Sunday, February 28, 2010

Of Course I'm Right The One Time I Don't Want To Be

I'm sure you all fondly recall Saturday when I stated my big concern with Canada facing the U.S. in today's Gold Medal Game because I didn't think the Americans could knock off a more talented Canadian team on its own soil.

Well, I was right. In heart-breaking fashion.

I don't know how exactly to quantify or describe all of the emotions and tensions that came throughout what was, without question, one of the greatest hockey games I've ever watched, but I'm going to try. Sort of.

This game was played with the type of taut atmosphere you find in Stanley Cup Finals and Super Bowls. In fact, Super Bowl XLII was the last time I recalled being as emotionally involved or excited in a sporting event. I spent much of the afternoon gnawing on fingernails and sitting with nervous energy. I was unable to sit near the end of the third period and when Zach Parise tied the game with 24.4 seconds remaining the outburst of joy was not only palpable but loud. Very.

This was a game that created that type of atmosphere and bred that emotion, and what may have been most remarkable about it, was that nearly everyone I knew, for whatever reason, couldn't stop watching despite however high or low their fandom might be. In fact, my friend Jenn, who aside from attending a Bruins-Devils game with me in Boston a year ago, has almost never talked with me about hockey, was mentioned on that bastion of hockey news known as BBC Sport for her opinion on the game (see 1320).

In spite of falling behind by two goals, I was never convinced the U.S. was out of the game, if for no other reason than their consistent, attacking forecheck was bound to break for them at some point. That break happened when Ryan Kesler, who continued to inspire anger amongst the Vancouver faithful, deflected a shot from the point in the second period to make it 2-1.

What followed in the third period was nearly 20 minutes of angst as the Canadians played one of their few strong third periods of the tournament, keeping the U.S. at bay and very nearly breaking the game open on more than one occasion. While Canada didn't pepper Ryan Miller like it did a week ago, were it not for his stellar play -- he would be named tournament MVP afterwards -- this game would have been over far earlier. But Miller kept it close long enough just in time for Parise to force the extra session, and it seems dramatically unfortunate that the one soft goal Miller gave up the entire tournament happened to be the game-winner from Sidney Crosby, who will never have to buy a drink in Canada again.

Hockey's golden boy capped off a legendary game, which, if you must find anything wrong with it, can only come from Crosby getting some help from the referee on the winner because the puck hitting the official's skate set up the play. I do not want to seem bitter -- my teams have benefited by lucky bounces more than once and it's part of the game -- but it's fairly clear the refs skate altered the play.

While the U.S. was expected not to medal according to most prognosticators, one could argue that a guarantee of Silver at worst was already an impressive accomplishment. But to get so close only to is difficult to handle as a fan and clearly as a player. Coach Ron Wilson may have had a point in saying the best team doesn't always take gold, and Zach Parise, whose four goals in the elimination rounds may have served as the budding star's coming out party, went so far as to say, "It sucks."

Perhaps to make matters even worse, Barack Obama now has to kowtow to Canadian Prime Minister, and musical genius, Stephen Harper by buying him a case of Molson Canadian beer. As one of my coworkers put it, they should have wagered healthcare. At least that Yuengling will be staying in the U.S. Besides, Harper probably has bigger concerns to worry about.

Despite their unfortunate end for me, the Olympics provided many cool moments, such as fan-inspired art of those totally sweet 1960 U.S. hockey uniforms. Not to be left out of that are those phenomenal pants wore by the Norwegian men's curling team, which, if I ever find myself curling on any sort of regular basis, I will wear. In case you're wondering, you can get them here. Coolest of all, however, was listening to the Canadian crowd sing O Canada after the men triumphed in that gold medal curling match against Norway. No, it's not my country, but few things can create such goosebumps.

Something that created goosebumps for me of a different kind came during the closing ceremonies, when the Russian handoff for the 2014 Games in Sochi brought on an imperialistic and frightening rendition of the Russian national anthem, which, in case you're wondering, was also the anthem of the Soviet Union.

Fortunately for us, those quirky Canadians were there to soften the blow afterwards, providing us a closing ceremony that featured giant cardboard cut outs of hockey players firing around a human puck, enormous inflatable beavers, enormous inflatable moose, attractive women wearing sexy Royal Canadian Mounted Police uniforms while dancing on top of an even larger mountie hat and Catherine O'Hara, known to most of us as the mother from Home Alone, telling us all how Canadians just love saying sorry all the time. As I watched, all I could think to myself was that if The Simpsons were to make a parody of what the closing ceremonies would look like at the Vancouver Olympics, much like the one they did of the opening ceremonies last week, well, it would probably look exactly the same as the real ones did.

Giant inflatable beavers? Really?

I did enjoy the self-deprecating humor of the ceremony's first moments, and I will admit to being touched when Michael J. Fox came out to speak to the crowd in a somewhat similar moment to when Muhammed Ali lit the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Games, but beyond that, most of the festivities seemed, well, silly.

And with that, the Olympics, almost as quick as they started, are done. While the Canadians did experience some controversy in the first week of the Games amid concerns that their drive to "Own the Podium" was bearing little fruit, Canada wound up breaking the record for gold medals at a single winter games, though the U.S. did take the overall medal count with 37, the largest total in history and the first time the U.S. topped the winter medal count since the 1932 Lake Placid Games.

Then again, when I look back at the Vancouver Games, all I'll really remember is that Canada took the only gold that matters. With this experience in the Americans' back pockets, however, maybe, just maybe, they'll finally take it in Sochi.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Well That Escalated Quickly

Now, I think you all know I had high hopes for the United States to beat Finland yesterday and advance to the Olympic Gold Medal game. Well, uh, I didn't see this coming. And I don't think anyone else did either, particularly considering Finland hadn't given up four goals yet in the entire tournament.

The United States scored six times in the first 12:46 of the game, an almost ludicrous pace regardless of whether you're playing against NHLers or a pee wee team. It was the largest single period output for the U.S. since 1964, and the first four tallies in the blitz came against Miikka Kiprusoff, who, while his defense clearly wasn't up to par, is generally considered one of the best goaltenders in the world. Perhaps Kipper was victim to a little bit of hubris considering his pre-Olympics comments. Either way, the United States was able to pour it on, with one tweeter noting that in the first period the Americans had a higher shooting percentage than the New York Knicks.

After a wild day of semifinal games, a team which many didn't expect to medal when the roster was announced on January first, now will have a shot at Gold for the first time since 2002, when the Americans lost it on their home soil for the first time in 70 years. The United States fell that day in Salt Lake City to the Canadians, who were making their own erstwhile history that day, winning gold 50 years to the day of their last Olympic triumph, a remarkable drought for the first nation of hockey. Well, after juuuust squeaking by the Slovakians last night, we're going to see our old friends one more time Sunday at 3 for top honors.

I, as I have noted on more than one occasion here, am not happy about this.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against Canada. In fact were it not that they were facing the United States, I would probably be pulling for them. My concern lies in that, as I told a friend earlier this week, it's hard to get shot twice and survive. The Americans already managed to beat the Canadians once on their home soil in one of the biggest wins in the history of U.S.A. Hockey, but doing it twice? In a week?

That seems like an awfully tall order. Now, I have also been saying that, logically, as someone who has watched nearly every game, I have been somewhat unimpressed by the Canadians so far. Yes, at an abstract point of view they're doing just fine, but for my money, their romp over the Russians was the only game they've played where they completely dominated the play as they should, with the exception of their loss to the U.S. In the round robin Canada took a while before it got moving against Norway and was sent to a shootout against Switzerland, two teams it should have rolled over with ease. A loss to the U.S., a dominant victory over Russia and survival against the Cinderella Slovaks is what has defined the rest of their tournament. By contrast, the United States hasn't yet so much as trailed in any game this tournament. To put that in perspective, the 1980 Gold Medal U.S. squad had to come from behind each time they took the ice.

It may seem as though I'm trying to find some rational reason to believe the Americans will win the day on Sunday, and that may indeed be the case, but I would expect this to be a fairly close game throughout, with the U.S. having a very good chance at returning the favor of Salt Lake City. But really, in total, I just can't see it. The U.S. is a strong, tenacious, gritty team, but the Canadians are simply overloaded with world-class talent in every facet. I had gotten the feeling earlier this tournament that Canada might be struggling under the unbearable pressure of winning the only gold that matters, but if they've managed to get this far, can the pressure really break them?

I'd be surprised. Two wins in Canada might be too tough a task.



Of course, if you're looking for inspiration, you can look back to the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, which I'm sure you all remember. In that tournament, the U.S. stunned Canada with a win in the preliminary rounds only to be matched up again with their neighbors in the final. That final was a three-game series, in which the Canadians took the opener in Philadelphia, but the United States shocked the northerners with not one, but two wins in Montreal to take the title. In that last game, the U.S. trailed late in the third before scoring four times in the final 3:18 of regulation, with Tony Amonte netting the game-winner, to close out the Canadians. You can see this all unfold above as guided by the smooth dulcet tones of Canadian hockey announcer Bob Cole, a man whose guiding thought process while announcing seems to be, "What? Where Am I?"

Are we likely to see an upset like that again on Sunday? Well, no, probably not. But it certainly is possible, and the U.S. has already managed to far exceed expectations so far. If the Americans continue playing well with house money, they may hit the jackpot yet and add another chapter to what is becoming a more and more storied rivalry.

If they don't come through, there are worse things than seeing the Canadians triumph in the sport that matters most to them.

At the very least, we know it'll be an interesting celebration.

Friday, February 26, 2010

1995 NFL Mail Bag: The New England Patriots

Some of you might remember a few posts ago when I mentioned my upcoming plan to write letters to every NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB team as well as Dick Cheney's uncanny marksmanship. Well, in addition to Cheney not being the only older politician to make us proud lately, you might also recall that this project was inspired by a similar letter campaign I made when I was nine years old to every NFL team.

Well last week I made a trip home to New Jersey where I did the all too exciting activity of filing my tax return. In addition to finding that I received half as much in my refund as expected -- to say nothing of what I owe New Jersey and New York -- I also uncovered a box with all the mail I received as a nine-year-old. Fifteen years later it's time to uncover it all and so every Friday, you can count on me showing you just how generous -- or cheap -- professional football teams were a decade and a half ago.

First up: The New England Patriots.

I'm going with the Pats first because after sending out my deluge of mail, New England was the first to actually respond. This became particularly memorable when my father picked me up from Sunday School at Temple Sinai in Summit, New Jersey, handing over the mail. In my haste to open it on the ride home I almost didn't notice when we were blindsided by a pregnant woman near the Short Hills train station.

Fun times.

Well, in case you're wondering, the Patriots sent me a copy of their "Sideline Report" Newsletter, as well as a handsome 1994 New England Patriots Media Guide. As a bonus the media guide features this hilarious older photo of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who has gone from bumbling maniac to championship steward in just a short 15 years since I got my mail.

The rest of the media guide is fairly unexciting. If you've worked as a sportswriter before you know media guides are a treasure trove of useful information to beef up your stories, such as Drew Bledsoe's fourth-quarter touchdown passes against the Arizona Cardinals, to name one. Do these have any practical application? No. But we make you think they do.

The real fun, however, came from The Sideline Report, which featured several trips down memory lane in addition to one retrospectively ridiculous story after another. My personal favorite, aside from the Patriots' 35th Anniversary two-page spread (this year they celebrated 50), and the obligatory Sam Adams advertisement in the back (it is Boston after all) is probably this profile on Vincent Brown's physique, deemed by Muscle and Fitness Magazine to be the best in the NFL. Now looking at this photo, he is, indeed, in phenomenal shape. And knowing how clean weight training regimens were in the 1990s, I'm sure his physique, which the article calls "Lou Ferrigno-like", came about entirely naturally. At 6'2" 245 lbs and free of body fat, the article goes on to say, "Brown is proof positive that the body builders' credo can help professional athletes reach their full potential."

Body builders indeed.

Aside from the story on Brown, who has since coached in the NFL, the rest of the magazine featured several other gems. One that caught my eye was on Marty Moore, whom the Patriots selected with the last overall pick in the 1994 NFL Draft, a slot generally known as "Mr. Irrelevant". Moore became the first Mr. Irrelevant to play in a Super Bowl in 1996 and as the story boasts he is "Irrelevant No Moore". And of course we all remember Marty Moore, don't we?

What might really be the best bit in the magazine, aside from the totally sweet pullout Ben Coates poster, is an ad for the now defunct sportswear company Apex featuring Patriots coach Bill Parcells with the tag line, "You Can't Fake Patriotism". Don't get me wrong, I love Bill Parcells for leading the Giants to two Super Bowl titles, and his place as one of the greatest coaches in modern times is more than assured. But his penchant for jumping from one organization to another makes this more than a little ironic, no? Given the statement at the bottom of the ad, "You Can't Fake This", well, perhaps Apex should have tabbed a different spokesperson. Maybe they'd still be in business if they did.

That all more or less sums up the excitement of receiving mail from the New England Patriots in 1995. I find this all pretty remarkable since the franchise's fortunes have changed so dramatically since. At the time they had endured decades of struggle with one flukey Super Bowl appearance to their credit.

Now the Pats have five more Super Bowl appearances to their credit, three championships, and arguably one of the greatest teams ever assembled. Bizarre how this can change so quickly. If the Patriots felt like giving some of that winning touch to the U.S. hockey team today for its showdown with Finland in the semifinals, well, that would be nice. Finland is no cakewalk, but I still like the U.S.'s chances at gritting out a spot in Sunday's Gold Medal Game, where I suspect they'll be rematched with Canada.

Gulp.

Of course, I will continue to think about Olympic hockey primarily for the next few days because the snow is making it difficult to think of anything other than winter sports, though it is providing some surprising benefits. As well, the only other sports team that could distract me is the Mets, who are already apparently suffering from some hilarious injuries.

I'd rather think about something else for a little while. Olympic hockey is going to do the trick.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

So I Was Wrong. Go Figure.

Alright, so that legendary showdown I was predicting between the Canadians and Russians didn't quite exactly come to pass. Much to my surprise, the outrageously talented Russians decided they simply didn't feel like playing, while the Canadians finally realized they're an almost unfair combination of skill and strength that can't be trifled with.

Somewhere, Don Cherry is smiling.

Not only did the Canadians smack the Russians around but good, they may have finally found the groove we've all been waiting for them to display. As I've said all along, this is easily the most talented team in the tournament, but for the opening round Canada appeared to struggled at times and took a while to get its offense rolling against lesser teams like Norway or Germany.

Last night Canada was an efficient machine that would steamroll any team it came across. Reports of its demise were outrageously premature, and if the Canadians keep rolling, I can't see how they don't win gold on Sunday. As I now have a feeling we're in for a USA-Canada rematch on Sunday, this doesn't sit too well with me.

And speaking of the USA, they advanced to a semifinal match against Finland with another gritty performance, and while it may at first seem as though the U.S. underperformed against the Swiss, whose roster does not compare talent-wise with any other team in the quarterfinals, the one wild card is always a hot goaltender, and as I said yesterday, Jonas Hiller is good enough to steal a game. And with the exception of a bizarre and lucky turn of the clock at the end of the second period, Hiller came damn close. Hiller was a wall all day, racking up 42 saves, and were it not for Zach Parise's flukey goal early in the third period, the game might have been headed towards a shootout.

As for Parise, he scored his first and second goals of the tournament, which, considering that he's arguably the most dynamic player on the U.S. team, took long enough. Not to say that he didn't play well in the preliminary rounds; Parise assisted on multiple crucial goals and created plays with his frenetic pace and speed, but it was surprising that he hadn't yet lit the lamp. The U.S. could use a few more tallies against the Finns on Friday, who will have a sturdy Miikka Kiprusoff in net to go with what is a fairly potent offense. I still like the chances of the U.S. to out-muscle and wear down Finland over 60 minutes, but I may be viewing that through patriotic lenses.

And I know it. I guess we'll see how it turns out in 27 hours.

Before I sign off for today, I wanted to get back to a few days ago when I brought up my not so recent fascination with Curling. My friend Christian, after reading the post sent me a photo of him and his friends after a jaunt to the ice sheet in college to see what it's all about. I his words, "It's really fun and it DOES tire you out," so I'm not surprised on either account and am even more eager to give it a shot once I actually, you know, have free time or people to do with it. Always the catch there. The more I watch it the more convinced I am that it really is an intense physical work out -- so all you people who claim curlers aren't athletes can stuff it. Moreover, as another reader pointed out to me, Curling can apparently be a more socially conscious sport than most while doing the important job of educating teenagers.

I told you all the game was replete with euphemisms.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

You All Should Care About This More

It's a big ol' day of Olympic hockey as we move on to the elimination rounds, and not those silly qualification round games where giants pick on lesser countries. I shouldn't be quite so condescending. After all, Norway did push Slovakia to overtime and Latvia put a scare into the Czech Republic, which also needed overtime to advance.

But let's be honest here. These were not big matchups. With the possible exception of USA-Switzerland at 3 p.m. all of today's quarterfinal matches feature big-time showdowns. I of course will be most glued to the United States, which should, all things being equal, manage a victory over the Swiss. Beyond defenseman Mark Streit and netminder Jonas Hiller, this team is mostly bereft of NHLers and should be a relative easy match. Of course, if being a Mets and Giants fan has taught me anything it's not to take any game for granted. This goes double for the Swiss, who almost stole a game from Canada in the round robin. With Hiller in goal, Switzerland is a threat to beat anyone any day, which makes me extremely antsy.

That said, USA-Switzerland is probably the least sexy game of the day. Finland and the Czech Republic will give us a meeting of two gold medal contenders at 10 as will Slovakia and Sweden at midnight.

But neither of those is the one I'm excited about. Nope. Not one bit.

....

"Well, what are you excited about, Dave?!"

At the beginning of this tournament, Canada was the prohibitive gold medal favorite with many tabbing Russia as the team most likely to stand in its way. Well, Russia does, indeed, stand in its way, but not for all of the marbles, as we all expected. Instead, the Canadians' disappointing first-round showing, which saw the greatest collection of hockey talent on the planet get taken to a shootout before a stunning loss to the U.S., has put both of these teams in quite a predicament.

We're all getting the game we wanted, but instead of gold, they aren't playing for any medal at all. Whomever loses will go home in a remarkably unexpected turn of events.

And that's not why it's so exciting.

Here's why it's so exciting. Canada and Russia don't like each other. Really, they don't. In fact, they hate each other. While we Americans only think of Russian hockey in terms of Sergei Fedorov and the Miracle on Ice, Canada has its own storied rivalry with the east. This comes not so much out of any history of dramatic upsets, but more over the pride of which nation is the greatest in the sport. These tensions came to a head during the 1972 Summit Series, which still is one of the proudest hockey moments for any Canadian who was or wasn't alive at the time. Canada rallied from a 5-3 deficit with three third-period goals in the decisive game in Moscow.

Some Canadians, such as the delightful, and phenomenally dressed Don Cherry still believe the Russians to be too soft to compete with the real men of Canada. Or at the very least that they're taking jobs from good Canadian boys.



If the historic rivalry over the two doesn't whet your appetite enough, perhaps the fact that the three best players in the world will be in the game will. In fact, number one and two will be on opposite sides of the ice and they don't like each other one bit and they're quite vocal about it. The two have faced each other a number of times, including a thrilling playoff series last year when both scored hat tricks in the same game.

During the regular season, Ovechkin's Capitals have had a tendency to win more often than not lately, including a thriller on Super Bowl Sunday this year, when Ovi's hat trick propelled the Caps to their 14th straight win in overtime. Of course, despite the regular season success, Crosby has clearly been the one who has gotten the ultimate prize so far among other spoils.

Regardless, what this all boils down to is the two most dynamic players in the world, who don't like each other, playing for their countries, which don't like each other, in the biggest international hockey tournament in the world in a one-off elimination game.

How on Earth can you not be excited about this? The only person who might not be is Crosby's phenomenal teammate and Russian forward Evgeni Malkin, who, if nothing else, just gets lost in the shuffle. I haven't even gotten to the dozens of All Stars suiting up for either side such as Jarome Iginla or Ilya Kovalchuk.

This is an incredible international matchup with stars and stakes that happen once every four years if we're lucky. If you enjoy any sport, let alone hockey, you should be watching this game.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Memories From Milwaukee

Originally written on May 22, 2009

While I had already decided I wanted to see every Major League Baseball park, my first exposure to stadia outside the New York area came in the spring of 2001. I was 15 at the time, and while the long parade of college visits most American High Schoolers endure was not yet in full swing, my mother had wanted to visit my sister at the University of Wisconsin that April and figured it was as good a time as any to get the show underway. Our first stop came in Evanston, Illinois, where I would be exposed to Northwestern University, an event that would obviously have longterm ramifications. I was hoping to see Wrigley Field for the first time that week, and I did, but the Cubs had hit the road, and while my mother and I did accidentally wind up attending a White Sox-Twins game at the new Comiskey Park, a story for another time, I have a far stronger recollection – and perhaps connection – to a later stop we would make in Wisconsin.

This probably has to do with the fact that the Mets were involved.

When my mother and I had planned out the trip to visit my sister in Madison, I noticed that Milwaukee, not a far drive away, was on the schedule for the Amazins’ current road trip. This more or less set in stone that whenever the Mets are within 200 miles of me on the road, I have to attend. After begging and pleading, we finally bought tickets for myself, my mother, Stephanie and her roommate.

In both Chicago and Milwaukee, this would be the first time I saw parks that came in the modern style. While we were impressed when we saw Comiskey, the excitement would fade after the trip to Miller Park and Milwaukee made it clear the Sox had missed the boat. Granted, given that Miller Park was in its first season and Comiskey in its 10th the fight was not fair. The Brewers had had time to see where the popular architectural fads would go before breaking ground on their new home.

But advantages aside, what a home it is. While Comiskey was the first stadium I saw a game in that hadn’t been built before 1965, Miller Park was the first I had been to that fell under the architectural trends started in Baltimore when the Orioles cut the ribbon on Camden Yards in 1992. As well, as the Brewers’ new home had only been in use for three weeks at the time I got to it, it hadn’t yet lost its new car smell. The floors were all smooth and clean, the concourses were wide with direct views of the field, the plaza outside was bereft of litter – even the parking lot signs were shinier.

For someone who had spent their life walking the cold, characterless, narrow concourses of Shea Stadium and Yankee Stadium, this was an overwhelming wakeup call for what the baseball viewing experience could be. It was clear that a stadium did not simply have to be the vessel for telling the story. It could aesthetically become one of the characters.

Miller Park is a visually striking building from the outside. Its external walls are covered in red brick that give it the flavor and appearance of a traditional, older park, but at the same time, the stadium is fitted with a retractable roof that could never be confused with a structural element of the 1920s. It is a deep green that finds its apex above the stadium’s main gate, behind home plate, and fans out across the top of the park. While the roof when closed does make the experience feel somewhat artificial, the areas above the brick wall and beneath the edge of the roof are large glass sections that allow natural light to pour into the stadium. The entire back wall of the building also opens up to allow sunlight to illuminate the playing surface.

The sightlines are phenomenal and the fans are a dedicated bunch who are well-humored when the Brew Crew is in lean times, and raucous in the winning seasons. The highlight for many at the stadium is, of course, the Sausage race, which takes place midway through the 6th inning, when contestants dressed as a hot dog, german sausage, polish sausage, italian and chorizo sprint around the diamond. The silly, but highly enjoyable spectacle has been copied in numerous other stadiums.

The race also gets a fair amount of televised publicity, and may have received the most attention in 2003 when the Pirates’ Randall Simon knocked down the italian sausages mid-race with his bat as a joke. When it became apparent that he had injured University of Wisconsin student Mandy Block who was racing in the costume, the contrite Simon gracefully accepted a three-day suspension and his $432 fine after being cited for disorderly conduct. He purchased a free sausage sandwich for every fan in section 432 when he returned to Milwaukee as a member of the Cubs weeks later, while Block, and this is not a joke, would be awarded a certificate of bravery from the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council.



Despite the raging popularity of the sausage race, however, my favorite in-game quirk of the Brewers is the tradition of Bernie Brewer dropping down a gigantic slide in the outfield after each Milwaukee home run. Given the jet stream in the park, this happens quite a bit. My love for this tradition comes not out of zest for seeing a cartoony, mustachioed mascot being dropped on a platform to wave around an oversized Brewers flag, but rather because every time I see it, I try to imagine Bernie Brewer sliding into an enormous mug of beer. Not only would this be infinitely more awesome than landing on a raised platform, but it would be keeping a connection alive to the Brewers’ former home of Milwaukee County Stadium, where Bernie did, in fact, dive into a giant mug of beer each time a Brewer went yard.

The platform will have to do.

Most of my first visit was spent staring in awe and watching my mother suffer one anxiety attack after another as she feared for my safety when I made obnoxious comments to native Wisconsinites about the superiority of my defending-National League champion Mets. Coming through for me as they always do, the Mets lost that night. In the years since, I have found the Mets often lose when I see them on the road. They love to make their brash fan base look good, after all. On a positive note, the game was particularly memorable for the fact that defensively challenged Mike Piazza threw out not one, but two would-be base stealers in a single inning. As I remarked at my surprise, a Brewers fan in front of me asked me when the last time Piazza had turned that trick was. I told him I wasn’t sure he ever had.

The four of us all received souvenir fishing hats with a logo for Miller Park’s inaugural season on them as a free promotional item, which is surely buried in a pile somewhere in my childhood home. As I began attending Northwestern University two years later, less than 90 miles south of Milwaukee, this would not be my last stop at Miller Park. In fact, over several visits whenever the Mets were in town, I have become more and more familiar and more and more a fan of its grounds. I have developed fond memories of chatting with other displaced Mets fans and receiving angry scowls from seven-year-old girls when I openly cheered.

On one occasion I had taken a weekend vacation to Milwaukee with my friends Mike Trawicki, Amit Marwah and Blake Kluger for some Mets-Brewers baseball, a round of golf and, of course, Culver's. On the way up we would see some very interesting license plates and be fairly confused by a sign for America's Black Holocaust Museum. I would find that golf is indeed, as Mark Twain put it, a good walk spoiled. In my case, I broke a wedge while frustratingly banging it into the fairway leaving Mike to talk the course into not making me pay for it. The highlight of that trip was probably Mrs. Trawicki’s homemade cinnamon bun frosting, though a venture to try Mike’s long-vaunted Milwaukee Mexican food comes close, but my favorite incident came when I tried my hand at entrepreneurial negotiations at the stadium. As a 15-year-old Cracker Jack vendor walked by I asked him if he was interested in making a deal.

“How much for that big Cracker Jack bag you have around your shoulder?”

“Uh….”

“I’ll give you $20 for it.”

“Um… let me ask my manager.”

The summer before, a co-counselor at Fairview Lake named Cody Umbach had tried the same trick at a minor league New Jersey Cardinals game and come away with a free souvenir simply because they had extras. Fifteen minutes later when the vendor returned, I’d find in the majors, even in Milwaukee, they weren’t quite as generous.

“Uh, yeah, my boss told me they’d fire me if I sold my bag to you.”

“Well, what if you went to the bathroom and somebody ‘stole’ it?”

“I don’t think we can do that after I already asked my boss about it.”

Undeterred, another Cracker Jack vendor came by, who must have been in his early 40s and I posed him the same question.

“Eighty bucks,” he said.

I passed.

The memories weren’t always good ones at the stadium, mostly because the Mets, despite generally being the superior team, usually lost. One such day, Bill Hall clubbed a walkoff home run on Mother’s Day in 2006 with his pink breast cancer awareness bat to send the Mets and Pedro Martinez to a defeat.

The game I will remember most clearly in the stadium, however, was from the day before, when I, my girlfriend at the time, Jess, and my senior year college roommate Zach Silka had driven up to Milwaukee to see a thriller of a game. The Mets would actually prevail after Paul Lo Duca’s solo shot off Derrick Turnbow lifted New York to a 9-8 win just a half-inning after Milwaukee had erased a four-run deficit on back-to-back homers. The game, however, is not memorable to me because of its thrilling, and satisfying conclusion, nor is it memorable because my friends Deek and Feiny, who drove in from Madison to meet me for the game nearly picked a fight with some of the drunker Brewers fans in the crowd.

Instead, I will remember it because despite arriving to Milwaukee well in advance of the first pitch, we had underestimated the Dairy State’s fascination with Turnbow, their mulletted closer. That night was Derrick Turnbow bobblehead doll night, with his mane being immortalized with actual glued on hair. It was particularly ironic that he should come in to take the loss in a tie game in the top of the ninth inning, but as I noted, players often suffer bizarrely poor performances on bobblehead nights in their honor for no apparent reason. As Feiny facetiously pointed out, “Babe Ruth died on his bobblehead doll day.”

The demand for this particular promotion was so strong that we struggled to find parking anywhere near the stadium and eventually put our car next to Deek’s in a vacant lot next to a McDonald’s which sat down the road from the stadium. The five of us didn’t enter the turnstiles until the sixth inning.

I probably should have assumed ahead of time that the entire state of Wisconsin gets in gear when there are limited edition free nodding statues in the mix. The stadium’s attendance that night was well in excess of its seated capacity, as the up-and-coming Brewers – they would reach the postseason two years later for the first time since 1982 – proved a strong draw. Doubly so on promotional nights. I would leave the park satisfied considering the Mets won the day, but I would be lying if I claimed to be calm and relaxed throughout the entire course of trying to find a parking spot. This irritation was only worsened when I found that Deek and Feiny decided, despite the game already being five innings old, to actually go into McDonald’s after parking. Fortunately, they were so hungry that they managed to scarf down their food as we walked to the building, picked up our tickets and entered a mere 2/3 of the way through the game.

But we did get our bobblehead dolls – and in the limited edition throwback uniform to boot.

Zach in the meantime felt the need to overcome whatever stress he was recently enduring by drinking a lot of beer. And quickly. Two innings after we showed up it was very clear I was going to be driving home as Silka was in no condition to do so himself. Considering we only got to watch three innings of the game, the amount of time for him to sober up was practically nil. Zach had also convinced us to divert from our original plan of spending the night in the party town of Madison because Deek and Feiny broke it to him that at this point of early May, most University of Wisconsin students were studying for finals or home after finishing them.

The inebriated Silka convinced me we must drive back to Evanston for a party that wound up never happening, and after he told a number of Mets fans at the stadium that he was from Syosset, New York instead of his actual hometown of Toledo, Ohio, Zach quickly passed out in the back of his SUV as I guided it back to Evanston. Halfway through the ride Zach woke up and told me we absolutely had to pull off at the next hotel so he could use the bathroom. This required going through an unmanned tollbooth, which we shockingly didn’t have enough change on us to pay for. As Zach threw pennies in the bucket and insisted we go through anyway, I stopped at a hotel where he calmly went inside to ask the front desk where the rest room was.

A few minutes later Silka emerged. Rather than walk to the car he casually strolled around the side of the building and relieved himself behind a dumpster. Evidently they wouldn’t let him use the bathroom inside. It seems strange that my strongest memory from visiting Miller Park might be seeing my roommate get turned away from a public rest room, but knowing the zaniness of that entire night, it sort of makes sense.

And knowing what shape he was in, well, I can’t say I blame them.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

See? I Told You All Hockey Was Awesome

For all you people who claim hockey is boring and that you don't know how it could be entertaining, the whole lot of you got smacked in the face tonight with the United States' upset win over Canada at the Vancouver Olympics, its first victory against its northern neighbors at an Olympic Games in 50 years. This was an exciting, taut matchup between two geographic rivals that played with the same effort and tension you'd see in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Both teams viewed it as a key stepping stone to a medal, and what followed with tons of great saves, great goals and wild end-to-end rushes was great theater. America's victory has set them up for a fantastic shot at the medal rounds, while dealing a startling blow to Canadian national pride.

Now, unfortunately, I'm going to have to break down to all of you in a few minutes why this might not have been the hallmark moment you thought it was -- to say nothing of the fact that Canada is still very much alive for the gold medal -- but don't worry, if you want to relish in it for a few seconds, I'll let you have your moment.

...

There you go. Now, I'm not going to be one of those self-congratulatory hockey fans who begins to criticize the vast majority of you for not caring about hockey until tonight --  it seems Gawker already did it for me. I don't mind people jumping on the bandwagon when the Olympics come around. Swells of patriotism and the joy of national triumph are what the Olympics are all about, even if douchebag extraordinaire Christopher Hitchens doesn't seem to agree. Furthermore, without it we wouldn't get gems of comments by Canadians such as this one.

No, I'm glad you're all watching, and I'm glad you're all pissed off that the game was relegated to MSNBC rather than NBC's national telecast. If the U.S. team can make a stirring run to the medal round, rally the country behind it and convert some of you out there into real hockey fans who keep watching come the Stanley Cup playoffs this year, tonight's game will have been a victory not just in the Olympics but for hockey as a whole. This is Canada's game, but making it healthier in the U.S. can only better the sport for everyone.



And how exactly did we get here? Well it's very clear that this game started and ended with Ryan Miller's play between the pipes. Miller has been stellar this season for the Buffalo Sabres in what has already been a fine career to this point, but tonight was a level I have never seen him at before. In a tense, pressurized rivalry game in front of an opposition crowd and on an international stage, Miller was unconscious throughout and made several huge stops en route to a 42-save night.

Meanwhile, you can call it a stretch if you want, but with my hero Martin Brodeur in goal, the following players factored heavily into every U.S. goal, with the exception of Ryan Kesler's empty-netter: Zach Parise, Jamie Langenbrunner, Brian Rafalski and Chris Drury. The fact that I was forced to cheer for Drury in what was essentially a Rangers jersey against a red-bedecked Brodeur was oustandingly uncomfortable, but their is a certain national pride that conquers all. Regardless, Drury, as a Ranger, faces Brodeur several times a year, while Rafalski played with Marty on two Stanley Cup-winning squads and Parise and Langenbrunner currently share a locker room with the NHL's All-time wins leader. All of them were familiar with Brodeur. All of them have known him for years and had to have had some idea of how to play him. That edge alone was invaluable.

No, Brodeur was not at his best. Three of those goals were direct results of errors he made playing the puck, and he may very well have played himself out of the starting job, but he still made several outstanding saves in the second period, which was the only period during which the U.S. really controlled play. As Marty said, Miller was the difference -- and he was -- but the fact that three current or former Devils and a Ranger were involved in every scored on Brodeur cannot be overlooked.

As for that last goal by Kesler, it was particularly interesting since it may have sealed his fate of never being able to show his face in Vancouver again. Kesler's upset-sealing tally came on the heels of comments that must have caused a stir north of the border, when he said of the Canadians, "I hate them." That may seem a bit brash, but it's unlikely Kesler will really have to hear from Vancouverites too often since he plays for ... the Vancouver Canucks.

Oops.

Well, with those comments in tow and that diving empty-net score, it might be a safe bet Kesler has punched his ticket out of Vancouver, but at least he looked good doing it, because yes, I'm a total sucker for those totally sweet 1960 Squaw Valley throwbacks the U.S. was wearing tonight. The 1980 jerseys will always have a special spot in my heart -- the U.S. should wear them at every tournament -- but these come a close second. Still, while Kesler stoked some flames, he didn't do anything completely stupid, like, say, mark Alex Ovechkin's colossal hit on Jaromir Jagr with a clearly inappropriate caption on his heavily trafficked website.

So what exactly does this all mean? Well, not as much as you'd think. On MSNBC after the game the following statements were uttered: "The biggest U.S. hockey victory since 1980," "Huge upset" and "Just a bunch of Americans playing a team of future hall of famers." All of these statements are, well, a little over the top.

Let's calm down a little bit people.

First of all, to put this win on par with The Miracle on Ice in 1980 is just plain silly. No upset, no not even the greatest football game ever played, will ever carry the symbolism, political weight and shock of the U.S.'s win over the Soviets in Lake Placid. Besides, the U.S.'s shocking victory at hockey's 1994 World Cup and it's arrival in the Gold Medal Game in Salt Lake City in 2002 were all bigger moments. As for "huge upset", well, these are all NHL players on both sides, and the U.S. and Canada both had a number of star players. Were the Canadians the more talented lot? By quite a margin the answer is yes. But during an NHL season, weak teams with more diluted talent than this still win against the big dogs once in a while. Gretzky's Oilers didn't go undefeated each season. Lastly, "Just a bunch of Americans playing a team of future hall of famers" gives the U.S. team too little credit and the Canadians too much. The Americans are young, and Kesler isn't likely to wind up in the hall, but a number of players on the team, Parise, who was profiled in Sports Illustrated this week, Miller, Patrick Kane to name a few, could very well have long, hall-worthy careers. Of course, it's much too early to make that kind of declaration, but it's hardly out of the realm of possibility. As for the Canadians, Brodeur, Sidney Crosby and more than one or two others on the roster are likely to be honored in Toronto some day. But is Corey Perry? Is Patrice Bergeron?

In any event, this was exciting, but it is probably not the major moment NBC wants you to believe it was. Of course, like I said, if it gets more hockey fans, I'm fine with the outcome, but we ought to see what this really does to the tournament as it stands.

Depending on the outcome of Finland and Sweden, the U.S. seems like it will wind up with the top overall seed in the elimination rounds of what is a very confusing tournament structure -- a surprise to say the least. This means, the Americans will get a bye to the quarterfinals where they will face the winner of Belarus and Switzerland. While Swiss goaltender Jonas Hiller could easily steal a game -- he single-handedly eliminated the Presidents' Trophy-winning San Jose Sharks in the opening round of the postseason last year -- beyond Hiller neither team has a threatening lineup. This means the U.S. could very possibly find its way into the semifinals, which could have them facing a stiffer challenge in the likes of Finland or the Czech Republic.

As for the Canadians, the path gets far more ornery. Canada will face the Germans in the first elimination round, which, frankly, may as well be a day off, but if all the favorites hold and win through the first round of elimination games, Canada will face off with Russia in the quarterfinals, a matchup that insures one of the two pre-tournament gold medal favorites will leave the Olympics with nothing to show for it. If the Canadians are to get past Alex Ovechkin and company -- and I think they would -- they find themselves in the semifinals where their challenges are on the same level as any other team team that gets to that point. In fact, it's very possible that Canada and the U.S. could meet again next Sunday for the gold, and in that situation I don't like the Americans' chances, but that potential matchup with the Russians looms large as the key stumbling block.

Canada has put a lot of pressure on itself to take home what some say is the only medal that matters. As Sports Illustrated put it, without top honors in hockey the Games as a whole will be considered a failure. Being on the magazine's cover may not have helped the team's case, but either way, for Sidney Crosby and the Canadians, the clock is starting to tick.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Oh, So That's What The C In CNBC Stands For

Perhaps the rest of you haven't been watching as much Olympic coverage as I have, which, frankly, wouldn't take very much, but it seems as though of all the sports I've watched so far, by leaps and bounds the most ubiquitous has been curling. Now, this doesn't bother me one bit. I rather enjoy curling -- it's a fascinating game -- and I generally only get to watch it once every four years. If you're not so familiar or, as one of my coworkers claims, you think it's just "plinko on ice", well, you're wrong. And here's a refresher. Here's a more complex explanation.

Because of in-house Canadian feeds at my office I now get to annually watch major tournaments like the Brier of Scottie's Tournament of Hearts, but prior to that, I had to wait four years and even then the matches were often in mid-day or at 2 a.m. And yes, when they were on at 2 a.m. in Torino, I stayed up to watch.

This year, however, there seems to be an entirely different case. CNBC has been showing the entire first week of curling matches nearly round the clock, with the lone exception being whenever a hockey game is played and even in those cases, the early parts of the first period are often pre-empted so the final end can be finished.

One wonders if we'll ever see Maria Bartiromo again.

The logic goes that curling's heavy presence on the NBC sister channel is probably a result of vastly increased popularity for the sports in the U.S. since it was introduced as an official Olympic sport in Nagano in 1998, and indeed, it certainly does seem more popular. After all, the sport was profiled in a recent episode of The Simpsons -- the greatest TV show of all time.



Not to be outdone, Stephen Colbert, a man who doesn't like to be left out of the spotlight, and whose support of the U.S. Speedskating team is well documented even if it's not well received, also did a recent segment where he experimented with the sport.

I also think the fact that the game so easily lends itself to dirty jokes -- "She can hog my line anytime" or "I wish I was laying two in the house" for instance -- doesn't hurt its case. But it seems bizarre to me that such a deliberate, strategy driven game can be becoming so popular when it isn't a game you've grown up with. Baseball, for instance, is also a slow, methodical game, but it is more deeply woven into American culture than any other. Curling may be a part of the fabric of our neighbors to the north, but it certainly isn't down here. I had never heard of the game before 1998 and its status as an Olympic sport is often the butt of many jokes.

Lastly, most people seem to think curling is gaining popularity, among some fairly surprising people, because people can relate to the average joes -- the U.S. team has a substitute teacher and a bartender in its ranks -- but that belies the fact that these people are, in fact, very good athletes. Rumor has it that one curling outing and your body is so sore you're out of commission for days. Now, I'm no John Shuster, though given his knack for not coming up in the big spot this year that might be a good thing, but I'm now determined to give this sport a shot at some point. Besides, what other game, besides golf, can you play while wearing pants like this?

If only I could find people to do it with me. Volunteers welcome.

In other, and wildly more exciting news, the U.S., which by some miracle currently leads its preliminary group in ice hockey, will be taking on Canada tomorrow night in the neighbor nations' Olympic grudgematch. Some of you may recall the U.S. lost to Canada in the Gold Medal Game in Salt Lake City in 2002, the first time in 70 years the U.S. didn't take top honors in ice hockey on its own soil. This isn't the Gold Medal Game, and it is tough for me to root against Martin Brodeur, but with as much pressure as there is on the Canadian team to take home the only gold medal that really matters, it'd be awfully nice to return the favor of 2002 in Vancouver.

This is a new, different, younger U.S. team than the one that played in Salt Lake City or won the World Cup in 1994, and no, I don't expect the U.S. to win, but it will be fun and it will be exciting. And I will be watching.

You ought to, too.

That's all for this weekend, friends. Enjoy the games. I will have a new story up for you all on Monday. Suggestions for which team to post are welcome.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Oh My God Rick Reilly Shut Up

I wanted to avoid talking about this Tiger Woods press conference. Really, I did. I am so unbelievably tired of this story -- if for no other reason than it is absolutely none of our business -- and yet, well, here I am. Not so much because I feel the need to criticize Tiger, though I am now convinced that he is the worst public speaker alive, but moreso because I need to explain something very clearly to ESPN commentator and former Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly.

Rick. Buddy. Tiger did not cheat on you. He cheated on his wife. Despite how badly you might want to be her, you, Rick Reilly, are not his wife. He does not owe you an apology.

Get it? Got it? Awesome.

Now, I know you may feel like Tiger owes you something since you have all the answers for his troubles even if your colleagues don't necessarily think you do, but he doesn't actually owe you anything. Really, he doesn't. He doesn't owe you anything and he doesn't owe me or any other sports fan anything. At all.

In fact, unless you happen to be a Swedish woman named Elin Nordegren, or are one of Tiger's close relatives, he doesn't owe you any sort of apology at all. Not sure why, Rick? Ok. Let me break it down for you.

For the last 15 years Tiger has been playing golf at such an exceptional level that at one point you even called him a "God". He has provided you with hours of incredible entertainment -- and after all that is really what sports are in the end -- and you, in particular, have managed to get attention and money off of it by writing about him the entire time. Tiger has given you fodder from his teenage years when he was not yet the juggernaut he became and continued to do so throughout his early time on the tour and later as he crafted his remarkable career.

You gave us schmaltzy stories about how wonderful and exciting he is, gave us the not so difficult prediction that he was going to be amazing, told us how quirky and fun he was and on more than one occasion delivered your own account of his sentimental attachment to his father.

Yeah, Rick, you've gotten quite a bit of mileage out of Tiger, and as such, I offer you this advice, which is surely as unwanted as the advice you keep giving him, and that is shut up. The fact is this is purely a personal matter between one man and the wife he has betrayed, and you have almost made a career out of praising Tiger. You have no place to act holier than thou, and, if anything, you might owe Tiger for giving you something to write about. In some ways, Tiger Woods made you, and he is the reason you got to be popular enough to write about leukemia-ridden paraplegics who were trying to play ping pong every week.

Frankly, I think I may owe Tiger for the years of entertainment he has given all of us. He's not the first public figure we've admired and he's not the first one who has strayed. Any of us who feel like we have been personally slighted, need to get over ourselves, and you Mr. Reilly lead that pack.

Now, I will admit, Rick, somehow you have managed not to say the dumbest thing anyone has mentioned on the matter, but that doesn't mean you are any more right to take an expert point of view on what was probably the dullest, least remarkable press conference I have ever seen in my life. By the time Tiger was done apologizing this morning I just wanted those five minutes of my life back, or at the very least, had hoped something more interesting would be announced.



I was really hoping to spend today talking about two remarkable Olympic hockey games last night, with Canada getting by Switzerland in a shootout and Slovakia doing the same later in the evening against Russia. Or at the very least, I was going to wax poetic on the amusing and surprising fun that comes from following the twitterverse during Yevgeny Plyushchenko's long program in men's figure skating last night. But now, after watching Tiger say that his apology to his wife will take months and be defined through his actions -- and he's absolutely right -- all I can think about is how tired I am of hearing you ramble, Rick.

Don't get me wrong. Is Tiger Woods a hypocrite? Absolutely. But Rick, even if you've never cheated on your wife, it looks like you may very well have been cut from the same cloth.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Why Don't The Knicks Just Trade The City Of New York?

Ah the strong, masculine sport of figure skating, thy name is Johnny Weir.

Don't get me wrong, I can appreciate figure skating, and I understand that it is, in fact, very very difficult to do. I even enjoy watching it from time to time, but what I can't understand is that with hundreds of millions of people watching you perform your triple salchows, this is what you chose to wear?

Really?

I have no sense for fashion -- I wore birkenstocks, cargo shorts and hockey jerseys for most of college -- but I can't possibly imagine anyone would find this attire appropriate for any situation whatsoever. Then again, I suppose I'm not one to judge if you want to look like a woman whose dress has just been ripped open or a worn out fur coat. Everyone makes their own choices. And I do realize that part of Weir's appeal is his flamboyant choice of vestments, but don't we think this is pushing it just a wee bit? Particularly since Men's Figure Skating outfits have been silly, but never quite this silly?

I suppose the only sillier thing is why I'm asking the question. I don't fault Weir for his choices. I just think his attire may take away attention from the actual artistry or technical proficiency of his performance. And after all, isn't that, you know, the point?

I suppose I ought not to get involved, particularly since I've been paying far more attention to skiing, snowboard cross, curling, short track and not surprisingly hockey. I was extremely dismayed last night at around 2 a.m., however, to find that RCN Cable is cutting off the last hockey game of the night in the middle of the third period to show infomercials. Last night in particular, when Slovakia and the Czech Republic was cut off despite playing the first watchable hockey game of the tournament was a ridiculous offense.

It's possible that there's a wider conspiracy here. So far Canada has done a decent job of owning the podium -- the host nation has won six medals including its first two golds on home soil -- but it wouldn't surprise me if the Canadians were trying to sweep hockey under the rug until their boys get to the medal round because they might be worried that people will find out the greatest Canadian isn't really Canadian anymore.



Then again, it could jut be crappy TV scheduling. Either way, I'm still getting to watch more Olympics coverage than I know what to do with. Of course getting to watch up to six channels of coverage from two different countries at a time at the office helps that, but I'm enjoying it despite the overstimulation.

Remarkably, the Games have distracted me from the fact that Pitchers and Catchers report to Mets camp today, which is either a blessing or a curse depending on how you feel. I haven't quite made up my mind yet, but the Mets actually playing baseball this year can't be the worst thing I've come across this week.

And speaking of bad ideas, the Knicks are apparently trying to trade everything but the kitchen sink to Houston for Tracy McGrady. I shouldn't really call it a bad idea. Acquiring McGrady's expiring contract would help clear out the cap even more for the NBA's 2010 Free Agent Extravaganza, and enable the 'Bockers to offer two max contracts and possibly turn this sinking Titanic around after a decade of futility. One would hope with that much space, New York can finally sign the pieces to become a winner again. Unfortunately, as this authentic video of the negotiations shows, well, the Rockets are asking for quite a bit.



Still, personally, with how bad this team is aside from David Lee and Danilo Gallinari, I can't really have a problem with any move that starts to clear away the rotten scraps. Bring it on. Houston may be extracting everything it can from Knicks GM Donnie Walsh, but I've seen bigger scams.

In other news, I will be putting my aforementioned letter writing project on hold until I have a chance to speak with a lawyer. While I'm excited to see what it turns up, a rudimentary bit of investigating revealed that it might constitute mail fraud. Until I have that straightened out, I will be waiting to get the ball rolling. I'm sure it's too small a case to ever be prosecuted -- there are far bigger frauds out there -- but it only makes sense to proceed cautiously.

Before I close shop today, I thought I would send a sentimental note out there to all my friends who are Yankees fans. I've never been a huge fan of Yankee Stadium (I), and I've often found talk of the ghosts and tradition of it to be a little silly ever since the building was renovated in the 1970s, but as I did spend a number of nights in my teenage years at the House that Ruth Built, it was a bit sad to see these pictures last night, showing that even the most hallowed and beloved of Stadiums eventually meet their end. We probably should have all expected to see Yankee Stadium torn down, but it doesn't make the images any less significant.

Lastly, I would like to extend a hearty thanks to the unsinkable Molly Turner of Kansas City, Missouri, who along with Susie Sharkey, may have single-handedly tripled my reader base -- at least for a day -- by publicizing Monday's story about my trip to see the Kansas City Royals. My hits across the flyover states saw an absolutely staggering increase, and while I don't expect the readers to keep coming without my mentioning their favorite city, if they do, well, I owe Molly and Susie a drink. Possibly two.

Enjoy tonight's Olympic coverage. And if you're not a Mets fan, enjoy the baseball, too.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

But I’m a Good Drunk Driver

Originally written February 1, 2010.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Missouri is, at least as of 2008, it is one of just eight states in the union that allows passengers in a car to drink open alcohol. While I and my compatriots took advantage of this on the way to Kauffman Stadium on July 26, 2008, it became readily apparent to me that in a town where the communal ethos every Saturday night is “I know I’m driving home drunk, but I’m a good drunk driver,” as one Kansas City resident said to me, this is unbelievably stupid. In a state where three years earlier I had seen a sign reminding Cardinals fans that “Missouri law prohibits firearms in a sporting venue with a seating capacity of 5,000 or more,” this was far more disconcerting. Then again, in a city where bars in the Waldo neighborhood sell domestic bottles for $1.50, I can’t blame them for enjoying the revelry. What Lewis Black said of Madison, Wisconsin holds true in Kansas City, Missouri.

Even with the plane ticket it’s cheaper than drinking in New York.

Regardless, I wasn’t thinking of the theoretical implications, I was just enjoying drinking my Sierra Nevada. I always thought the idea of drinking openly and brazenly on the car ride to a baseball game was a little ridiculous, or at the very least required questionable judgment. But here I was, enjoying every minute of it. Not being quite sure what was proper and yet still relishing in it was probably the theme of that trip to Kansas City for me. In a city distinctly different from my own, the brief sojourn was a wholly educational experience.

I had come to Kansas City that summer to visit Susie Sharkey, whom I had met five years earlier while working at Fairview Lake YMCA Camp. Fairview generally hired a large swath of counselors from across the country and the world, prompting me to make friends with people as close as New Jersey and as far as Australia. Kansas City lay somewhere between those two on the exotic scale.

I’m not sure when the moment occurred that Susie and I became so close, though I theorize it was probably the night during staff training when we sang an impromptu rendition of Don McLean’s “American Pie”, likely to the chagrin of everyone around us. In the years since, Susie visited me in Chicago, I visited her while she was working in a Jesuit Social Work program in Sacramento, and she visited me in New York in April of 2008. If the pattern involved alternating, well, I suppose it was my turn again.

I bought a plane ticket with a few goals in mind, namely indulging in famed Kansas City BBQ, visiting the Negro Leagues Museum, stepping foot in the state of Kansas and, obviously, seeing a Royals game. Really, it was the barbecue that was key. This trip was far more organized than my trip to Sacramento two and a half years earlier, when a winter storm-induced airline snafu caused me to spend my first day in California as the designated driver for Susie’s roommates whom I had never met before while Susie, ironically, spent the night in Chicago.

This time she was at the airport waiting for me.

Apparently, I prepped Susie for my visit well, because she wasted little time in knocking off the first requirement, as she drove me, her friend Kathleen and her brother John directly from the airport to Arthur Bryant’s, considered by some to be the most famous barbecue restaurant in the world. While it has been patronized by all manner of celebrities – a few months after I visited GOP nominee John McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin would stop in – the d├ęcor is about as fancy as a high school dining hall.

When you eat there, however, you’re thankful that’s the case. Were they to fritter away money on repairing the chipped formica tables, it might distract them for the more pertinent task of preparing the food. I had the brisket and burnt ends, their specialty, and felt my arteries clogging almost immediately. This would be a trend for the entire weekend.

The next day Susie and I visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which is located in the same building as the American Jazz Museum and you can buy a joint entry into both of them. We did, but after the Negro Leagues Museum we were fairly wiped out. It contains a number of interesting pieces of memorabilia as well as early 20th century and late 19th century newspaper articles and posters that are riddled with hints of America’s racial tension. The one thing that struck me most, however, was that a number of the placards and exhibits were damaged or otherwise in disrepair. In most museums these things would have quickly been fixed, but much of the damage hadn’t been touched in years it seemed.

This didn’t show me so much that the museum was not well kept or curated – it was well organized and very interesting – but rather it gave you the feeling that it wasn’t fixed because people didn’t seem to care as much about this particular museum. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but torn plaques in exhibits would never fly at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. But that, I feel, was long a white institution. Making sure that the dedication to African-American heritage in baseball history was just as pristine and professional just didn’t seem important to enough people, which is truly a shame. Neglecting greats like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell is as tragic a situation for all of baseball as it is for black baseball. But in the racial wounds of this country, some of which will never heal, this one, I suppose, is fairly minor on the grand scale.

The barbecue tour was far from over, and Susie was as strong a partner as I could hope for. Our next stop was Oklahoma Joe’s, a slightly more well-kept, but equally as casual joint as Arthur Bryant’s that lies past a scenic drive of industrial factories at 3002 West 47th Avenue in Kansas City, KS. The line was long – it was the heart of lunch time – and the people behind the counter were good-natured and slopped an outrageous amount of food on your wax-paper covered trays. I went for the jumbo size pulled beef and pork sandwich with a side of French fries. It was probably enough calories to keep me running for a year or so.

After this, other highlights of the trip included a venture to Hallmark headquarters, an obligatory visit to Culver’s so I could get a double butter burger with cheese and frozen custard, and perhaps the most interesting, the Sprint Center in downtown KC. The thoroughly modern arena is a sharp building. Its outside is entirely made of glass and curves in a modern and tasteful fashion. The stadium is meant to be the anchor of the revitalized Power and Light District, which also has a number of apartments and restaurants, one of which, a location of the Famous Dave’s BBQ chain, was pointed out to me by Susie as a restaurant we would not be going to when there was authentic Kansas City BBQ to be had.

There is only one problem with the arena, and that is, well, no one plays there. It does regularly host concerts as well as college basketball tournaments – it is hardly vacant – but professional sports, aside from a few preseason games, have yet to make their presence felt there.

It is, however, home to the Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame and the College Basketball Experience, which is completely awesome. Susie and I did our best to beat the buzzer with three-pointers and test our passing accuracy. Each activity has a sign explaining the museum’s rules which, adorably, include “absolutely no swearing or cursing.”

There I learned that Shaquille O’Neal, not surprisingly, has feet about twice the size of mine. Also, dunking is hard.

Really hard.

Visitors can test their skills dunking on hoops 7, 8, 9 and 10 feet high, and while, I have never been noted for my athletic prowess, I struggled with the shortest one. It was here that I came to the stunning conclusion that dunking a basketball is an obscenely difficult task. It is absurd that human beings can actually do it.

The last bit of the museum is a quiet hall denoting all the members of the college basketball Hall of Fame, which happens to be accompanied by softly playing college fight songs. I cracked a smile when “Go U Northwestern” started playing, though given NU’s inauspicious basketball history –it is the only school in the six major conferences never to make the NCAA Tournament – it seemed an odd choice. Then again, as a freshman I practiced with the Ultimate Frisbee team at Patten Gymnasium in Evanston, which hosted the first ever NCAA Tournament Championship Game in 1939. I struck up a conversation with an older man, a Michigan alum, while Susie watched on in amazement that I could reel off so much pointless sports trivia with a man three times my age. I wasn’t sure if I should be proud or seek to do more productive things with my time.

Other highlights of the weekend included a party at Susie’s house where I made sure to bring six packs both of Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat and Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy, which I hid in the back of the fridge. About 10 beers later, and after generally making a fool of myself, it was time to slow down.

The next day was the main event, a Saturday night showdown at the K with Susie, her boyfriend Kevin and her friend Hennie. As the non-drivers among us sipped our beers on the car ride, we approached the stadium, which sits in a complex next to the Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium, and were informed by Hennie that her ex-boyfriend was apparently also attending. The potential for awkwardness abounded, but surely we wouldn’t bump into him in a stadium that held more than 38,000 people.

The odds were that we wouldn’t even see him, let alone park just a few spots away from him in the stadium lot. Ah, but the odds are odds and not certainties for a reason. Sure enough there he was, and the uncomfortable hello conversation ensued. I’m fairly convinced in the years since that this was the moment Hennie decided she no longer wanted to be at the game. I can’t say I blame her – I would probably feel uncomfortable in the same position, but having come halfway across the country to see this baseball game, I was less than sympathetic.

We bought our tickets and entered the big winding circular entrance ramp and were presented with our Dan Quisenberry Bobblehead dolls, complete with a Royals fireman’s helmet in reference to his reputation as one of the best relievers, or firemen, of his day. I would be lying if I said the giveaway didn’t factor into when I scheduled my visit to the Paris of the Plains.

Kauffman Stadium is one of the more interesting  I have seen. It is fairly old, but for a building from an era typified by multi-use cylinders, it is a very modern baseball-specific design. The stadium’s upper deck has a unique slope at the ends that give it a crescent-like shape. The main stands open up to a view beyond the outfield of grassy fields and trees. While there is a road that cuts through the landscape, the picture is very idyllic, giving you the sense that while you are at a Major League game, the field connects to baseball’s mythological Field of Dreams roots. It is a simple and subtle fixture in the stadium, but there is something rare and overtly pleasant about it that I enjoy tremendously.

Adding to it are the famed fountains that sprout up beyond the centerfield wall. I have always remembered them as a special characteristic of the building since I first saw a game in Kansas City on ESPN as a child. Seeing them in person is interesting, if for no other reason than because those types of ballpark features were practically unheard of when the K was built. The fountain is the largest privately funded one in the world, and gives the stadium authentic charm that is often sought and rarely matched in newer buildings. Make no mistake, the building is uniquely 1970s in its design, which bears many similarities to cookie-cutter stadiums such as its steep upper deck, but it is also unique in a number of ways.

At the time I was there, the building was in the midst of a major renovation designed at adding restaurants and luxury seating which would keep the Royals competitive in the ever financially expanding Major Leagues. As a result, the gigantic Royals crown that typically circles the top of the scoreboard lay in pieces on the grass beyond the right field wall. Part of the renovations, a positively enormous LED scoreboard – at the time the world’s largest – was already installed.

Opposite Kansas City’s starter, a rookie right-hander with high hopes named Luke Hochevar, was Tampa Bay ace Scott Kazmir. As a Mets fan, watching Kazmir pitch in a Rays uniform still hurt. Kazmir had been a highly touted prospect for New York until 2004 when he was dealt in a foolishly lopsided trade to the Rays for the eternal Victor Zambrano.

In the years since, Kazmir has become an all star. By 2008, Zambrano was out of baseball.

The Royals played the Rays close, keeping the game tied at 2-2 for the first five innings, and then, like so much bad luck, the rains came. A 73-minute delay was sparked by a rain and hail storm that provided some beautiful red skies in the distance but also resulted in a lot of soaked clothes. I, having never been there before and never a fan of leaving early, made it a point to stay. Susie was reluctantly willing to back me on this, at least for a brief period, and Kevin, too stuck with me.

Hennie, was less than enthusiastic. Her feelings might have been influenced by the fact that not only was her ex-boyfriend at the game, but he was seated in the same section as us. We stuck out the rains, but eventually everyone had gotten grouchy except me and with the majority – and the moisture – ruling, we headed to the car shortly after the delay ended.

The next day, Susie and I made one more stop on the way to the airport, a lunch at the popular Kansas City-area chain Gates Bar-B-Q. Gates, along with Arthur Bryant’s, is one of two area restaurants that draws roots from the father of Kansas City barbecue, Henry Perry. Ironically, Gates is the only place in Kansas City that I actually had ribs at. The sauce was a nice change of pace, tangy like the others but with a peppery kick at the end. I decided to splurge on the $3 and buy a bottle to take home.

By the end of the trip I was thoroughly worn down and full of more barbecue sauce than I think any normal person should eat in a year, let alone a weekend. After Susie dropped me off at the airport, a place that in and of itself was a new experience because of how much smaller it was than any other airport I had been to, I went to the desk to get my ticket and when asked to check my bag, I told the clerk, “No thanks.” I had made a point to borrow a rolling weekend bag from my roommate, Brandon, so I wouldn’t have to bother with baggage claim when I got home, particularly since my flight wasn’t direct.

As I went through security, the woman checking bags, a skinny blond in her 50s, sharply informed me of a problem.

“You can’t take the barbecue sauce on the plane, sir.”

Federal regulations don’t allow you to bring liquids larger than three ounces in volume onto planes as a carry-on item. While I have no problem with the rules, I am always stunned at how much more pointed and dedicated to enforcing them I’ve found security people at smaller airports to be than their counterparts in major population centers that are more likely targets of terrorism. Annoyed, I went back to the clerk to check my bag rather than throw out my memento of Kansas City.

“Back again, huh?” the clerk said.

“Yes, apparently my barbecue sauce is too dangerous to bring on the plane,” I told her.

If there was nothing else I learned in Kansas City that weekend, it was that the people are very perceptive. And they also know their barbecue.

“Is it Gates?”

“Actually, yes it is.”

“Yeah,” she said. “That stuff’s pretty potent.”