Tuesday, June 29, 2010

We'll Always Have Pretoria

As I've now had three days to cope with the U.S.'s untimely ouster in South Africa, I'm slowly coming to grips with once again dealing with this "The U.S. will never care as much about soccer" nonsense. I'm not naive enough to think that the United States is actually on par with teams like Brazil or Germany, but as I've tried to explain to people, they don't have to be. The toughest part of the World Cup for a non-elite team is getting out of its group. Once you're in the knockout phase, all bets are off and the best team either overall or just that day, doesn't always win.

Well, the U.S. did that. We got out of our group, winning it for the first time in decades, but in the end, two home run balls, an incorrectly played bounce and a slew of missed opportunities in the final minutes of regular time were enough to bounce the Yanks from the World's greatest sporting event in the round of 16 against Ghana Saturday.

This is a frustrating end to a Cup that started out with so much promise, gave the U.S. an oustandingly favorable draw in the knockout stage the likes of which we may never see again, and perhaps the single greatest moment in the history of U.S. Soccer. It is hard not to leave disappointed, but that disappointment may very well be a good sign for the future. The only comparable moment in my life for this came in the U.S.'s loss to Germany in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. That was indeed disappointing, but that disappointment came because they had come so close to achieving something so unexpected and special that we wished we could have had it.

That's not the case in 2010. This time we're disappointed because there was so much more available for the taking and we should have had it. That's not to say Ghana's victory was a fluke. Obviously, they are a strong side and the very fact that they eliminated the U.S. four years ago as well is evidence to their consistency -- albeit bitter evidence. Still, the United States were the prohibitive favorite going into Saturday's match, and with a relatively weak quarterfinal matchup laying ahead, the prospect of suddenly having as easy a walk as the U.S. could ever have it into the semifinals was staring Bob Bradley's men in the face.

They dropped the ball. And they know it. But this, too, is a good thing.

These are all good things because U.S. Soccer will never advance to the level where it can compete regularly with international powers until it realizes its own ability and demands more of itself. The miracle run in 2002 was a slight surprise and the American advance to the knockout stage in the U.S.-hosted 1994 World Cup was the quintessential "happy to be here" moment. This is something different.

In past World Cups, failure was reveled in for comic fodder -- a Conan O'Brien montage of the one goal the U.S. scored in the 1998 World Cup comes to mind -- as we mocked our own refusal to care for the game. Now the tabloid headlines bring to mind the stubborn anger of a child who cares, but doesn't want the world to know. We still have a ways to go before we bring in complicated, deeply wounding historical references like some countries, but we're starting to care more and more. ESPN's coverage has been nearly wall to wall, with most experts acknowledging the missed opportunity.

If the United States begins to care more, it is only a matter of time before the youth development program begins to develop the players that can take U.S. Soccer to a new level for 2014 and beyond, and with the World Cup possibly being hosted again by the United States in 2018 or 2022, the opportunities to make a splash, albeit far off, are certainly on the way. Unfortunately, this current group, likely the most talented in U.S. history, will be a question mark the next time we're on the global stage in Brazil four years from now.

Landon Donovan, the greatest player in U.S. history, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard will all be up in years by the time that next World Cup rolls around. While we may not be the only ones in need of some changes, it's not unreasonable to suggest that Dempsey and Donovan will both make the squad despite being over 30 -- the fitness of the Americans has often set them apart -- but Howard, who will be 35 is unlikely to be around. And what of other key players like Steve Cherundolo or Carlos Bocanegra? Does Oguchi Onyewu come back and anchor the defense like he was unable to this time around? Does Jay Demerit take over as the main U.S. leader in the back four? Does Jozy Altidore continue to progress and learn how to finish the strikes his tremendous size creates in the opposition's penalty area?

Does Freddy Adu come back to life? He is only 21 after all.

There is a lot of uncertainty. This may have been the best chance the Yanks would have for quite some time to really make a run, but there are signs that we're advancing as a soccer nation. Public disappointment, the acknowledgment that we really care that we were ousted earlier than we could have been, goes to show that we're making strides.

There are some fundamental changes that will have to happen with our culture in the meantime of course. For one, we need to display a better understanding of the game. One talking head this weekend noted that our goal against Ghana, which came on a second-half penalty kick, was a sign that we weren't up to class because it wasn't a real goal. We need to understand that winning soccer games isn't about scoring goals. The goals themselves are often flukey occurrences brought on by strokes of luck or breakdowns in the opponent's defense. Winning soccer games isn't accomplished by scoring goals. It's accomplished by creating the opportunity to score goals. Produce chances in bunches and they will start to cash in in bunches. That is the key. And anyone who watched the second halves against Ghana, Slovenia and Algeria saw that the United States is certainly capable of that. Unfortunately, sometimes the bear eats you when you don't deserve it. And in a number of instances, that happened.

The other thing people need to understand is that this isn't a country that doesn't care about soccer. No, our country doesn't have the same soccer-centric culture that many have, but that doesn't mean we're incapable. As well, the argument that our best athletes play football, baseball and basketball doesn't hold water either. Hockey has an undoubtedly stronger intrinsic tie to national culture in Canada than it does in the United States, and while Canada managed to take the ultimate prize this year of Olympic goal at the U.S.'s expense, the Americans romped in World Juniors, taking the Gold in both the IIHF U18 and IIHF U20 World Championships. The latter, came in a stunning overtime upset of our neighbors to the north.

Soccer does not have to be any different, and in a country of 300 million people -- to say nothing of the vastly increasing immigrant population from south of the border that loves the sport -- we should be able to find an internationally elite Starting XI. Moreover, our "best athletes" is a completely fallacious concept. Jonathan Ogden was a tremendous athlete in his prime, but do we legitimately think he would have been a World class striker with the proper development? Lunacy. The skills don't translate from one playing surface to another. Lebron James is not guaranteed to be a national team-quality centre back with proper training. The key isn't forcing athletes into a position. It's identifying the ones capable and nurturing them on the right path.

The U.S. is capable. It has a large enough talent pool, and a solid enough development program that more Landon Donovans and Clint Dempseys can't be too far off. While we're certainly not among the international elite, our run to the Confederations Cup Final a year ago, during which we toppled No. 1 Spain and nearly knocked off Brazil, shows that we can clearly compete with the elite. The key is doing it consistently. It may not yet be consistent, but now that success is no longer a novelty.

And now we care. We really do.

That may be the biggest key to one day lifting the most hallowed sporting trophy in the world.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Donovan to the Rescue

I remember in the fall of 2006 when I attended a Northwestern football game and talked to an alum who had attended Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. I asked him what the stadium was like after Endy Chavez's historic catch and he responded to me that dozens of people were hugging him and jumping on top of him, and he couldn't possibly have cared less about it. The euphoria of that moment was simply too strong for him to mind being violated.

I had never quite had a moment like that with complete strangers until Wednesday, when Bert and I saw Landon Donovan save U.S. Soccer in the 91st minute against Algeria to put the Americans through to the knockout stages of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. We were watching at a sports bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn called 200 Fifth, which was not overcrowded, but a decent, and involved crowd nonetheless. By the time Donovan, arguably the greatest American player ever, poked Clint Dempsey's rebound into the net, it was almost entirely full, and while I had begun to accept that the flurry of unconverted opportunities were about to leave us on the outside looking in, in that moment the bar erupted.

Strangers jumped on top of me and hugged me. I had no idea who they were. And I did not care.

This was one of those great moments that make sports worth watching, and while I did think it was a bit odd that one bar patron rubbed my tummy while I was standing on top of my chair screaming with my hands on my head, the excitement of Donovan's score was enough to get me to forget about being personally violated for a few seconds. As someone who follows the U.S. soccer team and has on more than one occasion had to defend his refusal to pick a European nation to support because the Yanks had no chance, this was a moment of joy and redemption when all seemed nearly lost. In short, it was what makes sports great, and when you take a minute to sit back and look at the tournament, that's not even the best part.

The future could be better.

The United States will face Ghana in the round of 16, and while we very nearly got a gift matchup of Australia, it also bears warning that we could have gotten Germany. Excited as I might be to have a shot at vengeance for the 2002 quarterfinals, when Oliver Kahn (and Torsten Frings' left arm...) single-handedly kept the U.S. from a date with the semifinals, Germany is a stiff opponent. Of course, I want to reiterate one thing. I am not looking past Ghana.


However, it is only natural to see how the bracket lays and what the path to a World Cup Final might have. At the point of the World Cup's knockout stages there is no such thing as an easy match. Each will be tight and contested and nervewracking for the participants and its supporters. However, if you're searching for as smooth or lucky a draw as you could ask for, the U.S. might have it. If you don't believe me or you just haven't seen the draw yet, maybe you should.

If the U.S. is fortunate enough to get past Ghana, they face the winner of Uruguay and South Korea for a spot in the final four of the tournament. Ghana won't be easy and neither will Uruguay or South Korea, but the first two potential matchups are bereft of the traditional powers. Brazil, Portugal, Chile or Spain can't possibly face the U.S. until the semifinals (and Spain may not make the knockout stages at all if the Swiss have their say), while England, Germany, Mexico and Argentina are all on the other side of the bracket, clear of the United States unless they some how wound up in the Final on July 11th, and at that point all bets are off.

Oh and apparently we won't have to worry about the Italians this time around.

So no, I'm not really ready to crown the U.S. for a deep run at the World's greatest sporting event, but as far as roads can go, this is clearly the best one we could have hoped for, particularly since either the U.S., Ghana, South Korea or Uruguay is guaranteed a berth in the semifinals and the Yanks happen to be the highest ranked of that group according to FIFA. Of course, rankings mean bupkis at this point considering that two top ten teams have already punched their tickets home with a third still possibly boarding its return flight.

But before any of that even begins to be considered, Donovan, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard and crew still have handle the Black Stars, whom Bert feels a bizarrely conflicted yearning to root for. Evidently the volunteering he did in Ghana meant a lot to him. Or something. Regardless, I know whom I will be rooting for, and though I will be watching from my office, come Saturday afternoon I will be glued to the TV as I live and die with the red, white and blue for 90-plus minutes.

And since he's finally done playing tennis, maybe American John Isner will get to watch, too.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Welcome Back, Jason!

If you are a Devils fan there are a number of moments you cling to from the past 25 years of history. Clearly the three Stanley Cup Championships take primary placing, but other exciting ones such as John McLean's overtime winner that put New Jersey in the postseason for the first time, Patrik Elias' Game 7 winner against Philadelphia in 2000, Jeff Freisen's Conference clincher in 2003 against Ottawa, Martin Brodeur's goal in the 1997 playoffs and Brodeur's record-breaking win against the Blackhawks in 2009 are all up there.

But for someone who grew up in the 90's and watched an unheralded dynasty come to maturity (and fall short of true historic greatness by not sealing a title in 2001), the moment that rings loudest in the franchise annals is Jason Arnott dumping the puck top shelf past Ed Belfour in the second overtime of Game 6 in the 2000 Stanley Cup Finals. The goal sealed the Devils' second Stanley Cup Championship in outrageously dramatic fashion.

Fast-forward two years and Devils GM Lou Lamoreillo, seeking to shake up what he sees as a stale roster, ships Arnott and longtime Devil Randy McKay off to Dallas for Jamie Langenbrunner and Joe Nieuwendyk. While Nieuwendyk and Langenbrunner would be key pieces of the Devils' third title a year later, Arnott would eventually wind up in Nashville where he has fashioned a solid if unspectacular career.

While the Devils have still been a solid contender in the years since and Arnott has achieved success in Tennessee, there has always been something unfulfilling about seeing the man who fashioned the greatest goal in franchise history spend most of his career in another jersey.

But that all changed this weekend, when Lamoreillo, seeking improved strength down the middle as the Devils hunt one last title before Brodeur retires and the window closes, dealt a draft pick and Matt Halischuk to Nashville for the man who made the Devils champions for a second time.

And apparently Arnott couldn't be happier.

In an interview with the Fire & Ice blog, Arnott said that while New Jersey isn't generally the most sought after free agent destination, he was "devastated" when he was dealt to Dallas. Arnott had been part of a wildly productive unit with Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora known as "The A-Line", and while Sykora was in a hospital after a vicious hit at the time of Arnott's Cup-winner, the line's chemistry was still in place as Arnott potted the goal on an absolutely blind feed from Elias.

Ten years later, Elias has become the Devils' all-time leading scorer, Arnott has been one of the league's steadiest captains and Sykora has had his own set of big postseason moments, including the winner of a 5OT game with Anaheim in 2003 and a 3OT season-saver in Game 5 of the 2008 Stanley Cup Final for Pittsburgh. Sykora, however, appears to be at the end of his career -- a shame for me as he was the first Devil I saw score in person -- but with Arnott and Elias playing together, there is an old-timey feel to next season's Devils team that will bring fans memories if not another championship. Beyond the obvious strategic advantage to putting a big, sturdy, proven center in the lineup, Devils fans have to be excited to have a favored son back in the fold.

This year's champions are still making headlines, and rightfully so. The Chicago Blackhawks were one of the most complete teams in hockey all this year before they capped their season off with a deserved Stanley Cup Championship in Philadelphia, but today the team is also making headlines for what it plans to do with Stanley. And incidentally, it may not be so far-fetched to confuse this Stanley with this Stanley.

Why, you ask? Well, because the Chicago Blackhawks have responded to a request from the Chicago Gay Hockey Association to march the Cup through this weekend's Chicago Gay Pride Parade, and will indeed be bringing the Cup, along with defenseman Brent Sopel, to the celebration. Here is the official announcement from the CGHA. While I don't necessarily think it's appropriate for the Cup to be used as a political statement, I do acknowledge that sports and politics, particularly at the Olympics, often are intertwined. If there is a statement for the Stanley Cup to be a part of, I see the struggle for gay equality to be a fairly appropriate one. Professional sports often is wracked by the forced facade of machismo, in hockey as well as any other. But in the aftermath of the tragic passing of Toronto GM Brian Burke's son Brendan, and the elder Burke's vow to march in the Toronto Pride Parade in his honor, that facade is being stripped away.

As I said, I don't much like the idea of the Cup being used to make political statements, but as far as statements go, this is one that makes sense to me. Having an opinion on how the United States should manage trade or whom to go to war with is a real debate. Denying human equality has no argument for either side.

Last on my list of rambles today is that we are finally at the first day of elimination games at the World Cup. The knockout stage of 16 is yet to start, but France and the host nation South Africa have already gotten their walking papers from this year's tournament after failing to make up goal differential this morning. One more group will have its advancers settled this afternoon. While I'm still smarting from the U.S. being robbed of a remarkable comeback win against Slovenia last Friday, I'm as excited as can be for the Yanks' final group match tomorrow against Algeria, which, for the time being will decide their fate in the greatest of international sports tournaments.

I wish I could be there for the excitement, but it's good to know that some entrepreneurs have taken it upon themselves to at least make it feel like we're there when we browse the web, or at the very least, get appropriate updates just how one would hear them in South Africa.

What, you don't feel like blowing your vuvuzela? Don't worry. If the States can prevail tomorrow and play their way into the round of 16, you just might. I know I will.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Not That I Want To Jinx It But...

If you haven't noticed, the Mets are actually playing pretty good baseball these days. I know, I'm shocked, too, but the numbers don't lie. New York has won six straight games and jumped to a high-water mark of nine games over .500 for the season, leaving them just a half-game behind Atlanta and three ahead of the suddenly listless Phillies, whose offense seems to have come back to Earth after two outrageously productive seasons. Meanwhilst, New York, which had an offense that decided to take the day off every time its ace was on the mound, has suddenly been pounding the ball, including last night when the Amazins strung together four straight doubles in a five-run third inning of their 8-4 win over Cleveland, the first time they had turned that trick since matching the feat against the Dodgers on July 21, 1991.

Of course, while it is obviously exciting for Mets fans -- after all, the team is a Major-League best 17-5 since May 21st -- it has to be kept in at least some perspective. In this case, five straight wins, albeit on the road, against the Orioles (one of which I attended in Baltimore) and Indians, two of the worst teams in baseball, should be seen as less of an achievement than taking care of business. You can't blame the teams on your schedule, but at the same time, to be a contender you have to beat the teams you're supposed to beat. Right now, the Mets are doing just that, and with the bats and the rotation flourishing -- the starters are 16-3 with a 2.61 ERA in the last 27 games -- they are making quite a charge at contention.

The only question now is staying there, and while manager Jerry Manuel might be ludicrously putting his faith in Hisanori Takahashi and R.A. Dickey, Buster Olney is reporting that upper management isn't quite so optimistic. And thank goodness for that. After frustrating fans with their refusal to go after a potential big fish at the trading deadline, the Mets, as one of the few buyers on the market, are poised to bolster their starting rotation with some huge addition along the lines of Roy Oswalt, Ben Sheets or Cliff Lee. And all signs seem to imply that the Mets are going to get one of them.

And at that point, who knows what could happen.

It's foolish to start fitting the players for rings just yet, obviously, and this has been a notoriously streaky team for most of this year, but if the offense can keep the Mets hot into September, well, a top three of Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey and, say, Roy Oswalt, in that stadium, would be awfully nasty to go up against in a short series. Now, many sources are reporting that with concerns about the cost of his contract, Oswalt would be a less likely target than Lee or Sheets, but the Mets can handle the cost and taking all those dollars off Drayton McLane's books might mean surrendering less in the way of prospects, whereas Seattle might require John Niese's future to make the pieces fit for Lee, who is more than likely to test the free agent market this winter. Oswalt could be guaranteed to pitch at Citi through 2012.

Ben Sheets is a solid option, also, but either way, the Mets are at an exciting juncture of the season, and after last year's nightmare 70-92 campaign, you'll have to excuse us if we're getting bold enough to dream.

And here I thought the most outlandish dreams I was having these days was a deep run for the U.S. in South Africa. After Saturday's 1-1 tie against the Brits in the opening round, which I attempted to watch among the monstrous hordes at Dupont Circle this weekend, a win tomorrow against Slovenia could nearly assure the Yanks of getting through to the knockout stage.

Of course, Slovenia can't be underrated. After the Swiss turned the tournament upside down yesterday with an upset of Spain, it's clear any team can win any game, but the U.S. should be considered the favorite, and amidst signs that soccer fever just might be catching on around here, the buzz generated by a second-round berth could be pretty fun to see for football fans like myself.

It should also be noted that the with Argentina's 4-1 win this morning over South Korea, the scoring may finally be opening up in South Africa. While South Korea may be stinging from a brutal loss that could all but end its hopes of advancing to the knockout stage, at least the Taeguk Warriors can take solace in the fact that unlike some less fortuitous sabre-rattling neighbors, they can actually send their own fans to the tournament. It's not over and stranger things have happened in the World Cup, but South Korea seems unlikely to recover either in points or in goal differential. Then again, it's still early in the group stage. Who knows how it will all wind up.

As far as that other football is concerned, I've spent the last week sifting through the implications of what was nearly the destruction of the college football landscape as we know it, but instead is just a few moves that still leaves the shaky Big XII in tact with 10 teams while the Big Ten added Nebraska to give them 12.

Yep. Strange.

I don't know that I've gotten used to considering Nebraska a Big Ten team just yet, but I'm awfully curious to see if the schedules for the next three seasons that will now be thrown out put a wrinkle into my plans to see Northwestern visit BC in September of 2011. An impact on non-conference games seems unlikely, but the implementation of divisions will turn the typical Big Ten schedule unrecognizably upside down. I'm awfully curious to see how it all winds up.

Lastly, I've made note of how bizarre it is to see Giants Stadium disappearing piece by piece before, but as it stands -- or doesn't stand -- this morning, the final part of the building is ready to collapse, and the Giants and Jets have already begun practicing in their brand-spankin' new facilities, with disastrous results in some cases. Either way, while the new stadium is no doubt going to be beautiful, it will still seem eerie the first time I'm back in East Rutherford. Of course if they win, I won't really mind.

And now, back to the most exciting sport there is. Open wide, people.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Are You Ready For Some Futbal?

So some of you might have noticed that there's some soccer tournament in South Africa that's about to kick off. I know I have. I imagine at this point none of you will be surprised that I watch the World Cup almost obsessively considering I watch, well, just about everything else, but I'm going to make the point clear again.

I watch the World Cup obsessively.

I love watching international sporting events and this one tops it all. I have spent a number of sleep-shortened nights to watch early matches from the 2002 Cup in Japan and South Korea, I still talk about being contacted in shock by several fans at once after Zinedine Zidane's head butt and red card against Marco Materazzi in the 2006 Final, I fondly recall hearing my entire science hallway erupt in 2002 when we weren't allowed to watch the U.S.-Poland match, but it had been announced South Korea was beating Portugal and easing the Yanks' way to the knockout stage, and I still owe Jessica Sher thanks for calling me to keep me updated when France eliminated Brazil in Germany four years ago.

Thanks, Jess.

Yeah, I love the World Cup. It is always fun, it never gets old and it never will get old.

This World Cup is particularly fascinating given that it is the first to be on the African continent, with South Africa holding the honors of hosting the tournament. As the Bafana Bafana are about to kick off in the opener against Mexico, the Cup has been marred by a horrible tragedy for national hero Nelson Mandela on what should be his proudest moment as South Africa's savior. Despite this of course, the games will go on, and a massive upset of the Mexicans might be of small consolation for Mandela's family, but the joy of his nation united may not be.

Such an event may be unlikely, but no host nation has ever lost its opening match so time will tell. In the meantime, FIFA has made it clear that players must be on their best behavior. As this phenomenal article from the New York Times explains, referees have been schooled not just in the rules of the game, but also in swear words from more than a dozen languages. Let's hope hot heads like Wayne Rooney are heading the warnings.

So I'm sure you're all wondering who it is that I will be rooting for, and I will list in decending order whom I want to win for your reference:

1. The United States (Duh.)
2. England
3. Germany
4. Any African nation that can make a deep run provided they don't stand in the U.S.'s way.

Do I think the U.S. has a shot? Well, not really, but so long as they get to the knockout stages, and their group is set up well enough that they should, anything can happen for Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and company. Of course, the U.S. doesn't kick off until 2:30 tomorrow when they take on the mother nation of England. Obviously, I am extremely excited to see the U.S. in the grandest tournament in all of sports again, but I'm even more excited to watch it tomorrow at a public gathering in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C.

What might be most interesting about that is the circle will have to be cleared rather quickly post-match for the annual Capital Pride Parade, but that isn't such a concern for me as I will be booking it with friends to Baltimore for tomorrow night's Mets-Orioles game in Camden Yards. That's Team No. 33 in case you're counting.

And if you're not, it's probably because you're busy watching the World Cup. That's alright. I'm pretty busy watching it, too. In fact, I'm going to tie this up right now, so I can do just that. Enjoy. And if you're rooting for a particular country, make sure you're in the right place.

Oh, and if you're looking for a prediction, I don't know this sport nearly well enough to make one, but let's go with Spain anyway. It's kind of odd they don't have one yet, isn't it?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Smile As Broad As Its Shoulders

Yes, those of you who know me know that when it comes to matters of hockey, the New Jersey Devils are the be all and end all for my emotions. But I have made it no secret that during my time with the Chicago Blackhawks as a wee web intern from Northwestern University I developed a fondness for what was, at the time, an utterly moribund franchise. Chicago had made one playoff appearance in the previous decade when I got there, and was never anything close to a contender.

The plus side to that, however, is that copious high draft picks mount up, and if you have a smart enough scouting staff and a savvy GM, the fortunes can turn around swiftly. Those fortunes all came to fruition last night when the Hawks knocked off the Flyers, 4-3, in overtime for their first Stanley Cup in 49 years. Now, some might harp on the fact that Patrick Kane's game-winner was one of the more bizarre incidents I've ever seen in sports, as colorfully painted by the announcers whom had absolutely no idea what was happening, but it doesn't matter. A good goal is a good goal, and if you're in the right place at the right time like Kane, the good goal makes you a Stanley Cup Champion.

Awkward or no, my guess is the Windy City won't be caring. And neither do I.

While the final winning score might give an indication that perhaps goal judges should always be sitting behind the net, a close look at the video shows that Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp both reacted immediately, and that, perhaps, they're the only two people in the arena who actually knew what was going on. Of course, the rest of the building would figure it out soon enough when commissioner Gary Bettman presented captain Jonathan Toews with the Stanley Cup.

Toews, who was also awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, got that always crucial decision of whom to pass the Cup to first. Starting with the 22-years-in-waiting delivery of Lord Stanley to Ray Bourque in 2001, the first person after the captain has generally been one who has waited the longest or been most deserving of the title. Unsurprisingly, this year's recipient was Marian Hossa, whose journey to a third straight final with three different teams finally ended in a victory. While I generally don't believe in curses, it was hard not to wonder after Philadelphia tied the game late in the third period on a goal that essentially bounced into the net off Hossa. Fortunatley for Hossa, however, and the Hawks who have him under contract for 11 more seasons, the curse seems to have been lifted.

Not surprisingly, the celebration stayed underway for a while. After arriving in Chicago around 4 a.m. local time and immediately went to a bar to start drinking. I'm not sure anyone will blame them as most of Chicago, a city that outside of Michael Jordan's remarkable reign in the 1990s, often feels an inferiority complex in a history of sparsely won championships. The Hawks' 49-year drought aside, the Bears have one title in the last 47 years, the White Sox went 88 years before winning the World Series in 2005 and the Cubs, well, the Cubs are special. So it's not surprising that the City of Broad Shoulders is reveling in its triumph just a bit, and to those who have lived there or been part of the Blackhawks organization, however large or small a capacity, you can't help but be touched by the moment. Some of us are a little better at controlling our emotions than Jeremy Roenick, who was drafted eighth overall by Chicago in 1988 and clearly still carries pain from experiencing a Finals loss with the Hawks in 1992. But while some might claim he's trying to take the spotlight for himself, I thought it was a sweet moment showing how special the awarding of a Stanley Cup can be.

Besides, lord knows there have been other vain attempts at publicity that are far more ridiculous.

There is likely to be talk about the hit this team may take depthwise as the salary cap chickens come home to roost following last offseason's embarrassing contract mishap. But while some players will likely be shipped out, with big scorer Patrick Sharp possibly among them, Kane, Toews, Hossa and other stalwarts like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will be in the fold for years to come.

One can never predict the likelihood of multiple Stanley Cups, but I would be surprised if the Blackhawks weren't in the mix for the next decade to come. In the meantime, you'll have to forgive them if they're having a little too much fun enjoying their first visit with Stanley in half a century.

And even if they aren't my absolute favorite team, you'll have to excuse me if I take some time to enjoy it, too.

Monday, June 7, 2010

An Ode To My Car: RIP 1994 Toyota Camry Wagon: 1994-2010

As one makes a number of road trips around the country to see sporting events there is one item that is nearly unparalleled in its importance to the mission. A car. If you live in the heart of the northeast megalopolis, an automobile will get you more places than you could possibly imagine as you try to strike one team after another from your final list.

In the decade or so that I have spent getting from one stadium to the next, the one and only car I have ever considered my own, a 1994 Toyota Camry Wagon, has been a crucial part. The automobile, which you see a photo of wrapped in saran wrap after a night of drinking in 2004 to the right, has taken me to a number of arenas and states, which I will list later on in this post. Indeed it has been a major part of both my teenage years, my college years, and one of the bigger journeys I will venture on in my life.

It is that knowledge that gives me the heavy heart to announce that after 17 years, my Camry appears to be at its end. It is heartwarming to know that not everyone gets the same value for their money that my family did with this wonderful beige mistress, but that makes it no less upsetting to finally see such a major player in my life leave me.

Among the memories that I will have shared with this car are:
-- Passing 110,000 miles on one of my many drives to Fairview Lake YMCA Camp
-- Passing my driving exam in Lodi, New Jersey in September 2002
-- Failing my first driving exam in Rahway, New Jersey on July 15, 2002 because I couldn't see past my evaluator's bee-hive hairdo
-- Once accidentally hitting 120 miles per hour on a drive to a friend's lake house in Pennsylvania
-- Making multiple drives from my house in Millburn, New Jersey to my senior college apartment at 2060 Ridge Ave in Evanston, Illinois. The drive was exactly 800.0 miles.
-- Getting four tickets in the span of one week in March 2007
-- Being asked by my mother why a friend's bra was randomly in the back of the car
-- Explaining to my mother in complete honesty that I had no idea how the bra got there
-- Accidentally rear-ending that woman in the middle lane of Millburn Avenue
-- Accidentally backing into another car pulling out of a parking spot in the Millburn High School parking lot
-- Accidentally slamming into the support pole of the parking deck at the Loews Theater in East Hanover, NJ
-- Driving along I-94 to the United Center during my career-changing internship with the Blackhawks
-- Getting a ticket on Lake Shore Drive that required traffic school
-- My first ticket in a Maplewood, NJ, which I got for failure to yield to a pedestrian as I was slowly turning into a parking lot on Maplewood Ave
-- Moving into my first adult apartment
-- Leaving a friend's house to find my car covered in chalk graffiti with such statements as "Steph K is hot"
-- Finding the next morning that my most hated of nicknames was also written in enormous letters on the roof
-- Not cleaning the car off in time, which enabled "Steph K is hot" to permanently be burned into the paint
-- Arriving at my car to find the driver's side handle filled with chunky peanut butter
-- Accidentally snapping the handle on the driver's side door because it was frozen in a sub-zero Chicago winter
-- Proceeding to enter my car through the passenger-side door for more than a year because I was too lazy to get the handle repaired

I imagine many more will come to light in the next few days, but as it stands those are just a handful of the memories that will stick with me on my first car.

The car's status had been in limbo for quite some time. While it had slowly begun to rust and make loud noises, batteries died, water pumps and brakes began to fail and more and more trips to the mechanic became necessary. This week, after multiple opinions it was determined that a car, which in mint condition has a current blue book value of $800, would require $2,300 of repairs to keep it running for an amount of time that wasn't guaranteed to be more than a few months or a year at most. In the end we decided, financially speaking, it simply didn't make sense to keep this particular member of our family running.

Of course, the fact that I am mentioning the car here means that it must have something to do with sports, and sure enough, it does. I have made my way to a slew of sporting venues college and professional by means of my 1994 Camry Wagon. Among the 17 states and two countries my car managed to reach, it also made its way to each of the following stadiums and arenas:

-- Shea Stadium, New York, New York
-- Yankee Stadium, New York, New York
-- Soldier Field, Chicago, Illinois
-- The United Center, Chicago, Illinois
-- Jacobs Field, Cleveland, Ohio
-- Comerica Park, Detroit, Michigan
-- Miller Park, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
-- Brendan Byrne Arena, East Rutherford, New Jersey
-- Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey
-- Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
-- RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.
-- Ryan Field, Evanston, Illinois
-- Welsh-Ryan Arena, Evanston, Illinois
-- Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wisconsin
-- The Kohl Center, Madison, Wisconsin
-- Assembly Hall, Champaign, Illinois
-- Williams Arena, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Those are just a small sample of the memories created by my years with the 1994 Toyota Camry wagon. As George Carlin once said, however, "If you love someone set them free. If they come back, set them on fire." It's certain that one of those things -- and entirely possible that both of them -- will soon be happening to my first car.

This is the second major loss to my childhood home that its endured in the past 18 months after we finally put our family dog, Terry, to sleep last January. Like the Camry, Terry stuck around for a remarkable amount of time. He was a gift for my sister's 10th birthday, and Stephanie was 27 when he finally left us, to give some indication of how long he made it. While we estimate Terry's age at around 19 when he was put to sleep, he was a part of our house for 17 years much like the Camry was, and as a result it only seems appropriate that they go hand in hand. And so, we have decided to donate the Camry to St. Hubert's Animal Wellfare Center, the animal shelter in Madison, New Jersey at which we got Terry back in 1991.

Presumably, St. Hubert's will be able to sell the car for parts and use the money to help the animals it houses, which is a fitting end to the Camry's saga. Still, it is never easy to say goodbye to that first automobile. What it has given to our family and the places it has taken me personally are wide and varied. With 90 teams left to see -- 89 after this weekend -- I suspect there will be more than one new car of mine that plays a part in getting to the end of the journey. But that doesn't mean they can all hold the same place as the Camry.

As I continue to take care of one trip after the next, the first car will always be the most important.

My Night With The Kid

Some of you might recall that I was planning on posting an entry about Ken Griffey Jr. in response to his retirement last week before it got obscured by the considerably wild story of Armando Galarraga's botched perfect game. While this did push Griffey's meek exit from Major League Baseball into the background for a few days, Junior will clearly be the more remembered part of baseball and American cultural history.

And so, in his honor, so to speak, I am posting an excerpt on my visit to the place that wouldn't exist without his heroics, Safeco Field in Seattle, Washington. This is a peculiar entry in that I'm editing it from a much larger chapter that encompasses a wedding in Yellowstone National Park, my first visit to PacBell/SBC/AT&T Park in San Francisco, and two extremely long train rides, one from Salt Lake City to San Francisco and one from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon. If it seems like I'm jumping right in the middle of the chapter, well, it's because I am, but this seemed fairly fitting to put up here in light of Griffey's announcement. It's also among my favorite experiences I've ever had in a stadium. Enjoy.

Originally written April 7, 2010

While I don’t make a point of judging the aesthetics of transit hubs, Portland’s train station is beautiful. It is a red-roofed low rise building with a large clock tower sprouting above it that features an adorably kitschy neon sign that says, “Go By Train”. That sign was added after World War II – the station itself has been open since 1896 – and the inside is entirely covered in marble in such a way that it reminded me of a junior version of New York’s Grand Central Terminal. As you walk out, you see a view of the city as well as the ubiquitous plant life that seems to be everywhere.

I had never been to Oregon before, but I could already tell Portland was one of the more pleasant locales I had seen. Over the next few days I’d find it had no shortage of character or culture. In many ways it reminded me of the East Village in New York City without the overbearing pretension. Of course, perhaps what made me think of New York were actually the numerous pedicabs outside the station trying to court my business.

I wouldn’t need them. Dave Reis was coming to pick me up and I was plenty excited about it. Dave and I hadn’t seen each other in about a year and a half – not so long by most standards, but when you’re still in that post-college phase it seems lengthy. We had some personality differences. I was a city person, he loved the outdoors and hated New York. I was a writer, he was an engineer. But beyond that, we had established a long friendship dating from the very first day of college. Dave was on that same outdoor hiking trip I did before my freshman. Before a 13-hour bus ride to northeast Minnesota, our group had dinner at the Evanston Chili’s and afterwards, while walking to Blomquist gym, he noticed I looked fairly uncomfortable and spoke his first words to me.

“Are you ok there, Dave?” he said.

“Yeah, I’m fine, I just have to pee really, really badly,” I responded.

“Oh that’s not good. But remember. You can’t lose it. You definitely can’t lose it.”

Like most discussions over bodily function, a beautiful relationship was hatched. Dave and I had been buddies ever since, if for no other reason than his easy going, level-headed personality is able to withstand my own neuroticism. That we both shared a fondness for beer and hockey only helped matters. Over the course of the next few days our personalities would, to the rest of the group, relate in a yin-yangish sort of way. A girl in our group, Rachel, would firmly establish the link shortly after we set off on the Superior Hiking Trail. Rachel and I wound up being among the closest of friends, but it didn’t start out that way. My sarcasm bothered her early, and she later told me about writing in her journal that, “the group has its asshole, and his name is Dave”. She was helping to set up the tarp one night and said, “Dave, put that stake in the ground.” When I asked which Dave she was referring to she said words that would paint the rest of college.

“You,” she said. “…Evil Dave.”

And so it was. I, among this group of people, would forever be Evil Dave. Rachel later told me she was impressed with the aplomb with which I reveled in the moniker; I just thought the irony was fun. But if there were two Daves in the group and one was Evil, clearly my counterpart needed his own designation, and Dave Reis would soon be Good Dave. Almost seven years later, the nicknames still stick.

Good Dave arrived about 10 minutes after my train came in, picked me up, and took me on a brief driving tour, before we headed to his apartment and starting testing out some of his home-brewed beer. Dave has been doing it since college, and it’s always been delicious. Sleep-deprived me was already somewhat tipsy by the time Dave’s fiancĂ©e Caitlin arrived at the apartment. Caitlin, too, is a friend of mine from Northwestern, but she was a bit disappointed, as she was hoping to see me with a beard. She had seen me wearing one in pictures on the internet months earlier, but by the time I arrived in Portland I was well shorn, much to her chagrin. Fortunately, she let it slide as the three of us went out to a pizzeria with outdoor picnic tables and beer with high alcohol content.

I was plenty comfortable here.

After dinner, we dropped Caitlin off at the airport – she was headed to a wedding in New York of all places – and Dave and I relaxed before I quickly passed out on their living room love seat. It was just as well. Dave and I had a three-hour drive to make in the morning. My first ever visit to Seattle – and Safeco Field, where the Mariners would be facing the Diamondbacks – was in the offing.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously noted in his “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” “Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.” The Mariners’ home city of Seattle could just as easily claim that statement as it is widely known for its wet weather. On the day Dave and I arrived, however, the Emerald City was at the tail end of a 29-day dry run, it’s longest in more than two decades. Sure enough, the weather snapped back to normal just in time for my arrival. Dave and I battled rain on the drive on I-5 North, though, despite the wetness, was still one of the prettiest drives I’ve seen on a U.S. interstate.

The first things you see when approaching the city, are Safeco Field and Qwest Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks, in front of the skyline. We headed straight through downtown in search of a hole in the wall named Red Mill Burgers. While I’m not sure that I can speak for Dave, I found navigating the city, despite the map we had, extremely confusing. Seattle seemed like a city where the planners decided to build it on a perfect grid, a la Manhattan, but instead they chose every mile or so to turn the grid on an angle of about 15 degrees.

And then they placed another grid on top of it.

It’s entirely possible Dave and I are inept with directions, but the two of us got lost at least two times before finally finding our way to the small spot in Interbay. The restaurant claims to sell the best burgers in Seattle and when you see that it is tiny, with chipping paint on the walls and tucked away on a small side street, you know they’re probably right. I was still on vacation so holding back wasn’t an option and in addition to the double bacon cheeseburger, fries and onion rings I also got a butterscotch caramel milkshake.

After coating our stomachs with enough grease to power a jeep, we hopped back in the car, found a lot near Safeco to park for $10 and walked from there to the Pike Place fish market. By then the rain had paused, so it was a fairly pleasant trip through the city, which lives up to its Emerald reputation. There is vegetation everywhere. Dave and I got to the market and drank a few beers while staring out at Elliott Bay on the Puget Sound and discussing what favors would be owed to Dave, an enormous Buffalo Sabres fan, on the chance I one day become Commissioner of the National Hockey League.

I don’t expect to ever pay those favors. My anticipated career arc is slightly different.

Dave and I made one more stop at another bar that boasted the “World’s Largest Collection of Bourbons”. I’m not much of a brown liquor man. I stuck with beer. I should note, however, that the walk from the Pike Place Market to Safeco Field is also filled with pretty buildings and nice foliage that lets a New Yorker feel like they’re not necessarily in a city.

Safeco’s exterior is covered in the type of brick that makes it almost appear like an industrial warehouse in a city’s old manufacturing center. We chose to enter through the home plate rotunda, which opens to a large staircase and what appears to be a large chandelier hanging from the ceiling that looks like a contemporary art presentation of a baseball deconstructed. Another nice touch is the marble compass in the team’s colors built into the floor at the top of the staircase.

On both sides of the chandelier that night were hanging photos of arguably the two greatest players in the franchise’s history, Ichiro Suzuki and, of course, Ken Griffey Jr. Without a World Series appearance – Seattle is the only team that has never moved with that claim to fame – it’s easy to forget just how good the Mariners were in the 1990s, or how many great players were on the roster. One could easily argue that Griffey and Randy Johnson were the best outfielder and pitcher of their era, but the team also featured stalwarts like Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner, but had the misfortune of running into the Yankees dynasty of the late 1990s almost every time. This includes the greatest team in Mariners history, which won 116 games in 2001 – an achievement noted among the team’s banners in the outfield – before running into the last gasp of the great Yankees in that year’s ALCS.

Of course, of all the players in Seattle’s history, Griffey’s place at the top stands alone. Few and far between are those players with whom a city feels a unique and powerful connection. Seattle and Griffey are inextricably linked. Ever since he came to the majors in 1989 he has been an icon in the Pacific Northwest, whether it be from his immense natural talent, his sweet swing or maybe just his smile. The Kid had a love of the game that seemed to ooze out of every pore.

From the moment the sport returned from the 1994 player strike, and for a few seasons before it, Griffey was baseball. And if for no reason other than his memorable slide home on Edgar Martinez’s double to top the Yankees in Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS, he was Seattle. With the Mariners’ status in Seattle in flux at the time, Martinez’s game-winning RBI, known around these parts as “The Double”, may have saved the franchise by galvanizing tax-payer support behind what would become Safeco. That play is immortalized in an art piece by the stadium’s left field concourse.

What is most remarkable is that Griffey had left Seattle in 2000 for his hometown Cincinnati Reds in an elongated trade affair that also featured Griffey vetoing a deal to my Mets in exchange for Octavio Dotel, Roger Cedeno and Armando Benitez. Dotel and Cedeno would instead be dealt to Houston for pitcher Mike Hampton, who after leading the Mets to the World Series the next season (where they almost faced Seattle before instead facing the Yankees) signed a free-agent deal with Colorado. The compensatory draft pick the Mets got for Hampton’s signing wound up becoming David Wright.

History is funny.

Griffey’s history in Seattle is less funny than it is ironclad. Despite the messy divorce between Griffey and Seattle a decade earlier, Junior returned to the M’s in the twilight of his career for one last curtain call with the team he made his name with. From the moment you enter the city it is clear Seattle couldn’t be happier. Nearly every bar or restaurant we passed had a poster on its wall or a billboard on top with pictures of Griffey and messages along the lines of “Welcome Home, Junior”.

Griffey was no longer the same player. And the fans know it. They don’t expect the 40 home runs and 100 RBIs of yesteryear, nor the defensive greatness he put on display in centerfield at the Kingdome. But there is a magic in his swing, his smile and seeing him in navy and green that makes the Mariners feel like the Mariners again. Griffey and this city are massively in love with one another. And something about that is wonderful.

I had seen Griffey play before during his tour with Cincinnati, but I was excited about the chance to watch him in front of a city that not just worshipped him but appreciated him for the player he used to be. When Dave and I walked out to our seats along the left field line, however, I glanced up at the scoreboard and found that Griffey was not in the lineup that night. Griffey still caught the ceremonial pitch that night, but I would have to accept I wouldn’t be seeing him. Disappointed as I was, I would have to make do with the beauty of the stadium.

Safeco is a fascinating place. Beyond the clear sightlines there is the most notable feature of its retractable roof. In a city like Seattle, common sense dictates that there must be some sort of roof given the rain. Interestingly, however, an article on the sports blog Deadspin.com noted two months after my visit that Seattle actually averages less precipitation during the months of baseball season than New York, Chicago and Cleveland, which all have roofless parks. Given that one might wonder if, what Seattle architecture critic John Pastier called “a 25-million-pound action toy” is really all that necessary. Regardless of what you might think, on our night at the park it apparently was. While the roof was open during batting practice, by the time Dave and I took our first swing around the park and returned to our seats it was covering the field.

I will say this, however. Safeco is the second retractable roof stadium I have been to and as retractable roof stadiums go, it is awesomely designed. The roof is not a fanning out structure as you’d find in Milwaukee or Arizona, but rather one rigid sheet that glides on tracks to cover the diamond or sits beyond right field over a railyard behind the stadium. But what is best about the roof is that when it rolls over, it doesn’t lock you indoors to feel like you’re watching baseball in a gym rather than a park. The roof actually sits above the building, leaving the space beyond the left field wall to remain open to the outdoors. Even if the roof is on, open air still blows through the building. Even when you’re inside, the elements are there, and you feel like you’re outside. As silly, or particular as it sounds, that makes the experience of being at the ballpark that much better.

Something else that made the experience better was my Brandon Morrow bobblehead doll. Morrow is a pretty unremarkable pitcher all told, but I make no secret of my love for free ballpark giveaways, and bobbleheads are the ultimate prize. What surprises me on occasion however is not that some people don’t care for them, Good Dave included, but that some people don’t even realize the value in having them. I don’t expect to sell any of mine, but I do remember one instance in college when my roommate, Sam, gave me a Ben Sheets bobble he was given in Milwaukee because he knew I’d have more interest in it than he would. When I told him he could have sold it at a profit he seemed unconvinced, but a quick glance on eBay showed them going for $25-50 apiece. As Dave and I decided to take a walk around the concourses, he opted not to take his bobblehead with him. When I warned him it might be gone when we returned to our seats he simply said, “If someone is going to steal that bobblehead, they clearly need it more than me.”
Famous last words.

Dave and I headed around the concourse behind the outfield where a mall of restaurants sits once you get past the bullpens, which you can peer into from the safety of a chainlink fence. Beyond centerfield is an open platform that can be rented out for catered events, as well as a number of children’s activity areas and a wood-paneled den where you can get your photo taken with Mariner Moose. I opted for the fairly pedestrian buffalo chicken fingers, but a number of good food options are available ranging from vegetarian to barbecue to Mexican to Chinese. While I didn’t eat there, my favorite stand, simply for its name, was the Thai Ginger booth titled “The Intentional Wok”.

Interestingly, the stands all had signs announcing that they accepted Canadian currency, something that was made clearer to me when I found the Mariners consider British Columbia part of their market – and probably with good reason. The Mariners have something of an unsung presence on the east coast as one of the great regional teams of the Majors, along with the Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals or Braves. The Mariners might be the most remote team in the Majors, with no other franchise within hundreds of miles in all directions.

The M’s aren’t shy about their ownership of the region, which can be seen along the left field concourse at the Mariners Hall of Fame and Baseball Museum of the Pacific Northwest. It’s an incredibly comprehensive museum, with artifacts by the dozen not just of Mariners history, but of Seattle baseball history dating back to the early 20th century when clubs competed in the city for the League Trophy, the 1904 edition of which is on display. Items from the Spokane Chiefs and the old Seattle Pilots also dot the concourse, which is so chock full that you get the impression it’s what the Yankees’ museum at their new stadium should have been.

The exhibits captures how the city’s relationship with the sport has evolved through time. More impressively, the entire thing is laid out along the walls of a hall way. It is a notable example of maximizing the space in a ballpark. The Hall of Fame itself has plaques for each of its inductees beneath television screens that play loops of their career highlights. The TV for Edgar Martinez, predictably, was showing the Double as I walked by. The museum capped off a tour that, when taking the aesthetics, the sightlines, the structural ingenuity, the food, and the activities around the park into account, showed that this is a fine, fine place to watch a ball game.

Dave and I returned to our seats for the National Anthem to find that, sure enough, his bobblehead was nowhere to be found. Despite my warnings, Dave was shocked, albeit not heartbroken, that his trinket was gone. The crowd was mostly pleasant, though one girl, who couldn’t have been older than 16, did her best to irritate the rest of the section by screaming shrilly at the top of her lungs. Good Dave is not a violent man, but he admitted to me afterwards that he, “wanted to rip the nose ring right out of her face.”

The game itself was a tight one, with Seattle starter Jarrod Washburn giving up a mere three hits in seven innings, but still trailing, 3-0, when he left. Seattle For most of the game, it appeared the night would be most memorable for a brutal collision between Endy Chavez and Yuniesky Betancort in left field when Betancort failed to hear Chavez call him off on a fifth-inning pop fly. Chavez had always had a place in my heart following his dramatic catch for the Mets in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, and watching him writhe in the grass with a season-ending ACL tear in his right knee was rough. Much to my surprise, Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu opted not to plug Griffey in for the injured Chavez, instead putting Wladimir Balentien in left.

I had been amused earlier in the night when Russell Branyan was up and the jumbotron announced his favorite TV show was Matlock, convincing me Branyan might be the only non-septuagenarian to be a fan. Regardless, Branyan showed he wasn’t to be trifled with when he belted a solo home run off Scott Schoeneweis to pull the Mariners within two. Schoeneweis was quickly pulled for Tony Pena who promptly gave up a single to Adrian Beltre, which brought up Balentien as the potential tying run.

And then it happened. Wakamatsu made a change, and the Kid appeared out of the dugout. As it turned out, I would see Griffey after all as he brought his aging body, not nearly as svelte as it once was, up to the plate to pinch hit. The reaction from the crowd was a predictably enormous ovation. What made Griffey’s connection to his crowd so special was that, not only did they still love him for quite possibly saving the team despite leaving the city shortly afterwards, but in the appreciation you got the sense they understood his deteriorated ability, accepting him for the player he was in his prime and the player he is now. In 1996, this was the moment when the crowd wouldn’t simply hope, but would expect Griffey to deliver. Today wasn’t the same. Mariners fans knew he was limited, but they were simply glad to have their true love back, and they responded accordingly as he stepped into the box.

No one in the building had sat down yet when he launched the first pitch he saw into the right field bleachers to tie the game. An absolute no-doubter from the moment it left his bat.

There are moments in sports where regardless of what side you’re on, you simply have to feel lucky to witness. This was a man and a city showering each other with praise. Two weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, I saw culture and crowd symbolize a moment as chants of U!-S!-A! rained down from 56,000 people at once in the stands of Shea Stadium. Nothing will ever make the hair on my neck raise in quite the same way again, but this moment, when, for possibly the last time, Griffey made the “House That Junior Built” rock was the only goosebump-worthy scene I had ever taken in at a sporting event that came close. In sports there are moments and then there are Moments.

This was a Moment.

The rest of the game seemed almost unnecessary, but a single by Chris Woodward followed by a Rob Johnson triple would give Seattle the eventual winning run. After David Aardsma, a man who holds the distinction of having the very first name alphabetically in Major League history, shut down the Diamondbacks to seal the victory, Dave and I walked back to the car still in awe. We almost didn’t realize we had a three-hour drive back to Portland. I would have another full day left in the Rose City, which Dave and I spent taking advantage of a strong beer scene and eating elk burgers, but my trip had been made. Without a place where our lives and our homes connect with the teams we cheer for and the athletes we’ve grown up watching, there is no reason to pay attention to sports.

These are the moments we watch sports for. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that watching 27,000 people rejoice like that, sports-centric or no, is a moment we live for.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Nobody's Perfect

The biggest tragedy of Armando Galarraga's 28-out Perfecto last night is that English clearly isn't Galarraga's first language. No, don't worry, I'm not about to throw every book in the state of Arizona at him, after all, the game was in Detroit, but my mention of the language barrier is that Galarraga may not have the same understanding of dry wit and nuance that can inspire brilliant commentary and quotation. And because of that he might not understand why he's so worthy of Bartlett's these days.

After speaking to the media last night, Galarraga was questioned about his emotions or anger towards first base umpire Jim Joyce, and Galarraga, who apparently is the classiest most zen act in all of baseball history, simply smiled and said, "Nobody's perfect." The staggering genius of that phrasing in that situation ought to be lost on no one.

Of course, in the grand scheme, his quote won't be the memory most people have of this historic moment gone awry, but instead the forfeiture of the single most hallowed of individual accomplishments in baseball history will in and of itself be the story. Indeed the remarkable case of a third perfect game inside the span of one month -- until this year two had never happened in the same season in the modern era -- has overwhelmed what was an outrageously busy June night in sports. Ken Griffey Jr., iconic kid of the 1990s who was originally to be the subject of today's post, announced the end of his Hall of Fame career yesterday afternoon, while the Philadelphia Flyers made it a series with their 4-3 overtime win over Chicago last night in the 2010 Stanley Cup Final.

But all of that goes to the backburner now, and as a man who has loved watching Ken Griffey Jr. and spends a considerable amount of time paying attention to hockey, I'm fine with that. Because this is a once in a lifetime kind of moment that we may never see again. And it has the power to transcend and forever change its sport.

There has been a great deal of talk about Bud Selig coming in and potentially changing the call so that Galarraga gets his properly awarded perfect game, and evidently Major League Baseball is legitimately discussing the possibility of doing just that. Now, Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm might argue that she has already taken care of that, but what makes this interesting is that a powerful precedent could be set this week with a wide-ranging impact on just how much power Selig or any other commissioner has to influence the "human aspect" of the game.

The "Human aspect" has long been the argument Major League Baseball has given us for refusing to institute expanded replay beyond the current system, which just allows for home runs to be reviewed as fair or foul. That is, in my mind, a silly romanticized argument, but I can at least see where these people are coming from. We watch the game because we love it and its "purity" after all, don't we? I would argue, however, that the "human aspect" of the game is maintained by the umpire's responsibility for calling balls and strikes behind the plate. Pitching to a strike zone that has been established by the umpire during the course of a game is a unique and important aspect that can't be duplicated through the use of a video camera.

Does the ump like them high? Does he like strikes across the knees? Is he giving the outside corner today?

These are all questions that lend an intellectual and "human" aspect to the game. However, calls like the one missed by Joyce last night are not subject to this human element. Because Jason Donald was out at first, every camera angle showed it, and the remarkably contrite Joyce, whom you can hear below, knew it.

This is where the "human element" argument loses all water for me, and why I see the already rolling tide of calls for expanded instant replay after last night's foul up finally bearing fruit. No one is harmed if the umpires take 30 seconds to fix this potential catastrophe, and baseball is spared an egregious black eye. Joyce, a great umpire for more than two decades of Major League play meanwhile, would be spared unwarranted criticism from the undefended reaches of the internet to boot. Don Denkinger, the legend of incorrect calls also thinks it's high time to open up the cameras with technology in place.

And I, for one, see no plausible argument for not expanding replay to judgment calls that are clear cut such as this, such as whether a ball is fair or foul or whether or not a ball was caught before it hit the ground. Strikes and balls should be left alone, but these are easy to define, clearly distinguishable calls that can only ensure the game is going correctly. Now, I understand the other major argument of detractors: "The game is already so long". And to them I say this.

Fuck off.

They have to get the call right. They have to get the call right. They have to get the call right. They have to get the call right. They have to get the call right.


That's it. End of story. The call has to be right. I see no argument against this or possible logic that could convince me otherwise. Clean and simple. If one fan from last night's game can be found that says, "It would have been nice to see a real perfect game but I'm glad I got home five minutes earlier," I may change my mind. And so given that -- and the remarkable class shown by all parties involved from Galarraga to Joyce to Tigers manager Jim Leyland -- whether or not this call gets overturned by Selig, and I'm not so sure it should, I don't think instant replay will be far behind.

Galarraga for his part was presented with a brand new Corvette and given a standing ovation as he presented the lineup card for this afternoon's Tigers-Indians finale. The home plate umpire he presented it to, ironically, was Jim Joyce. And while the implementation of instant replay should be the lasting impact of this event, the grace with which Galarraga has handled the whole event is what should be remembered. Galarraga has told his kids that he'll always tell them he threw a perfect game, but as it stands, carrying a perfect game ostensibly through 28 batters could arguably rank as the second-greatest pitching performance behind Harvey Haddix's remarkable 12 perfect innings.

And aside from the oversaturated media world we now live in ensuring Galarraga's achievement will never be forgotten, Galarraga would always get from his start something Haddix never did -- a win. Of course, the good will will make Galarraga the winner in more ways than one, but if expanded replay is the eventual result, we may all be reaping the benefits.