Monday, May 31, 2010

Sometimes It's Best Not To Get Too Greedy

I'm sure you all caught wind of the big sports story yesterday, the end of a dynasty that had dominated its realm like no other. Yes, that's right, the Northwestern Wildcats' streak of five consecutive NCAA Women's Lacrosse Championships came to a stunning halt in Towson, Maryland yesterday at the hands of the Maryland Terrapins.

Sure, this seems like a less than exciting story for most of you, and true, Women's Lacrosse is not exactly the big money-maker of college sports we Wildcats would like to make it out to be, but at our school it is something special. Northwestern hadn't won a National Championship of any sort in 64 years when the lacrosse team took its first title in 2005. Our last championship was in men's fencing, a sport we no longer have a varsity team for. Winning one was special. Winning two was exciting. Three was almost overwhelming.

Five was gravy.

I don't like being arrogant or cocky in the realm of sports and often don't rest on my laurels simply for the major reason that "there is always tomorrow". I make this very clear on a regular basis. Hubris always pumps up that pride before the fall, and, at least as far as my sports teams go, I always try to keep myself in check. Now, I should point out that doesn't mean I'm happy we lost. That would just be nuts. But perhaps losing a bid for a sixth straight title despite zooming out to a 6-0 and later an 8-3 lead only to watch both of them slip away may serve as a useful check on all of us who don purple.

You know, because at Northwestern we're just so used to winning all the time.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Stanley Cup Finals Preview

Some of you might have noticed that the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals start tonight at 8 p.m. in the United Center. This year's final series will pit two classic franchises with two extensive title droughts, meaning either Philadelphia's 35-year dryspell or Chicago's 49-year stretch will be no more in about two weeks.

Of course, the matchup is a curious one that at the start of the tournament six weeks ago, most would be hard-pressed to have expected. Chicago finished with the second-best record in the West and were widely considered a Championship contender, but the Flyers' road to the Finals was somewhat bumpier and less expected. If you've been following the playoffs at all, you don't need me to recount the improbability of their run, but in case you missed it here we go:

-- The Flyers earned a playoff spot on the final day of the season when journeyman Brian Boucher improbably outdueled Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist in a win-and-you're-in season finale shootout.
-- Philly took out the favored, second-seeded Devils in the first round, though given the Flyers' 5-1 record against New Jersey in the regular season this may have been the least likely step.
-- In a remarkable comeback, the Flyers became the fourth team in professional sports history to rally from a 3-0 series deficit to advance to the conference finals. To boot, Philly rallied from an early 3-0 deficit in Game 7 on the road in Boston. This series also saw Boucher suffer a season ending injury, leaving Michael Leighton, the fifth man to dress for the Flyers in net this year, between the pipes.
-- The Flyers dominated torridly hot Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak and ousted the Canadiens, themselves on an unlikely run, in five games to make a wholly unexpected Finals appearance.

Of course, if you're a full-fledged Hawks, or a supporter of any stripe like myself, you'll be hoping Philly's dream run ends here. Of course, you might also want that strictly for the integrity of downtown Philadelphia's infrastructure. Either way, my entirely meaningless and uninfluential prediction will give you an only slightly biased idea of where the series is going, but I'll break it down this way.

While the Flyers have potent primary scoring on match with Chicago's the secondary scoring is not there. I'd have to give the Hawks the edge based on their offensive depth. Edge: Hawks.

Chicago's defense has bruisers and puck movers alike, which likely Norris winner Duncan Keith and his pretty new smile in tow. Philly's defense doesn't have the same depth. But it does have Chris Pronger. Edge: Flyers.

Neither goaltender is much to shout about, but I'll give Chicago's Antti Niemi the slight edge because of his tendency to come up big for most of this postseason.

So that leaves us where? Here. Blackhawks in Five. Chicago's secondary scoring puts it over the top. On the regular.

Generally I make a comment here about how I'm certain to be wrong, but, uh, I really hope I'm right this time around. Tune into NBC at 8 to see if I am.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Yeah, That Was A Pretty Good Day

A few years ago, I started obnoxiously coining the phrase "Hat Trick Day" while scanning the sporting events around the office TVs. No, I'm probably not the first person to develop this concept, but I may be the most irritating at bandying it about. Essentially, a Hat Trick Day is when three different teams you follow all win in the same day, and yesterday was a Hat Trick Day of momentous proportions.

Let's start with exhibit A: the one none of you probably know, or almost certainly care the least about, which involved Northwestern's Women's Lacrosse team trouncing Duke to the tune of 18-8 in the National Quarterfinals. Some of you may understand why I think this is noteworthy, but women's lacrosse is big business in my collegiate hamlet of Evanston, Illinois. Northwestern hadn't won a National Championship in any sport in more than six decades before the WoLaxers took the title in 2005 -- in only the fourth year of the program's existence. Not only was the campus taken by storm at the time, but it continues to be taken by storm as the program now sits just two wins away from its sixth consecutive National Title.

This one of course came fairly early in the day and with minimal stress. For one, I wasn't watching it, just following it on an online scoretracker. But perhaps more notably, Northwestern pounced early, taking a sizeable 11-point lead by halftime, making the Wildcats coast to victory fairly easy.

Now if only all things could be that easy.

The Cats now move on to the National Semifinals, which will be played this coming weekend in Towson, Maryland where they'll face North Carolina, the only team to beat them this season before possibly reaching the final on Sunday afternoon. If they get that far, I just may be tempted to make the trip down south if someone else will be crazy enough to go with me.

Of course, that particular event paled in comparison to the next big win of the afternoon, which was easily the biggest, and probably the most angst inducing. The Chicago Blackhawks, I've noted on more than one occasion, hold a special place in my heart after I worked for them in college. They're not the Devils, who hold the pre-eminent place in my hockey heart, but they're also not the Devils in that while I grew up watching the Devils win three championships in nine years, the Hawks were stumbling through the obscurity of mediocre, decades removed from the franchise's traditional grandeur.

The Hawks spent most of the late 90s wallowing outside of the playoff picture, and enduring a seven year stretch without a postseason berth this decade before finally returning to spring last year. Yesterday the team with possibly the greatest jersey in sports, and almost certainly one of the best fight songs, rallied from two goals down to polish off a sweep of San Jose and reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 18 years.

If that seems like a long drought, the last time Chicago hoisted the Cup was in 1961.

With the Hawks to be pitted against Montreal or, at this point, more likely Philadelphia, they're just four wins away from ending the longest current Championship drought in the League, with 49 years of shortfalls in their rear view mirror. If they pull it off, it'll be an awfully nice spring in Chicago, and that longest title-drought mantel will get shifted north to the Maple Leafs, who haven't won the Cup since 1967.

Last on the day's docket, beyond that TV Show everyone was so excited about, was the conclusion to the first round of the 2010 Subway Series, where my utterly hapless Mets actually stood a chance at taking the rubber match at Citi Field against the Yankees. While the game was billed as a pitcher's duel between aces Johan Santana and C.C. Sabathia, Sabathia didn't keep up his end of the bargain, as the Mets jumped on him for four runs early, which including an awfully surprising two home runs by Jason Bay.

Of course, the bullpen did its effort to make it interesting before K-Rod finally struck out A-Rod in an epic battle where the latter had come to the plate as the potential go-ahead run. It never does come easy for the Amazins. But either way, taking the subway series' first round and conquering the Empire State Building was a fitting capper on the day. Particularly since I hadn't had a Hat Trick Night in a while.

So yeah. It was a pretty good day. They can't all be like this, of course, but I'll hold out hope that the next one isn't so far away. If the Hawks can seal up a Championship, well, I may not have to wait too long.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Back in New York

Yes, this handsome fellow here to the right might just be my favorite memory from my quick swoop down to Atlanta this week. I'd hardly claim that he was indicative of the general class of people in the stadium -- in fact, he was ejected from the grounds after arguing with a security guard who made him turn his shirt inside out -- but he was probably my favorite. The remarkable thing about him is less that he wore this delightful homemade shirt, but that he a) was fairly friendly and congenial and b) apparently used to be in a swim club with my freshman year college roommate Sam, who did not recognize him.

Of course, there was more to my trip to Atlanta than that. Turner Field lacks in some of the snazzier amenities of the newer parks you'll see -- it's 15 years old, after all -- but it is still a wonderful place to watch a baseball game. Good sightlines, an interesting Braves Hall of Fame Museum, and that absolutely delightful Atlanta night time weather. I will get into more detail on the trip when I actually sit down and force myself to write a full length, cohesive chapter on it, but suffice it to say, I enjoyed my time, saw an new stadium, saw an awesome aquarium, drank way too much coca-cola and had a pretty good grasp of the Atlanta mass rail system by the time I took Marta to the airport Wednesday morning.

I'd often heard jokes that Marta was lacking, but after researching the public transit in Indianapolis, which I will be heading to in September for the Giants-Colts game, it looks like paradise. Apparently, people there don't need buses and don't stay out after 9 p.m., which could be tricky for an 8:30 p.m. start.

But I digress.

What I can best say about Atlanta is that, if you ever have a chance to go, you absolutely must make a trip to The World of Coca-Cola. If you're lucky like me, you'll get to fight the pangs of stomach pains when you try all 60 international varieties of coca-cola in the tasting room at the end of the tour. When you're done you don't feel good, but you still feel like you've accomplished something.

And what could be more meaningful than a rushed consumption of 60 ounces of different carbonated soft drinks?

Nothing, that's what.

Moreover, the abundance of coca-cola memorabilia is certainly more pleasant to look at than the overwhelmingly disturbing tomahawk-chopping cow that Chik-fil-a has put up above. Turner Field's left field stands. I was initially incredibly amused by this, but after seeing how the picture I took came out, with the low, subterranean lighting, I'm more scared than anything.

If you have a chance to stop at the Aquarium, which is right next door to the World of Coca-Cola, that, too, is worth the trip, though be prepared to have difficulty walking through if you just finished the Coke tasting room. Seriously, it takes a bite out of you.

So now that I'm back, it's taking me a little while to get up to speed, unlike Floyd Landis for whom it doesn't take long (heyoooo!). There's oodles of hockey I need to get my mind set for (Did you really think the Blackhawks would take both games in San Jose?), Hanley Ramirez is evidently a massive jerk and apparently the NBA Playoffs are still happening, and it's starting to look like we'll have to sit through Lakers-Celtics again.

How pedestrian.

If any of you are concerned, don't be, it won't take me too long to be back in the swing of things. Hell, I've already been to work since I've come home. It would have been nice to stay to stay a little longer, but I'm glad I had the time I did. Of course, it helps that the Mets won the game I attended, ironic since Turner Field is always such a house of horrors. That may not sound like too much to ask of them, but remember, this is the team that lost a game yesterday in which their starting center fielder had an inside-the-park home run and initiated a triple play. It was a lot to ask of them.

The Mets might figure it out soon (ha), but even if they don't, I still got to enjoy my trip. If only my comment to another Mets fan that we got our one win of the week didn't look so plausible all of the sudden....

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Georgia On My Mind

In approximately nine hours I will be airborne from Laguardia to Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport for my first trip to the state of Georgia. I have been there once before, a delightful two-hour sojourn as I switched planes on my way to Kansas City last October, but I've never actually been to Atlanta and left the airport.

This will be a new experience.

The reason for this trip? Well, if you've been reading here you already know, so, in all likelihood, you don't know, but if you know me you can probably guess. I'll be meeting up with a few friends, one of whom was my freshman year college roommate, as I see the Amazin just-got-swept-by-the-Marlins Mets visit the Atlanta Braves in their former house of horrors, Turner Field.

This will be team No. 32 for me, meaning I'm almost out of the 90s in that ever-shrinking category of "Teams remaining". I doubt I'll be attending any debutante balls or touring antebellum mansions, but I'm pretty excited for my first trip to the deep south -- assuming you don't count my trip to New Orleans nine years ago. I'm going to try my best to squeeze in a stop at the Coca-Cola Museum and/or the aquarium, but failing that the baseball will do just fine.

Rest assured, you will all have a full report at some point in the future.

Meanwhilst, the trip to Atlanta will provide me with a brief break from the Stanley Cup playoffs, which had one result expected and one result surprising in the first game of the Western and Eastern Conference Finals yesterday. While Chicago's victory in San Jose is not necessarily the assumed outcome, the hard-fought back-and-forth game put on by what very well may have been the two best teams in the League this year was just what a hockey fan would have imagined it to be.

Montrealers, however, might have to wait a little while before doing their best Philadelaphia Phillies impression after seeing the Habs drop Game 1 to the Flyers Sunday. A shutout could have been foreseen in Game 1, but Philly's little-played Michael Leighton pulling off the clean sheet and not Montreal's blazing hot Jaroslav Halak caused a bit of a double take, particularly considering Halak's disastrous showing. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Canadiens get back on track in Game 2, after all, the Flyers are supposed to defend their home ice. The Habs just need to win there once.

But more than anything else, Sunday may have showed that the more competitive, and better played game in the West, features this year's likely champ. Philadelphia and Montreal are both riding remarkable momentum, but neither stands a chance against a San Jose or Chicago team if its running on full cylinders.

That's all for today, kids. See you in the Peach State.

And It's Time For The Conference Finals

I don't have a whole lot of time today to talk to you about how mind-numbingly bizarre it is that the Flyers are the seven seed and yet they have home ice in the Conference Finals....

But with two hours before the West Finals kick off between the Sharks and my (sort of) Blackhawks, I'll give you some rudimentary and hopefully right but probably wrong predictions.

Eastern Conference Final
Montreal over Philadelphia in 7

Western Conference Final
Chicago over San Jose in 6

It should be noted that in the West I'm rooting for the Hawks and in the East, with no palatable champion left for me, I'm rooting for an earthquake.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hockey In Queens?

Recent scientific studies have shown that there is apparently a third NHL team that plays in the New York metropolitan area. In addition to the preeminent Rangers and perennially contending New Jersey Devils, there is apparently another team called the "New York Islanders", which plays in a rundown shack in Uniondale, New York called the "Nassau Coliseum".

I know, I was shocked, too, but apparently these "Islanders" have been around for more than three decades, and evidently have some history to their credit. One of the oft-forgotten dynasties of North American sports are the Isles of the early 1980s, who won four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980-1983. In fact, they very nearly had a fifth one in 1984 until they ran into the Edmonton Oilers, who had some young buck named "Wayne Gretzky" (whatever happened to him?). The Islanders are now terrible, having not won a playoff series since 1993, but they still bring joy to the dozens of fans who show up at the Coliseum 41 times a year.

Who knew?

Ok, I knew. I've always known the Islanders existed, I'm very aware of the exploits of Mike Bossy and Bobby Nystrom, I know of their celebrity fans, which include Christie Brinkley and E from Entourage, and I actually own one of their jerseys -- but only because it's the most ridiculous sports uniform known to man. I especially dig the cheesy lighthouse logo on the shoulders. Those jerseys are so reviled by the 40 or so fans the Islanders still have that the team was forced to switch back to their old logo midway through the season.

I bring this up because yesterday brought a particularly interesting revelation as the Islanders sift through a long, and difficult process to upgrade the Coliseum or find a new stadium. Team owner Charles Wang has spent several years bickering with Nassau County officials over financing for a proposed renovation project that he favors called "The Lighthouse", which has a totally awesome website.

Unfortunately for Wang, the project has stalled over recent months, and while the Islanders' current lease doesn't run out until 2015 or so, time is beginning to run short on the crumbling Nassau Coliseum and Wang would like to know sooner rather than later if he's going to be able to keep the Isles in New York or move them to a plumb stadium deal elsewhere, such as Kansas City, which has the brand new Sprint Center waiting for a tenant. So while there had been rumors for a while that the Isles were considering moving into the yet to be built Barclays Center in Brooklyn or a new arena in Queens, no real progress had been made on either front or even been of discussion in public.

Until yesterday.

Yesterday, word broke that Mets owner Jeff Wilpon has been in discussions with Wang over moving the Islanders into a new arena that would sit next to the Mets' Citi Field. The idea would be to level the chop shops behind Citi Field, which theoretically could be claimed by eminent domain, and build the arena over that territory, a plan which, to me, sounds awesome. There are any number of reasons why the Mets might be interested in partnering with what has looked like a moribund franchise for quite some time.

-- For one, the Isles and Mets share a generally common fan base, with the Mets drawing much of their market share from Nassau and Suffolk counties.
-- The acquisition of a hockey team could help improve Wilpon's prospects for landing a future Winter Classic at Citi Field, something he has publicly mentioned as a possibility.
-- The Islanders arena would increase the real estate value of the area and thus the value of both franchises.
-- The Islanders could provide Wilpon with winter programming for SNY, which spends most of November through March talking about how badly it wishes it were baseball season already.

I find this prospect pretty exciting, though it would mean we'd unfortunately never get to hear this again, because it would mean all three of the area's hockey teams would be easily reachable by train, heightening attendance and rivalries for all of them. Nassau Coliseum is notoriously hard to reach via public transportation, to the point that I, a 20-year area resident, have never even been to a game there.

Now, given how much time the Islanders have left in their current lease, any move or new arena is still several years off at best, but the prospect of having them play in a world class, accessible arena without leaving the immediate area is so exciting I get giddy at the prospect of wearing my Devils jersey out there on the 7 Train.

Maybe if we try hard enough, they'll bring back the Fisherman logo, too. Of course, we can't have everything. Besides, I think Gorton's might have some copyright issues to discuss in regards to that. Either way, having the Islanders in my home borough is an exciting prospect even if it's a ways away. I won't actually root for the Isles, but I will be watching. And you might want to, too.

Stay tuned on this one.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Green, White and Parquetry

I know I've been unable to post an actual stadium story in a while, but it's been busy. Hopefully this one can satisfy you for the time being.

Originally written February 15, 2010.

There is an art to making these trips and finding quirks in the schedule. After all, with 122 teams across the four major sports and 113 of them outside my immediate area, making 113 separate trips would seem an exhausting and expensive venture.

Mostly expensive.

Given that, I often have to scan the schedules to find opportunities to maximize my output. That is to say, if there are two teams in one city that play on back-to-back nights, it is a golden opportunity to strike multiple targets off the list in one shot. When such an opportunity presents itself, I’m generally hard-pressed to take advantage.

One such opportunity presented itself in January of 2009. I had been considering coming up to Boston to visit Luisa and my friend Jenn Reiss and with the Devils visiting the Bruins on January 29, 2009 and me having two days off from work the timing seemed right. When I noticed that the Celtics would be home against the Kings the night before, a trip to Beantown seemed all too sensible. I enjoy Boston, but I find the city very strange, mostly because it feels less like a metropolis to me than it does a large town. I know it comes off as condescending, and I don’t mean to seem that way since I really do like walking around the place, but there is one thing about it that always seemed odd to me.

Boston closes at midnight.
Every time I’m there I find this to be completely stunning. Perhaps this is because I’m spoiled as a resident of New York with 24-hour subway access and bars that stay open until four in the morning, but I struggle to see how a major city mostly shuts down before the night gets started. And indeed, Boston doesn’t necessarily shut down at midnight – the T operates until 12:45 and most bars are open until 2 a.m. – but with mass transit stopping so early on a Friday or Saturday there hardly seems any good reason for the drinking masses to stay out much later.

I do enjoy the T because it feels classy and old, while the subway generally feels rundown, but I can’t see staying out to socialize without a ride home.

Of course, I was far more likely to stay out in Boston four months after this visit, when I made my trip to see the Mets visit the Red Sox. That trip featured weather that was pleasant and enjoyable. When I went to see the Celtics the weather that first night provided little incentive to go anywhere but a warm bed.

See, I was lucky enough to plan my trip in the midst of a blizzard that streaked up the eastern seaboard. A week earlier, my friends Bert, Matt and I had made a spur of the moment trip to Washington D.C. to see Barack Obama get sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. That night the drive was smooth and the weather was clear. I suppose it would have been greedy to expect that a second time. This time around the snow had put into question whether or not I would get to Boston in time for the game that night.

As we took an alternate route at the behest of our driver, my bus pulled over to the side of the road on a hill for reasons I still don’t understand. When the driver put his foot on the pedal again, the bus went nowhere, stuck in the snow and rocking back and forth as it failed to gain traction. It was frighteningly similar to the last time I had driven to New England, a trip to see our friend Dan Sonshine at Brown that my friend Justin and I took during our senior year of college. That day a typically three-hour drive took six, and we saw numerous spinouts and accidents along I-95. I’m not sure why I thought it was a good idea to get behind the wheel that day. Aside from the dangerous weather, I was in the midst of a two-week stretch that saw me get four tickets across four different states.

It might have been wise to let someone else drive.

On this trip, as the bus rocked back and forth in the snow, I started worrying that it might tip over. Eventually we heard the driver call into his bosses to tell them someone might have to come tow us out of the drift. They then suggested he put the bus in the lowest gear – why that hadn’t yet occurred to him I have no idea – and sure enough out of the ditch and off to Boston we were.

We eventually pulled into South Station with plenty of time to spare and I hopped on the T to Luisa’s apartment near Hoynes Convention Center. This was my first full-fledged introduction to the weather that day. When I write I don’t generally like to use curse words. In regular conversation it’s entirely different story. I talk like a sailor far more than I should. When I write, however, I only resort to swearing when there simply is no other way to put it.

That day the weather was shitty. Really shitty.

The entire city was covered in slush, it was cold enough to be uncomfortable and warm enough that rain didn’t turn into snow. And boy did it rain. The drops poured down as I made the most uncomfortable three block walk of my life from the T station to Luisa’s apartment in Back Bay. By the time I arrived, I was frozen and soaked to the bone with no desire whatsoever to go back outside. Of course, with three tickets already purchased on Stub Hub for that night’s Celtics game against Sacramento, staying in the apartment would have defeated the purpose of the entire trip.

Throw in the fact that Luisa had to leave the apartment to teach a course on implementing organizational change at MIT and five minutes later we were back outside. Luisa and I walked across the Charles River into Cambridge where I headed to Harvard so I could meet up with Jenn. Jenn and I had known each other since elementary school, and at the time she currently was in her second year at Harvard Law School. While part of me felt bad for dragging her from her studies, she seemed perfectly content to talk English soccer and hound me for gossip on our former classmates from high school. If it meant I had someone to escort me to what was then called TD Banknorth Garden, I was fine with it. A year later the building would shorten its name to simply “TD Garden”, but whether it was either of those two, or the Fleetcenter as it was called when it opened in 1995, most people simply fall back on the habit of calling it “The Garden”.

The building itself looks fairly nondescript from the outside, appearing as though it were just a large concrete box with its only personality coming from its curved arching roof. It sits near the unique Zakim Bridge and atop Boston’s North Station, much like Madison Square Garden in New York rests above Penn Station, meaning before the games crowds of both fans and commuters gather en masse.

Jenn and I grabbed a pint and a burger at a pub not far from the arena before we made our way into the building. As we took the escalator up I was stopped in the ticket line by security because I was carrying my messenger bag.

“No bags allowed,” the man told me.

While the Yankees had been restricting bags from entering Yankee Stadium for years I had never come across it elsewhere and all I could think to tell the security personnel was, “Seriously?”

He gave me a look that said, “You’re a fucking asshole,” and directed me to a much younger, and one might assume, more patient guard, who I was told could give me my options for what to do with my bag. The first one I was given was to go back to my home or hotel and leave my bag there. Considering this was presented to me with the game tipping off in 10 minutes, I could not possibly understand why that was the first option. The guard then told me that I could run to a bar two blocks away from the arena where I would be allowed to check my bag.

This, too, is similar to Yankee Stadium, where bags can be checked across the street at a bowling alley that is frequently full of drunk fans before and after games. I told Jenn to sit tight while I sprinted across the street, and when I checked my bag I expected some cost. That the price was $10 was well beyond my expectations. Clearly the racket was doing well.


“Yeah, I know,” the attendant said. “It’s highway robbery.”

“You know, at Yankee Stadium it’s only $5. Though I guess I’m in the wrong city to bring that up.”

“Don’t look at me,” the attendant said, nonplussed. “I’m a Mets fan.”

It was annoying, but when they’ve got you, they’ve got you. I paid the $10, sprinted back to the arena and in we went. TD Garden is a wonderful facility, but it has a strange aspect to it as you walk through the concourses. The building feels clean and modern, with plenty of Celtics and Bruins memorabilia in cases around the hallways so you know who plays there. But it has the peculiar combination of housing two legendary franchises – the winningest in NBA history and an Original Six NHL team – and yet the building doesn’t have the same legendary feel to it.

Unlike Fenway Park, to say you felt the ghosts of the arena’s past wouldn’t be right. The Celtics have won more titles, 17, than any other franchise in the NBA and when I went to see them, sure enough, they were the defending champions. But their 2008 title was their first in this building and the first since 1986. This building didn’t have the aura that reminded you this was the team Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and John Havlicek won titles for. You couldn’t smell the cigar smoke of Red Auerbach. But despite being a Knicks fan with no fondness for the Celtics, I will say this: That legendary green and white jersey hasn’t changed, and the classic parquet floor is still there. If you can tune out the building you’re sitting in and see only the game you’re watching, and only those jerseys on that floor, it can give you chills.

If the classic sight of green and white on that floor doesn’t inspire you, a look up towards the top of the building might. I’ve heard that at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion they use banners as wallpaper, but the blue and gold has nothing on the 17-time NBA Champions. Their banners hang from the arena rafters in three dizzying, mesmerizing rows with the years reeling off in succession, 1957, ’59, ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, ’64, ’65, ’66, ’68, ’69, ’74, ’76, ’81, ’84, ’86, ‘08. And unlike other arenas, which hang every division title or sellout, this is not the case for the Celtics. Save for retired numbers, every green and white tapestry says, “World Champions.”
They have no use for those other banners here.

Of course the fact that it’s no longer the Boston Garden isn’t all bad. Fans can talk about the ghosts, the legends, the quirks all they want. The building may well have had the character older Boston fans talk about, but it was also reputed to have some of the worst sightlines in professional sports. At TD Garden there isn’t a bad seat in the house. And speaking of the seats, the best decision they may have made in the construction process, and there were many good ones, was that the seats are still the same iconic black and yellow of the Celtics and Bruins’ former home.

The old Garden was cramped, its rink was nine feet shorter than the NHL’s regulation size, and the infrastructure was riddled with problems. The building lacked air conditioning which led to fog developing over the ice during Bruins’ playoff games, and the B’s experienced electrical failures during not just one, but two Stanley Cup Finals appearances in 1988 and 1990. I’m all for history and antiquated charm when it comes to stadiums and arenas. But the lights need to stay on. When they can’t, it’s time to move.

Luisa eventually showed up in the middle of the first quarter and the three of us settled in for a game I wound up enjoying much more than I expected. Not that I was dreading the event, but despite not particularly liking the Celtics, the energy and excitement of the crowd was hard to ignore. Luisa and Jenn managed to find a way, spending most of the opening quarter talking about how attracted they both were to some of my high school friends they had both met.

It’s hard to blame them, though. The Celtics got off to a slow start, eventually falling behind the Kings by ten points. While, I could have cared less who won, this made me look awful after I told Jenn the Celtics should be ashamed of themselves if they don’t win by 20 points. In the early going, it appeared Boston, which had won eight straight games heading into the night, was making a liar out of me. It was only a matter of time before Sacramento, which itself was on a six-game losing streak, let the lead slip away, however.

The Celtics opened the second quarter on a 25-9 run and never looked back. By the fourth quarter the lead would stretch out to 24 points mostly on the shoulders of point guard Eddie House, who sank eight three-pointers, including a 4-for-5 performance from behind the arc in the final 12 minutes. Whenever he touched the ball the crowd would chant his name and he was treated to a standing ovation when he was taken out with just over four minutes to play. By the time the clock wound down, Boston had polished off a 119-100 victory. Although it was one point less than I said they ought to win by, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and company took care of business .

I would have appreciated getting 20 points on the dot, but you can’t have everything. This I realized as soon as I walked back outside into the still driving rain. In fact, that was really the only problem with the day. I would have appreciated getting back to Luisa’s apartment that night and not being soaked to the bone, but sometimes you can’t help those delightful New England winters. At least we were able to get home. The game had ended early enough.

Boston wasn’t yet shut down for the night.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Just What The High Court Needs

Is a healthy rivalry that is entirely unrelated to judicial review and entirely related to New York baseball.

That's right, people. Yesterday Barack Obama announced his next move to shape the future of this country by naming the successor to the seat that will soon be vacated by Justice John Paul Stevens (Northwestern graduate, natch). And with that choice, Obama has selected Elena Kagan, a woman who has experience as White House Counsel, the Dean of Harvard Law School and Solicitor General -- being the first female to have either of those last two positions -- but there is a considerable red flag in that she's never been, you know, a "judge".

Don't be surprised if some Republicans pull that out when they try to turn Kagan into Obama's Harriett Miers, but some might be surprised to hear that the last Justice to be nominated with no prior experience as a judge was William Rhenquist, and things worked out ok for him, at least as far as competency is concerned. It might be wiser to attack her on her previously declared judicial stances, but without her being a judge, attacking any sort of track record seems difficult, which likely was a factor in selecting her for the bench. And so, it seems, with a Democratic congress, that Kagan is likely to be confirmed to the Supreme Court -- and become the third Jewish Justice to currently be serving -- but what happens once she's there could be awfully interesting.

And here's why.

Most of you reading this, I'm sure, are wondering what I'm doing blabbing on about Supreme Court nominations when this blog is mostly supposed to be about sports. And you all have a point. This is an unusual turn for me to take here, though I do find politics to be similar to sports in a number of ways. But the reason I'm mentioning this is because of one little important nugget that Obama squeezed into the introductory speech.

Kagan's a Mets fan.

I think to make truly make wise decisions impacting all Americans from the wealthiest to the less fortunate, it will serve Kagan well to have had her heart broken almost annually by that delightful squad in Queens. As as some people have speculated, perhaps she can use her new position to rule it unconstitutional the next time New York nepotistically signs Frank Catalanotto, who, unsurprisingly, was designated for assignment last night.

I doubt Kagan will actually lean on the administration in such a manner, though it might be helpful, but what makes this all particularly interesting is that Obama's previous nominee, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, is a Yankees fan who hails from the Bronx. The tension could be acrimonious, as Obama noted in his speech introducing Kagan yesterday that Sotomayor has "ordered a pinstripe robe for the occasion". In the case of Sotomayor, her Yankee fandom is hardly just an auxiliary characteristic -- it was her ruling that ended the Major League Baseball Players strike in 1995.

Sotomayor also has played a crucial role in football where she reaffirmed the NFL's eligibility rules in requiring draft prospects to be out of high school for three years, effectively ending Maurice Clarett's efforts to leave school early.

And he's clearly been none the worse for it.

The only unfortunate thing about Sotomayor's place on the bench and Kagan's appointment and expected confirmation, is that the two baseball fans have no jurisdiction over Canada, and if they did, they might just stop the Montreal Canadiens from unleashing the worst blight on sports fan music since Nuts About the Nats.

Yeah, that's right. "We're right in the mix and it feels a little like '86." And "the cradle of organized sports?" Really?

I wouldn't claim the Habs should stop trying to win titles, and considering that they've just forced a second straight heavy favorite to a Game 7 last night, they haven't stopped trying, but there's something irksome about a pump up song that a) ruins "Don't Stop Believin" for me more than any crowd of drunks in a bar ever could, and b) boasts of the need for a 25th banner. Twelve NHL franchises have multiple Cups. Only seven have more than three titles. Only three have more than 10. And the Canadiens have 24 Stanley Cup Championships. I think you can tone down the anxiety just a bit, though I do enjoy the shot of Montreal's 1993 Cup-winning head coach Jacques Demers giving a thumbs up. And to think no one in the organization at the time knew the man was completely illiterate. Oh yeah, he's a senator now. And why the hell do they even bring up the Expos in this video?

I have no problem with confidence. Even musical confidence. But unfortunately, they just don't make them like the Super Bowl Shuffle anymore. If only Kagan could write an opinion making "Feels Like '93" unconstitutional.

That kind of Championship monopoly has to violate the Sherman Antitrust Act, right?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Because Philadelphians Need Reasons To Look Stupider

I had been trying to avoid talking about this young boy being tased in Philadelphia nonsense for a few reasons. For one, I'm bored with it. It's a pretty straight forward story: Boy stupidly runs on field, boy gets tased to protect athletes on the field, boy is fine, Philadelphia fans look dumb, we all move on with our lives while ESPN doesn't stop talking about it for days.

I was a little annoyed at that I had to keep hearing about it whenever a different former athlete cum studio analyst was asked his opinion on Sportscenter yesterday -- particularly since they all had the same opinion -- and then when ESPN decided to show a montage of the analysts reiterating their opinion, well, it was overkill.

But now I'm going to talk about it. Why? Because it got more interesting yesterday. And moreover, it got funnier.

Now, Philadelphia sports fans have done more than their fair share of stupid things in the past two years, but this, for reason of both immediate timing and for how it affected the game, might have, by far, been the stupidest.

When you go to a sporting event, one of the dumbest things you can do, is leave your seat and run onto the playing field. For one, it's illegal. More likely than not, you will spend your night in jail after making a dash from the stands for home. Incidents involving fans running on the field have ranged from the hilarious to the downright frightening. Given the event of the Monica Seles' stabbing in 1993, anyone who runs on the field, out of concern for the safety of the players, is likely to get the crap kicked out of them. And rightfully so.

So yeah. It's pretty stupid to run out onto the field. This we know.

But there is something even dumber.

The only thing stupider than running out on the field might be running out on the field the night after another fan was tased to the ground at that very same stadium. And the only thing stupider than that? Doing so in the top of the ninth inning when your tired and fading starter is trying to close out a 1-0 complete game shutout. Sure enough, Cole Hamels was near the tail end of his best start in a while against a potent St. Louis Cardinals team that he had dominated to that point, when a second Phillies fan jumped the fence and sprinted across center field.

Say what you will about how important it is for a pitcher to maintain his rhythm, but in this case it seems pretty valid. The game paused while the fan was apprehended -- Hamels was mid-delivery when time was called -- and five pitches later Hamels had surrendered two doubles that tied the game.

Now, one could say no harm, no foul, particularly since the Phillies won the game anyway on a Carlos Ruiz solo shot in the 11th inning,but, really, how dumb can someone be? Much as I'd love to paint all Philly fans with the same brush as this moron -- though there is something of a history of this at this park -- it should be noted that the sellout crowd booed him when he was apprehended.

Also, it bears noting that the man was charged with narcotics possession, which made it even more absurd that he would put himself in a position where he was almost certain to be arrested if he had drugs on him at the time. Oh yeah, and he announced that he was going to run on the field on twitter beforehand.

This was a bright guy.

If this debacle doesn't simply show you that, sometimes, people are really stupid, it should at least show you that running on the field, aside from leaving you potentially bruised, can clearly have a deleterious effect on the team you claim to support. If you claim to be a Phillies fan, why would you disrupt your team during a game that could potentially keep Philadelphia in first place and have a dramatic effect on the confidence of Hamels, who had been less than stellar of late?

Were I to screw up a start that brought Johan Santana to form, I'd be pretty angry at myself. Even Steve Bartman wasn't intentionally trying to ruin the Cubs' shot at a pennant when he interfered.

The idea that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people never seemed so prescient. My only regret is that Matt Chatham wasn't there to level him to the ground.

Now that would have been a sight.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Team No. 32 Is Fast Approaching

Well, after two blowout losses to the division rival Phillies and a frustrating walkoff loss to Cincinnati Monday night, the hottest-team-in-baseball Mets are suddenly on a three-game losing streak despite getting a shockingly good outing from Oliver Perez.

There's the team I know and love.

Obviously, there isn't much sense in getting worked up one way or the other at this point in the season, and while those close wins bite you in the ass sometimes, but as it stands on May 4, 14-12 and 1/2 game out of first place isn't the worst place to be considering the team is still without its All-Star center fielder. Throw in the doomsday prognostications most had for the team this season and April treated the Mets fairly well, particularly if you acknowledge that the offense is yet to realize its potential.

It'd be awfully nice if May went even better, if for no other reason than that Team No. 32 -- let's call it the Mike Hampton game, in more ways than one -- is officially on the docket and coming this very month. That lucky squad? The Atlanta Braves. I will be making my first trip to Atlanta that involves me leaving the airport and seeing the house or horrors that plagued my Octobers in the late 1990s. I'll be attending the game with my college roommate, Sam, my friend Isabel and my friend Kyle, who some of you might remember as the reason for my lone visit to Lambeau Field.

I'm very much looking forward to the trip, first of all for the obvious reason: it's a baseball game. I'm also excited to see a new place, see some friends and, time permitting, find out what coca cola tastes like in Zimbabwe since the natives can't.
Often I plan these trips months in advance, but the reality doesn't seem clear until I finally have the tickets in my hands, which, after this weekend, I do. As I've said before, I always get excited when the teams have stubs with interesting art work that isn't necessarily the same mass produced backing you'll get from any ticketmaster outlet. Well, the Braves have some very nice artwork of Chipper Jones making a diving stop on their tickets. Given that he was the bane of my existence in his prime, it only seems appropriate. What's more interesting however, is that the tickets are huge. Like really oversized for typical season ticket holder tickets, which I'm assuming these are.

Aside from the notable obstacle of finding a way to keep the stub from being damaged until I get it back home to my shoe box, I like it. It may be the only thing about the Braves I like at this point aside from the price. Speaking of which, we're sitting in the 22nd row on the first-base side of the field level in section 123.

For $15!

I'd never want to live anywhere but New York, but it never ceases to excite me when I travel only to find that I can afford fantastic seats for a fraction of the price. Still, even this is astounding. I sat in comparable seats a year ago in Seattle for $50, which I thought was a deal. This is a whole different level. Hopefully I don't wind up spending too much money as a result of thinking I'm way ahead of the game.

Either way, the next stadium is 13 days away, and I'm excited. Get ready ATL. I'm coming.