at a time, shifting them constantly until you (hopefully) end up with the right picture--in this case, the combination of on-field chemistry and economic viability.
It's hard to make a complete picture of what it all means, but I will say I don't like the changes to the Champions League finalists, Real and Atletico Madrid, and I (mostly) like the changes to my team, Chelsea. They are stocked at midfield (I love the addition of Fabregas), defense, and even goaltender, now that they brought back Courtois from Atletico. Just as I don't like the single striker up front, I really don't like the fact that Chelsea has only three strikers (and now the big one, Diego Costa, is injured). You can put me down as one who disagrees with letting Lukaku go definitively to Everton.
Still, I have to give credit to Mourinho: he doesn't play it safe, he is a great judge of soccer talent, his outspoken opinions draw attention to himself and take the pressure off his players, and his teams show up ready for the big games. He is under the guillotine, no doubt: either the Champions Cup, the Premier League, or he will be fired. My predictions: Chelsea loses vs. Bayern Munich in the Champions League final (a rematch of 2012), and Manchester City, narrowly, over Chelsea in the Premier League. Mourinho departs after coming so close to a super season.
Football: I don't plan to watch any games until sometime in November. I really don't understand the appeal of preseason NFL games--it is laughable, or pitiable; however, it did provide most of the opportunity fans will have to see Johnny Manziel play in live action this season. Here are the five important questions for the year:
1) Can the Supersonics repeat? No--Russell Wilson is bound to get hurt.
2) Can the Broncos win it for Peyton Manning, in what surely must be his last season? No, and it may not be (his last).
3) Will any big-market teams do well, besides New England? No, but it might help if there were one in LA.
4) How many times will broadcasters/commentators slip up and say "Redskins"? How many of those slip-ups will be intentional malfunctions (identifiable, because they say "sorry" before or after)? Hundreds; about 80% of them.
5) Who will be more studly in the Super Bowl, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers? Take your pick.
And, no, Weird Al will not be playing at halftime--the NFL isn't cool enough, in that nerdy way that would be required.
And, in terms of the NFL's minor league, Alabama will dominate, as usual, in the regular season, but the four-team playoff (finally, progress!) will give the Tide two chances to go out, and I think they will do it. Not to a Big 10 team, though; that is unthinkable.