Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The City Of Brotherly Disdain

Originally written July 31, 2009

It is one of my deep regrets in life that I never saw Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. Supposedly it was one of the worst places to see a baseball game, but I am a firm believer in the inability to understand joy if we don’t experience pain. That said, I have no idea how to appreciate new baseball wunderkinds without being familiar with their lesser predecessors.

And the Vet was, by all accounts, lesser. A soul-less cylindrical wasteland not unlike Shea, its most exciting characteristic was its on-site courtroom and jail cell for Philadelphia’s more animated fans. Those particular animated fans may be more the norm than the exception in my mind, but that is, I ought to admit, perhaps unfair.

I come into this story with an ax to grind. As a lifelong Mets, Giants and Devils fan, the city of Philadelphia is not my favorite. Throughout the late 1990s, the Devils and Flyers regularly battled for the Atlantic Division, and on two occasions, Eastern Conference Championship. As a Giants fan, my hatred of the Eagles is an unspoken certainty. As a Mets fan, the Phillies broke my heart with late season comebacks to take the National League East in both 2007 and 2008. Both years I had tickets to the first round of the playoffs to boot.

Of course, those two incidents happened after my first trip to the Phillies’ not so much warmer, gentler home of Citizens Bank Park on August 17, 2006. At that point, the city of Philadelphia had not won a title in my lifetime. And I was damn happy about that. As I was born in 1985 I had just missed titles by the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies and the 1983 Sixers. The Flyers’ last Cup was in 1975 and before that, the Eagles, perhaps my most hated of all sports teams, hadn’t snagged an NFL Championship since 1960, six years before the first Super Bowl. While the Phillies did finally end the city’s title drought in 2008 in a bizarre rain-interrupted Game Five, it was still of great satisfaction to me that the rest of the teams were unable to reach the top of the mountain.
The summer of 2006 was winding down and I was preparing for my senior year of college when Weg and I had a Sunday to kill and decided to spend it checking out the Phillies’ home park as they wrapped up a four-game set against the Mets. As it currently stands, I can’t exactly remember what the impetus for the trip was aside from wanting to watch the Amazins at the top of their game. That season was, to that point in my life, probably the best I had ever seen for the Metropolitans. Jose Reyes and David Wright were finally recognizing their potential, Carlos Beltran had bounced back from a mediocre first season with New York and Carlos Delgado was providing the powerful bat to the middle of the lineup the Mets had missed since Mike Piazza was in his prime.

This would be the season I truly familiarized myself with the crapshoot nature of baseball’s postseason. New York would finish the season with 97 wins, the most in baseball along with, well, New York, as the Yankees, too, would win 97. This prompted some publications, such as The Sporting News, to wonder in early October if another Subway Series was inevitable. And if the odds bore themselves out as they should have, it would be.

But that’s why they play the games.

The Yankees would surprisingly fall to the Tigers in the opening round of the playoffs, while the Mets would be eliminated in an excruciating seven-game NLCS against St. Louis. It was at that point that I realized the true sign of a team’s greatness is merely making the postseason. The playoffs themselves are too short and prone to random variation. Anything beyond a postseason berth is gravy.

Of course, the analytical side of my mind tells me that. In my heart I pine for the ultimate prize, which I’ve yet to see. But in my mind I know building a team to win the World Series is a fool’s errand. Too much can happen, too much can change and in my brain I know that when the Mets finally do win the World Series it will merely be a product of luck and chance.

But what glorious luck it will be.

Of course, that day in 2006, I was less convinced of luck affecting the Mets’ chances than I was their skill. The Mets were running away from their NL East competition to such a length that even with six weeks left in the season, the division title was a foregone conclusion. I thought about this as I drove down to New Brunswick, New Jersey, where Weg was living for the summer along with some of his classmates from Rutgers University. After I picked him up we made sure to make a stop at the notorious grease trucks.

For those uninitiated, the grease trucks are a staple of undergraduate life for the Scarlet Knights. Each truck makes sandwiches that include a combination of just about any cellulite packing food you could want all thrown into the same bun with inspiring names like “Fat Darrell” or “Fat Bitch”. I first became familiar with the grease trucks when I was a junior in high school as I traveled to Rutgers with the Millburn High School Academic Quiz Bowl team for a tournament.

That’s right, I’m a nerd.

My personal favorite was a sandwich called the Fat Knight, a heart-clogging combination of cheesesteak, mozzarella sticks, chicken fingers, french fries and marinara sauce. As Weg and I made our purchases, we hit the road for Philadelphia, eating our multiple-thousand calorie sandwiches en route. New York and Philadelphia are not particularly far. A cheesesteak vendor in the East Village of Manhattan proudly calls itself “99 Miles to Philly” and it is approximately just that far. Philadelphia’s proximity makes it an ideal candidate for a day trip – the ride is rarely more than two hours – but some days the traffic can get heavy.

This was one of those days.

Indeed a number of construction delays sidetracked us and we hastily made up a new route using a map and some side roads, which, somehow, actually got us to park well in advance of game time.

Citizens Bank Park comes up in the horizon much like any other in the wave of faux-retro stadiums, with its old-timey steel banks of stadium lights high above it. The drive into the stadium parking lots is uninspiring. It rests in a complex of all the city’s major sports teams, and indeed, Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Eagles, and the Flyers and Sixers’ home, the Wachovia Center, are all within close walking distance. This is extremely convenient, but it also makes the area look like three gigantic stadiums surrounded by dozens of vacant lots.

That’s because it is. The lots are there not because Philadelphia can’t find businesses to fill the ground, but because the parked cars have to go somewhere. While the placement of the stadiums is not as aesthetically pleasing as most new stadiums that are intended to revitalize depressed downtowns, such as Coors Field in Denver, it does make getting in and leaving a whole lot easier if you’re driving – perhaps the only benefit of the rash of suburban arenas that popped up in the 1960s and 70s.

Weg and I parked my beige 1994 Camry Wagon in a dirt lot not far from the Park and began our walk. From afar, the stadium looks very nice, with its red-brick walls, and its intimate environs, supposedly far different from the spacious Vet. But it also includes those delightful Philly fans. This would be my first time walking into Philadelphia wearing the other team’s colors.

The baptism came quickly.

As Weg and I approached decked in our blue and orange, a group of Philly fans was tailgating in the parking lot, and they immediately began hollering. Perhaps they had a right to. Despite their superb play for most of the season, the Mets were currently in the midst of a four-game series in the City of Brotherly Love in which they had lost the first three. The Mets still led the season series 9-6 at the time, but the Fightins felt emboldened.

One of them cried out to us, “Did you guys bring your brooms? For the sweep?!”

We paused for a second, slightly dumbfounded at some unexpected ribbing and dramatically dumbfounded at arrogance that can come despite being nowhere near the top of the standings.

“No,” I replied. “… But we brought our 12 ½-game lead in first place.”

Silence.

As so often is the case when we feel cornered, the fan relied on the only trump card he had left.

“Ah….. well, fuck you!”

Thoroughly bested, Weg and I proceeded to the stadium where we noticed long lines for walkups at the stadium box office. Apparently summer Sundays and beautiful weather are recipes for crowds, and at 45,775 this would be the largest in the three-year history of Citizens Bank Park. Weg and I, however, had no use for lines, and rather than wait through the first three innings with the plebeians, we quickly scoured for scalpers and found one who appeared to have no idea what he was doing.

He was more boy than man, with an unshaven lightly-grown in pre-pubescent mustache, a backwards Phillies hat and a constant look of “Huh?” on his face. One would surmise this was not your typical vendor. In fact, when he offered us $45 face-value tickets at merely $25 a pop, it became apparent he wasn’t a vendor at all – just a random kid trying to unload two extra tickets. Unfortunately for us, an actual scalper sensed the chance to make a huge score, re-selling the tickets at face value to make a sizeable return on his investment.

“SIXTY!” he jumped in with.

Fortunately for Weg and I, the kid clearly wasn’t comfortable dealing with the scalper, and when we informed him that we, too, would pay $60 for the pair, he gave us the tickets prompting outrage from the scalper. Weg and I sensed it wise to get into the park as quickly as possible.

We entered the stadium and passed by the Phillie Phun Zone, a children’s play area with a delightful plastic sculpture of the Phillie Phanatic – just about the only thing I like about this franchise – riding a roller coaster car. While walking to our seats, it quickly became apparent that we were not sitting in a typical section. We had somehow landed ducats to the Hall of Fame Club, the first snazzy club I had ever seen in a baseball stadium. Upscale bars, red baseball-themed carpeting, Phillies memorabilia and air conditioning stretched as far as the eye could see.

To boot, for a city so reputed for its crass fans, it was a shockingly environmentally conscious building – the beer cups were made of processed corn. A year after our trip, PETA would name it the most vegetarian-friendly park in the majors.

We walked out of the club to our seats, which were cushioned and in a private elevated section behind first base, and settled in to watch the game. Say, what you will about its inhabitants – and I do – Citizens Bank Park is a beautiful place to watch baseball. The park does indeed feel intimate and its ubiquitous brick facades everywhere give it a character and warmth that was unlike Miller Park, the other newer stadium I had been to at the time. It had plenty of what many new buildings do so well in that it had quirks and characteristics that reminded you that this was where the Phillies called home.

Along centerfield was Ashburn Alley, a collection of restaurants, shops and Phillies memorabilia named for Richie Ashburn, considered by many the greatest to ever play in Philadelphia’s pinstripes. The park also features a Phillies Wall of Fame and exhibits commemorating Philadelphia’s baseball history. As if those weren’t strong enough indicators, there were two remaining items that are uniquely Philly. For one there is a giant electric Liberty Bell that rings after each Phillie home run, and for another, and perhaps most endemic of its hometown fans, is the open-air stacked bullpens in right field.

Rather than having bullpens side by side, the Phillies built them one on top of the other, with the upper bullpen set back from the lower bullpen. The argument is that this enables both teams’ relievers a better view of the action on the field, but ulterior motives lurk. The upper bullpen happens to be right beneath a standing room passageway where fans either watch the game or walk by to get around the stadium. The location leaves visiting relievers in perfect position to be heckled, a practice which is allowed so long as they keep it clean.

That a stadium would be built with a fan’s ability to heckle visiting players in mind is stunning in my mind. Those fans might want to watch themselves if they aren’t paying attention to the field, however, as they might be hit by a home run ball that flies out of the stadium.

And fly they do.

In its infancy, Citizens Bank Park has gained a warranted reputation as a notorious hitter’s park. The stadium has been among the National League leaders in home runs each of its first six seasons, often leading the pack. The balls jet out of the building so often that the left field wall was actually moved back five feet after its first season. So prone to the long ball is the stadium, that two days before Weg and I showed up, Mets leadoff hitter Jose Reyes, a man far more reputed for his stolen bases than his power stroke, hit three home runs in one game.

It did little good as the Mets would lose that game 11-4, and while Reyes didn’t bring his power stroke along when I was in the stands, he didn’t have to worry about carrying the load.  Carlos Delgado did. Delgado clocked two homers that day, as the Mets scored in the first three innings to jump out to a four-run lead. With John Maine delivering six solid innings, New York would breeze to a 7-2 win, snapping its three-game skid and starting a seven-game winning streak. Beginning that day the Mets would win 13 of their next 15 games, effectively ending the race for the NL East pennant that year. While Philadelphia’s slugging first baseman Ryan Howard would hit his 42nd home run of the year that day, tying Boston’s David Ortiz for the Major League lead, there was little else good on the day for the Philly fans, who were unable to drown out a “Let’s Go Mets!” chant from the traveling New York crowd that had driven down for the Sunday matinee.

With a nice win in our back pockets, Weg and I left the park with smug looks on our faces. The only problem with the day was the eons-long wait to get out of the parking lot and back on the New Jersey Turnpike. While we had our hearts broken in October, August of 2006 was a good time to be a Mets fan. Yes, a year later the Phillies would cap a remarkable comeback in the standings to rob the Mets of consecutive division titles, forever putting fuel in the rivalry’s fire. But some days you’re able to waltz into enemy territory, take their barbs and leave with a smile on your face after taking over their building.

My first visit to Citizens Bank Park was one of those days. Were I clairvoyant enough to see what would happen the next three seasons, well, I probably wouldn’t have been so arrogant when I left the stadium. But I claim no guilt in that. Being surrounded by Philadelphia sports fans will always bring the worst out of me.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Weekend Sports Roundup

Ok, I'm going to level with you. I had a fairly busy weekend and last night in the semifinals of my office fantasy hockey league I suffered the most painful fantasy sports loss of my life, so.....

Yeah, I don't have a story prepared for you.

I know. I know. You're not sure how you're going to procrastinate at work today, but I'm going to ramble a little and perhaps you'll be able to find some solace that way. Maybe. I have a hunch that won't be the case right away since, for me, the most exciting sports moment of the weekend came when I checked my twitter feed at the Brooklyn Brunch Experiment and found that Southampton FC had won the Johnstone's Paint Trophy.

Some of you might recall from my earlier posts that I follow a soccer team in England called Southampton FC, known as the Saints, the result of a sparsely maintained friendship I formed with a Brit named Scott Pestell eight years ago while working as a summer camp counselor. Since I started following the Saints, after an early brush with Premier League prominence -- the club rose as high as fifth in the table of England's top flight -- it has been a rough period for the team. Southampton has been relegated twice in the past eight years, the results of financial constraints, injuries and being put into administration. The Saints did nearly pull back into the Premier League before losing a play-off match to Derby County on PKs a few years ago, but since then it's been nothing but bad news.

Well, the red and white stripes got some good news on Sunday.

No, the Johnstone's Paint Trophy isn't exactly the U.K. equivalent of winning the Super Bowl. In fact, the Wikipedia page for the tournament says it, "is not considered a priority by many clubs, with some opting to field below-strength teams, particularly in the earlier rounds". But it's still the first piece of hardware for the club in 34 years since its triumph over Manchester United (Surely, you've heard of them at least) in the 1976 F.A. Cup Final.

So, while this may not particularly excite you, it certainly excited me. Following this team through the internet for nearly a decade has only reinforced to me that, well, maybe I didn't make the most fortuitous selection in my European soccer clubs. But perhaps with this accomplishment, a push towards promotion to the Championship League and then finally on to the Premier League might be in the cards.

Ok. The section on sports you don't care about is over now. Just be happy I didn't dedicate several paragraphs to Gary Ablett's public declaration that people need to stop bugging him about a potential move to Gold Coast for the AFL's 2011 season.

Now, if you want to hear about something you've heard of before, this NCAA Basketball Tournament thing is starting to wind down to its final stages. Baylor missed out on a golden opportunity to make this the most peculiar and interesting Final Four I've ever seen when it blew a late lead to Duke last night, and with the Final Four now sitting at Butler, Michigan State, West Virginia and Duke -- raise your hand if you had that one -- well, it looks to me like the Blue Devils have pretty much an open path to a championship after they were gifted the weakest region in the bracket.

What this essentially means is that after one of the greatest tournaments ever, we may very well wind up with Kyle Singler and Mike Krzyzewski cutting down the nets next Monday, and that is a conclusion that will be incredibly unsatisfying to just about everyone. With any hope, the Mountaineers of West Virginia can throw Duke off the pace Saturday night and still give us hope of that West Virginia-Butler National Championship Game we've all been hoping for. The only problem I have with this is that West Virginia coach Bob Huggins is, you know, despicable, but at the very least his alma mater, should it triumph, can probably count on having its name spelled correctly on the t-shirts this time.

Of course, if the other established program still alive, Michigan State, should take the title, it will be slightly more palatable because they wear my favorite color and they're not quite as nationally reviled, but as an alum of another Big Ten school I have difficulty cheering for Sparty. I will say, however, that this may have solidified Tom Izzo's reputation as the best basketball coach of his generation -- at all levels. Yes, Phil Jackson is really, really good, but the best player to come through Michigan State in Izzo's tenure that I can think of is Mateen Cleaves, who, unlike Jackson's charges of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Scottie Pippen, hasn't exactly made the right kinds of headlines lately. And yet, Izzo, who has a National Championship to his credit, is in his second consecutive Final Four and sixth in the last 12 years. Oh yeah, and he's doing it without his best player.

Mighty impressive indeed.

Lastly, I leave you all on a sentimental note. If you've never seen the movie Slap Shot, you might do well to stop everything you're doing and pop it in immediately. The craziness of Paul Newman and the Hanson Brothers as they play for a minor league team known as the Charlestown Chiefs is a classic bit of cinematic fare for not just hockey fans, but comedy fans alike. The film was an homage to the Johnstown Jets of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which had folded prior to filming, but a new team, named the Chiefs has played there for 20 years after being inspired by the movie. Well, according to ESPN.com, the team, faced with financial troubles yet again, will be moving south.

I've never been to the city, and it always bugs me when some jackass wears a Charlestown Chiefs jersey at NHL games (without fail there is always at least one), but something about this just seems sad to me.

Perhaps I'll mourn the loss by popping it in the DVD player.

Friday, March 26, 2010

1995 NFL Mail Bag: The Detroit Lions

Looking back on it, it's hard for us to remember that there once was a time that the Detroit Lions weren't completely god awful. That time was the 1990s, when Wayne Fontes led something of a renaissance for football in Motown despite everyone thinking he looked like that creepy Italian Restauranteur who was actually selling spaghetti bolognese as a front for the mob.

In fact, however, Fontes was just a football coach, and from the looks of it not too shabby of one either. The Lions would win two NFC Central titles and make the playoffs four times under Fontes, as well as securing two more postseason berths before the decade was out. That's six if you're counting, which means in the 1990s, if you look up postseason participants in a given year the Lions are more likely to be among them than not.

Yeah, this is the same team that went 0-16 two years ago.

I bring this up because it was during this peculiar Barry Sanders-driven renaissance that I sent a letter to the Lions and received a response, according to the postmark, on March 21, 1995. Fontes was still in charge, Barry Sanders was a six-time Pro Bowler and GM was still solvent and financially independent. It was a good time for the Motor City.

It was so good that you'd think the Honolulu Blue and Silver could have sent me more than three pieces of paper and a poster, but all in all, considering what other teams sent me this was actually a pretty decent take. It's one of my favorites actually and I'll give you the two reasons why.

For starters, like every team the Lions sent me the requisite "thanks for writing letter" and I'm always intrigued by what the letterhead will look like. Not only is the letterhead for the Lions in color, but you'll notice the awesome graphic in the upper left corner. Yeah, that's the Lions logo from 1961-69. I totally dig it, and I love that they still use it. Either that or they have an absurdly large amount of leftover stationary from the 1960s.

Among other goodies included was a single sheet of paper detailing the history of the Detroit Lions, which apparently could be summed up in about 600 words. I've noticed that quite a few teams, and I think all of the ones in the NFC North have included something like this, a clear sign that they hadn't updated most of their distributed press materials for modern technology yet -- though my memory on 1995 is spacey; photocopiers may have been the height of modernization for all I know.

The paper ends with Detroit's loss in the 1991 NFC Championship Game against the eventual Super Bowl Champion Redskins, and yes, it is still hard to imagine the Lions in a Conference Championship Game, but looking back on it and knowing that three seasons passed between that "history" of the Lions being written and me receiving the mail, I find it hard to believe they felt they could ignore the two playoff berths and the divisional title they won in that period.

Something tells me they cling to those a little more strongly now.

Like every team, mail is a golden opportunity to make money and the Lions certainly weren't too good to beg for your change. To wit, they included a list of players I could purchase 8x10 black and white glossy photos of if I so chose. Some names are memorable and make sense: Sanders, Chris Spielman, Herman Moore, hell even Brett Perriman seems a reasonable purchase choice. But I found it odd that other selections you could buy (for just $5!) included Dave Krieg, a journeyman quarterback whose actually fairly impressive career accomplishments are overshadowed by the fact that he fumbled more than anyone else in NFL history at the time he retired. Given that other names among the top five in NFL fumbles are Warren Moon, Brett Favre and John Elway, maybe its not such bad company to keep.

Most peculiar on this list of potential player purchases to me, however, was Lomas Brown, whom I most vividly remember for saying the words, "I'm so proud to be a New York Giant" following Big Blue's win in the 2000 NFC Championship Game when he was on New York's offensive line. This prompted two questions from me, namely A) Lomas Brown was on the Lions? and B) Who on Earth would want a glossy photo print of Lomas Brown?

I could also purchase a glossy photo of starting quarterback Scott Mitchell, but why would I want to do that when the Lions already gave me this totally fucking sweet poster of him? This is the second reason I love the package the Lions sent me and it might be my favorite item that I've received from any team. Period.

Why?

It is a hilariously awful and kitschy product that represents the essence of 1990s football marketing. Much along the lines of the ad Bill Parcells did for Apex in my Patriots mail, this poster of Mitchell, who was both a perfectly good and yet eminently forgettable player echoes to a bygone era when Starter actually produced paraphernalia for NFL teams. And it was available at J.C. Penny. Not only is the sideline merchandise he's modeling in the lower left corner a heartwarming reminder of watching football as a child but perhaps most importantly, look at that hair.

Seriously, look at how awesome that is.

Lastly, and this is one of the most amazing parts of the poster, while playing an NFL Game, it really looks like he's wearing, yup, you guessed it, Reebok Pumps. Come on, you remember Pumps, right?

What this package contained was not only a decent amount of swag but about three dozen cheerful reminders of watching football in my childhood. Aside from a few laughs, a walk down football memory lane is really about the best I can hope for while sifting through these.

In the case of the Lions, even if they can no longer do it on the field, at least in my heart this was an unmitigated success. Reading through all of it was just the right thing to cheer me up after I realized that I slept through all of Geelong's season opening win over Essendon this morning. Don't worry, ESPN360.com lets you watch replays of it. I speculate that I slept through it because I was just too exhausted by last night's phenomenal Kansas State-Xavier Sweet Sixteen game.

And so, because of this, I thank the Lions for getting my day started properly. If this didn't excite you, dear reader, perhaps learning about tonight's Sabres-Senators match will, though I'm skeptical.

If neither of those do the trick, well, I'm sure you'll all find some way to survive. It is Friday after all. Have a good weekend, everyone.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

18 Hours Until Geelong's First Bounce

I preface this entry with the warning that 99% will probably not care at all about most of what I write about. Don't worry, there's some basketball later. But sometimes you have to do some things for yourself. You know, artistically. So here we go.

Perhaps one of the biggest highlights of my recent jaunt to Israel was a chance encounter with a group of Australian teenagers at our hostel in Jerusalem. No, not that kind of chance encounter. This was a collection of 18-year-old men who hailed from Sydney, and what made the meeting so exciting for me is that it provided a rare opportunity to talk football.

Not this kind of football, or this kind of football. And, uh, certainly not this kind of football.

I'm talking about footy, AFL, Aussie Rules. This kind of football.

I've made mention before of my affection for the Geelong Cats, and I always enjoy the rare chances to talk shop with a native Aussie or any other AFL fan. I'm far from an expert on the game, but in a year or so I've picked up my fair amount of history, and in this case, given that I had just had one of my rare opportunities to use a computer 15 minutes earlier, I actually had the upperhand knowing Western Bulldogs had knocked off St. Kilda in the final of the NAB Cup, a preseason NIT of sorts for the AFL.

Happy to deliver the news we riffed about Gary Ablett and Leo Barry, names that you surely have never heard of before, and both of us compared our own joy over sportsfandom triumphs, in my case Super Bowl XLII, in his Sydney's nail-biting win over West Coast in the 2005 Grand Final, ending a 72-year title drought for the Swannies.


My favorite moment probably came when he asked me if Tom Brady was a huge celebrity in America. I suppose I would have sounded just as silly if I queried about the Australian popularity of Nick Riewoldt.

It wasn't all positive. Sydney has dealt Geelong a heartbreak or two, including one particularly brutal loss in the 2005 Qualifying Final, when the mercurial Nick Davis scored four unanswered goals in the final quarter. But I chose not to bring it up because a) I wasn't watching footy yet when that happened, and b) I was having too much fun just talking footy at all.

I mention this because, as I'm sure you all know, Geelong opens its 2010 campaign tomorrow at the bright and early hour of 4:40 a.m. ET against the Essendon Bombers. Now, surely I would be crazy to wake up early enough to watch this showdown at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, but I never claimed to be sane, and I will be in front of the computer with my navy and white hoops on. If anyone wants to come over to watch the excitement, let me know. There will be beer. And chips.

Surely you're all wondering how you can watch tomorrow. While AFL was dropped from its contract with the premium channel Setanta Sports a year ago, ESPN360.com, or as it will be known next month, ESPN3.com, is showing several live matches every weekend, while ESPN2 will have a few live matches throughout the summer, as well as a live broadcast of the 2010 Grand Final on September 25th.



My Cats are defending champions, as some of you may recall, after topping St. Kilda in a thrilling Grand Final last fall. They're coming off their second premiership in three years and third straight appearance in the AFL's championship match, but there are many issues the team is sorting through as the season begins. For starters, tomorrow's game will be the 200th in the Geelong career of Joel Corey, a man responsible for one of the biggest plays in Geelong history as you can see above. Other topics concern whether or not the young Tom Hawkins is due to break out and become a start, how the team will manage in its first year without captain Tom Harley, who retired this offseason and the always tense saga of whether or not Ablett, last year's Brownlow Medalist and considered by many to be the best in the game, will leave Geelong for a lucrative offer with upstart Gold Coast, which begins play as the AFL's 17th franchise next year. The potential distraction, as well as the aging roster even has some of the Cats players thinking this will be their last chance before the window of opportunity closes to take another title.

So basically, yeah, there's a lot to talk about. Get excited. If you can't be bothered to watch online, your first chance to see footy on ESPN2 comes in 15 weeks when Geelong faces Hawthorn, who no doubt will be looking for revenge after essentially getting knocked out of the playoff race by the Cats a season ago when Geelong overcame a 35-point deficit to knock off the Hawks.

Get excited.

Oh yeah, basketball. That NCAA Tournament thing starts again today, and while I will be watching, I'll mostly be rooting for Cornell to knock off Kentucky, thereby ensuring that none of my Final Four teams make it to the Elite Eight and clinching my worst bracket ever. To be honest, at this point I'm far more interested with seeing if the Nets can win one more game (they defeated the Kings last night) to stave off the sole position as the worst team in NBA history. I feel that if Kentucky does, in fact lose to Cornell today, John Calipari, who ironically never had a team this bad when he coached the Nets, will probably take it with more grace than Nets CEO Brett Yormark.

Say what you will about how mismanaged the Knicks were under Isiah Thomas, and don't get me wrong, they were about as mismanaged as a professional sports franchise can be, but at least Bert and I weren't given no guff when we donned our own paper bags a few years ago. With your team chasing the title of "Not the worst team of all time" perhaps it might be wise to avoid an acrimonious relationship with your fan base. After all, you never know when they'll start protesting that you have a job.

Stay Classy, New Jersey.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sure, Let's Make Overtime Confusing

A few years ago, my brother told me that a coworker had brought his New York Giants Super Bowl XLII Championship DVD into the office and was playing it all day. Elliott, ever the cineaste, said he admired the way the movie had been edited and were watching football games actually like the way NFL Films presented it, he might actually watch them once in a while.

So you can probably tell from this that my brother does not particularly like football.

Given that, you can imagine my surprise, when it was him of all people who broke the news to me that the NFL had voted to change its playoff overtime rules. Now, I wasn't completely oblivious. I knew it was being voted on, I just hadn't heard that the changes went through. Evidently some other major vote had been stealing headlines from it all week.

But here we are, and I suppose, with the new rule passing yesterday by a vote of 28-4, I should first explain what, exactly, the changes are. Previously, NFL overtime in both the regular season and postseason was straight forward sudden death. Flip a coin, kick off, whomever scores first wins. Period. The new rules muddy up the picture a little bit.

Now if a postseason game goes to overtime, the team that receives the opening kickoff will end the game only if they score a touchdown on their first possession. If all they can muster is a field goal, the other team will have an opportunity to respond. If the second team scores a touchdown, they win, if the second team doesn't score at all, they lose, and if the second team scores a field goal the game then moves to sudden death.


My brother and a few other friends had been asking me what my take on it was, no doubt expecting some massively informed and passionate response, but my initial reaction was..... "meh". The changes didn't bother me, but I hardly felt they were necessary. My take on NFL overtime had always been that it was fine for two reasons.

1) Every time an NFL game went to overtime during my childhood, the broadcast would post a statistic claiming that the winner of the coin toss won overtime games 48% of the time. If winning the coin toss didn't even translate to a victory half the time, I couldn't see what statistical advantage it provided.

2) Defense is half of the game too, isn't it? If you want to beat someone, don't let them score.

That right there was more or less my take on it, but after the rule passed yesterday I decided to do some research and my only assumption can be that apparently the NFL broadcasters have been lying to me. It turns out the chances of winning the game after winning the toss were 46.8% from 1974-1993. According to most statistics I've found now, however, the probability of winning a sudden death overtime game with the toss -- since the overtime rule was instituted in 1974 -- was actually around 52%. The chances of losing were 44% and the remaining 4% represents ties. While this is more than 48% it still isn't that significant, and so, I felt, the need to change the rules was somewhat overblown.

However, a closer look points out that two factors -- the NFL's decision to move kickoffs back from the 35-yardline to the 30-yardline in 1994, and the vast improvement of place kickers from a range of over 50 yards -- have dramatically changed the odds. In the first five years of overtime, NFL place kickers hit 61 % of their field goals. In the last five years that has absolutely exploded. Improved field conditions, better kicking training and improved footballs now have kickers converting field goals from longer range and at an overall rate of 82%. As a result, over the last six years a team's chances of winning after winning the overtime coin toss has been reported to be as high as 61%. The odds of winning on the opening drive were as high as nearly 40%. In fact, from 1998-2002 your chances of winning overtime after taking the opening coin toss was up to 64.6%.

Is it possible this is a statistical anomaly? Sure. But that hardly seems likely.

You get the idea that something needs to change. As Competition Committee co-chairman and Falcons President Rich McKay put it, with the improved ability of kickers, defenses were forced to keep a team from gaining 20-30 yards to win a game instead of 60-70. The numbers show a clear disadvantage. And if that's the case, well, I suppose the rules change was a worthwhile move. After all, the entire point of a coin toss is that, in theory, it provides no bias. If it is giving an edge that is that dramatic to the winning team, fairness is thrown out the window.

No one really knows how the new rules will play, though one analysis I've read pins the odds of winning the game along with the coin toss at roughly 56%, which is not great, but still an improvement.

While I have no doubt that these changes have been under discussion for years, many have opined that they were finally pushed to the fore after the New Orleans Saints won the NFC Championship this year with a field goal on the opening drive of overtime. Interestingly, the victim of that win, the Minnesota Vikings, were one of four teams to vote against the change, which may put the kibosh on that theory.

Either way, however, it's important not to get too crazy about this because, frankly, it isn't going to make a dramatic impact. Remember, this change is just for the playoffs, not the regular season, and we haven't exactly had a rash of postseason overtime games. In fact, as Peter King notes, we've only had an average of 1.2 overtime games a year in the playoffs, so this isn't exactly something that will come into play every day.

In fact, the last time an NFL playoff game was decided in overtime by a field goal on the opening drive before this year's NFC Championship was in 2002, when the Patriots knocked off the Raiders in the famous "tuck rule game". And given that Adam Vinatieri kicked the game-winning field goal in a blizzard, it wasn't exactly unearned. To give you some perspective on how long ago that was, the Patriots had yet to win a Super Bowl and we all thought their stirring run to a first title was adorable and heart-warming.

Ha. My how times change.

Since then, there have been seven postseason games in a span of eight years. All of one of them, this year's NFC title game, were won on a first-possession field goal. So really, the impact of this rule change seems far overblown if it doesn't take effect during the regular season as well. That may eventually happen, but for now it seems the effect will be minimal at best, just so long as we don't have Phil Luckett officiating the toss. That generally doesn't work out for the best.



At the very least, we can probably assume that all this overtime talk has reassured Donovan McNabb at long last that there won't be a tie in the Super Bowl.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Oh, Sid. You're Adorable.

In times when the NCAA Tournament has gone so haywire that three of your Final Four teams are knocked out by the end of the second round, it's important to remember that other items on the sports landscape can still attract your attention before Major League Baseball's Opening Day.

I speak, of course, of hockey.

Yeah, I know, you all probably get tired of me talking about how awesome hockey is, even though it is, in fact, awesome. The 82-game regular season can, at times, seem like it drags on for me too, even when I'm pumping out these for a living. But I'll still argue to the death with any of you that it's more entertaining than that dog and pony show we call the NBA regular season. The speed, skill, tension and penchant for close games put it a cut above for me.

Take for example last night's game between the Kings and Avalanche, both exciting, young teams, both featuring future superstars on their rosters, both in the heat of an almost ridiculously logjammed playoff hunt in the Western Conference. Every night, we are treated to a game that is at least close for most of regulation, but on a pretty regular basis we get a game like this one, where two zany goals are scored and one of them forces overtime with less than ten seconds left.


And then sometimes we get games like last night's showdown between Detroit and Pittsburgh. Now the dislike between these two is well documented at this point. After consecutive pairings in the Stanley Cup Finals the last two seasons, with each team taking a title of their own, it's clear there is no love lost. As a piece by SI's resident hockey guru Mike Farber detailed last week, fortunes are slightly different for the Red Wings this time around after being battered by injuries all season, but as their 3-1 win highlighted by Valtteri Filppula's through-the-wickets goal showed, they're still feisty. And, uh, they made Sidney Crosby feel it last night.



Yeah, that's Sidney. The NHL, NBC and Sportscenter have been pumping him up to you for the past five years as the next great player in the League, and they have good reason. He's already the youngest captain in NHL history to hoist the Stanley Cup, the youngest MVP in League history, the only teenager in the history of the four major North American sports leagues to win a scoring title and you may recall he also scored the overtime-winner in the Gold Medal Game for Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics last month.

So, uh, yeah, he's pretty good.

But that said, a not so well-guarded secret is that on the ice he's, you know, kind of a jerk. This would hardly separate him from most of the great players in the League. After all, being a constant physical target will get you fed up and sometimes you have no choice but to retaliate. But last night's postgame scrap was particularly fun for me. For one, it's not often that you see two dynamic skill players like Crosby and Henrik Zetterberg mixing it up. The last time I can think of is when Jarome Iginla and Vincent Lecavalier dropped the gloves in the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals, and those were special circumstances.

This was just a regular season game, but what fascinated me was the Wings' all out jump on Crosby as soon as the jostling began. While "goalie fight" may be the two greatest words in hockey, it isn't often you see a star player get a faceful of catching glove.

Now, Sid is no stranger to mixing it up. Since his first fight more than two years ago he's scrapped several times, with some results more dignified than others.

And while mixups like this make Crosby an irritating player to go against, to say nothing of his skill -- and with the Penguins currently locked in a fierce division race with my Devils as the season winds down I have reason to dislike him -- I can't help but appreciate such a talented superstar who isn't afraid to display the grit once in a while. Crosby seems destined to become one of the greats, and while I can't possibly fathom that anyone will ever transcend the sport again like Wayne Gretzky did, there will always be one aspect of the game at with Crosby has already topped the Great One, and by a fair margin at that.



So if, like me, your bracket is completely shot, remember that nearly every night you can sit down in front of your TV and maybe catch one of the greatest athletes in the world display his skill and, well, try to beat the crap out of someone. After all, when's the last time you saw Kobe Bryant or Lebron James take a swing. If you're lucky, you might even catch a buzzer beater. No, not one of those buzzer beaters. Hockey buzzer beaters. They happen more often than you think.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A City Best Seen With A Map

Originally written February 17, 2010

As a child I never dealt with the trouble that comes from moving. I know many people who did and I can’t imagine having to restart my life and develop a new circle of friends. Had I not lived in the same house my parents bought in 1981 for my entire pre (and part of my post) college life, I would be completely different. Of course, it’s entirely possible I would be more able to deal with transition, which might have served me well when the Devils moved into their new home in October of 2007.

Now, this wasn’t quite the same change as when the Mets jumped across the parking lot to Citi Field 18 months later. I had spent far more time at Shea Stadium than Brendan Byrne Arena. But something still seemed odd about the opening of the Prudential Center. Perhaps it was because it was the first sporting venue in the New York Metropolitan area to open since the Byrne, which, interestingly, also opened its doors for the first time in 1981.

Perhaps it was only right that the first one of my teams to change its venue – three of them would over the next three years – came just months before I moved out of my childhood home for good, to the 21st-floor apartment I currently call home in Long Island City, Queens.

While in college I had paid a fair amount of attention to the Devils’ new arena – the planning, the spending, the groundbreaking. It would be tough in some ways to bid the Byrne its farewell. Despite watching the Devils lose the first time I went there, I had gone on a remarkable run over its final years. My mother and I witnessed Vancouver’s Todd Bertuzzi beat Martin Brodeur 56 seconds into overtime to hand the Devils a 3-2 loss to the Canucks on December 4, 2002. That would be the last time I ever saw the Devils lose at there. In fact, I wouldn’t see them lose in person again until a 4-1 loss to Buffalo on October 28, 2009 – their third season at Prudential Center.


Still, the Byrne had several flaws. It was a dull building far from any public transportation, which meant going there without your parents was impossible until you had a driver’s license. In New Jersey that didn’t happen until your 17th birthday. While I was a licensed driver by the opening of the Prudential Center – or as it would quickly be nicknamed in a nod to Prudential’s corporate logo: “The Rock” – there was still a joy that came with public transit. Moreover, the Devils simply needed a new home. The Byrne had become outmoded, difficult to get to and did not provide the revenue streams that many newer buildings gave their teams. The Devils had been clamoring for a new building for more than a decade by the time it opened, including a tenuous moment when the franchise nearly moved to Nashville immediately following its first Stanley Cup in 1995.



After years of back-and-forth, however, the Devils had finally found their home in the Rock, a beautiful, if poorly attended building in the Ironbound District of downtown Newark. To many, the choice of Newark, a downtrodden and poorer city was an odd choice for a hockey team to call home. Many feared the dangerous neighborhoods nearby and ESPN hockey commentator Barry Melrose joked, “Don’t go outside, especially if you’ve got a wallet or anything else because the area around the building is awful”.

Not surprisingly, Melrose’s comments struck a chord with the team, the fans and Newark Mayor Cory Booker. After all, the Rock was expected to be the anchor that revitalized a dying, crime-ridden city, and after Melrose agreed to come to Newark and see the building and the surrounding neighborhood for himself he changed his tune despite a derisive greeting from the crowds. Whether he did so out of honesty or contrition is immaterial. All I can say is when I first made my way there on November 2, 2007, the hefty police presence made me feels as if I was hardly in danger. I would find my own way to put my life at risk just hours later.

At the time I was three weeks into my new job and I decided to get tickets through work for my first venture to the Devils’ new lair. On my way to the game I parked my car outside my father’s house in Maplewood, New Jersey, a few blocks from the train station. As I lived at home for nearly a year after college despite working, parking at my dad’s house and walking to the train was something I had down to a science by the time I moved.

Usually, my father was working when I went to the office, but this time he was home so I decided to stop in and say hello. In retrospect, this may have been a poor choice as once I told him I was going to the Devils game with the company tickets his eyes lit up in anticipation that I was surprising him with a gift. After I informed him that I was actually going to the game with my friends Feiny and Justin, his expression changed considerably.

Oops.

I met Feiny on the train – Justin would be arriving later and, as the plan went, buying an upper deck seat and sneaking down to wherever our seats were. The public transit options were a bit untested for both of us and with this being only the Devils’ third game at the Rock not many people knew how it worked. Supposedly the public transit options involved going to one of the two train stations in the city of Newark, either Newark-Penn Station or Newark-Broad Street Station. At Penn Station it was easy enough, the platform was a brief two-block walk from the building. Broad Street, the station we were going to, was a further distance, but the Devils ran free shuttles to the Arena and as we found when we got off the train, there were dozens of employees ready and willing to direct you. As it turned out, getting to the building was as easy as could be.

As we approached the Rock it was infinitely nicer than Brendan Byrne Arena. While the Byrne was a boring, soulless box, Prudential Center had an inspired design that gave character and life to New Jersey’s hockey home. The walls were covered in red brick with dark gray borders encapsulating them, echoing the Devils’ color scheme and, supposedly, paying homage to the industrial bricklaying and railroad heritage of Newark, which is also known as “Brick City”. The front of the building featured a massive LED screen while two of its corners were made of massive glass light towers, which fans entered through as escalators led them to the main concourse. From the outside on game nights, the Rock brims with light and energy, an attempt to breathe life into a city that had been beaten down by decades of crime and poverty.

Newark had been a bustling metropolis for much of the early 20th century, with its population reaching nearly half a million in 1950. But racial tensions and eventually several days of riots in 1967 damaged much of the city and hastened its decline in population, wealth and stature. By the time the Rock opened, Newark’s population stood at nearly half of what it had at its peak. As Booker and others led the long drive back to respectability, this arena and the area surrounding it were central to the Brick City’s rehabilitation.

That is not to say that it was without its decent areas. Newark’s downtown business district was a perfectly safe place to spend your days toiling and the Ironbound district had its share of decent restaurants. My high school graduation was followed by dinner at a Portuguese rodizio restaurant in Newark called Seabra’s. But those decent areas couldn’t spare the city its reputation. In 1996, TIME Magazine dubbed Newark “The Most Dangerous City in America”, and while the ranking had dropped to a still reasonably robust 20th when the Rock opened, Newark’s reputation continued to precede it.

If its downtrodden areas were what Newark was, Prudential Center’s glitzy exterior and its clean interior were what it wanted to be. The inside of the building features far more character and decoration than the Byrne ever did. Murals detailing the Devils’ history, as well as homages to Newark and New Jersey’s sports history grace several walls along the main concourse. When the building opened, one section featured two huge banners with paintings of each building the franchise had played in from its early days in Kansas City as the Scouts, to its brief stay in Denver as the Colorado Rockies and both of its arenas in the Garden State.

One exhibit featured all of the jerseys the Devils had worn throughout their history, and another wall was painted with a bench featuring the Devils’ greatest all time players, among them Craig Billington, Bruce Driver, John MacLean, Slava Fetisov, Claude Lemieux, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Ken Daneyko and, of course, Martin Brodeur. Echoing a trend started by the Minnesota Wild, the interior of the arena on both levels is lined with the jerseys of every high school hockey team in the state in an attempt to draw a closer connection between New Jersey’s team and its residents.

Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, the tops of each urinal in the men’s room has an all-too-necessary Devils logo on top of it.

The building didn’t just raise the experience – or the cost – for the fans. It was also a one-stop location for the organization, featuring office space as well as the Devils’ practice rink. The Rock was only the second building in the League to house one after Nationwide Arena in Columbus, and while there is a huge glass window that allows fans to look in on the rink during practice, this was another sign for me that I was getting older. I had more than once dragged my father to South Mountain Arena in West Orange, New Jersey, a short drive from my home to watch the Devils practice. Still, with the advantages for the team, I’d find a way to get over it. Just about everything in the Prudential Center was a dramatic improvement over the Byrne.

Feiny and I were hoping our seats would be in the building’s two All-You-Can-Eat Sections. From blue line to blue line, the lower bowl sections featured large leather seats and were attached to two bars, cleverly called the “Fire” and “Ice” bars, which featured free all you could eat food and non-alcoholic beverage. While during the games it was typical arena fair – burgers, hot dogs, pizza, chicken fingers – before the games multiple carving stations were set up with finer choices like prime rib and duck. For those not fortunate enough to score those tickets, other food options around the arena still feature various types of cuisine with many coming from the city of Newark itself.

Unfortunately, while I had gotten nice seats, they were in the section over from the free food. After Justin arrived and somehow weaseled his way to our section, he and Feiny decided it was only right to sneak into the fire bar and grab some food. I was gun shy about raising trouble and reluctantly left them to their own devices while I sat and watched the game. I assumed their efforts would be fruitless, but sure enough the pair returned to our seats 15 minutes later with a slice of pizza for me.

I found it a bit of meaningful symmetry that I would see the Devils face the Maple Leafs in my first game at the Rock as I had 12 years earlier for my first game at the Byrne. In a lucky change of fate, however, the result was different this time around. While the Leafs controlled play for much of the first two periods, outshooting New Jersey 20-9, the Devils somehow managed to keep it tied before John Madden potted a shorthanded goal with 4:12 left to play to break a 1-1 stalemate. Zach Parise would add another 97 seconds later and the Devils had a 3-2 win in my first visit to their new home.

The streak would remain intact for another night.

While I was convinced the action was over for the night, I would find myself in for a surprise. With a rare Friday night off, my original plan was to continue on to New York and spend the night drinking with friends. Feiny, Justin and I,were unable to find the shuttle back to Newark-Broad Street station, however. The next time I came I would wonder how on earth I missed it. It was in the exact same place we were dropped off beforehand. But rather than stand there and wait for a second shuttle to arrive, we decided to expedite the process by simply walking to the train.

After all, how far could it be?

And so off we went through downtown Newark, which seemed perfectly fine on a Friday night. Crowds who were leaving the game or their offices still surrounded us and we headed on with impunity. As we continued the surroundings started to get somewhat less pleasant, but we assumed the station must only be a few blocks away. At one point we happened upon a theater with a long line of people in their early to mid-20s waiting outside. Justin, never one to pay social awkwardness any mind, suggested we run across the street and check out the show. While Feiny was amenable to the idea, I was not and insisted we continued walking.

Justin, however, has a tendency to be a free spirit and so off he went to see what was happening. This being the heart of downtown Newark, the crowd outside the theater was entirely African-American. In fact, there wasn’t a non-black person among them. While I detest bigotry, there was no denying that we would seem at least a little out of place. Between the three of us, our collective heritage was 83.3% Caucasian Jew and 16.7% Indian. We did not fit in, and the stunned reaction of the entire crowd when Justin nonchalantly asked them what was happening at the theater let us know it.

All of them gave us a look as if they had no clue what we were doing in the heart of Newark on a Friday night. After all, I was wearing cargo pants, Birkenstocks and a purple Northwestern hooded sweatshirt. It was clear to them I did not belong. Justin continued to press for details about whatever concert was about to be performed, but I refused to play along and started walking. As we continued it started becoming apparent that the train wasn’t as close as it seemed.

The walk continued, the lights got dimmer, the surroundings got darker and more and more broken glass appeared on the ground. More and more people on the street were asking for money and the buildings became more rundown. It was about the time the malnourished prostitute with several missing teeth offered her services to us that I realized we were lost in one of the most dangerous cities in America.

I started walking faster.

Justin and Feiny, in their absentmindedness couldn’t enjoy the light evening stroll enough. They spent most of the walk laughing, but I decided I was done aimlessly wandering the lesser parts of Newark. When we finally happened upon an onramp for I-78, we knew we were far from the right place. We soon found ourselves in a convenience store where the clerks were unable to provide adequate directions.

We walked further and I called my mother to see if she could find a map online to tell us where the train station was. Fearing for the life of her child as mothers often do – although perhaps this time it was rational – she insisted she come and pick us up, but being an adult who dreaded the idea of his mommy coming to the rescue, I rebuffed her offer and insisted we’d find our way back. Eventually, our clueless triumvirate found its way to a McDonald’s on McCarter Highway, where I asked the security guard – apparently McDonald’s in Newark requires protection – how to get to either of Newark’s main train stations.

We were, in fact, nowhere near either of them and unwilling to undertake the long trip to wherever it was we needed to go, I called mommy to rescue me. After looking up where we were and how to get there, my mother was on her way.

The three of us sat down in a booth and took deep sighs of relief. I was badly in need of comfort food so I went to the counter and ordered a vanilla sundae. A few minutes later the manager let me know that the machine which pumped out whatever it was they thought was ice cream was actually broken.

Of course it was.

As I sat back down with what I thought was my last defeat of the evening, Justin reached into his backpack and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. After unraveling it he noticed it was a color-coded map of Newark which had been given to him by Devils personnel at the train station. Not only did Justin have a map on him the entire time that would have easily directed us to the station, but we had wound up walking some three miles in the complete opposite direction.

At this point all I could do was laugh at what had been a long comedy of errors. Soon my mother was there and we were back in Millburn with no harm done. The three of us headed to Justin’s home where we spent the next few hours laughing about the misfortune over a six-pack of Yeungling and all the leftover Halloween candy the Goldstein household had to offer.

I may have risked my life at various points in the evening, but all in all, good friends, good beer and a pile of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups wasn’t a bad way to spend a Friday night. With my memories in tow, however, I would never spend one the same way again.

The next time, I waited for the shuttle.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

Of course! What was I thinking trying to actually predict the winner of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament? That was just silly. I should have known there'd be absolutely no point because I could never get the damn thing right.

Well, let's not say never. I've had a fair amount of success picking national champions and getting most of the Final Four -- though I've only gotten the entire Final Four once -- but after yesterday, it's official. My bracket has never been this dead this fast ever. In fact, I'd go so far as to say yesterday was the single most devastating day I've ever had in the NCAA Tournament.

So how did that happen?

Well, it all started with those adorable Gaels from St. Mary's who decided, "What the hell? Let's beat Villanova." And so they did, dumping one of my Final Four teams in unceremonious fashion as the Gaels played exciting, inspired basketball with a plethora of wild three pointers and 'Nova's Scottie Reynolds played basketball about as well as I do.

That's not a good thing.


I understand that taking the Wildcats to win that bracket may not have been the wisest maneuver on my part, but I simply didn't trust Duke to reach another Final Four and Nova was the next best thing. Whoops. The Blue Devils now appear to have a walk to Indianapolis, and after losing a Final Four team in the second round of the tournament I had assumed I was pretty much done.

And assumption turned into certainty when this nugget arrived. Yeah, that's right, the fighting Kurt Warners of Northern Iowa somehow managed to shock the University of Kansas, a team I and around 42.4% of the country expected to win the National Championship. In a matter of hours I had lost two Final Four teams and my National Champion. On Day 3 of the Tournament.

So, uh, I'm not going to win any of my pools this year.

I can accept this mostly because watching massive upsets like Northern Iowa's early win over the presumptive title favorite is part of what makes the NCAA Tournament so damn great. Early round upsets are plentiful, and while the usual suspects generally get to the late stages we sometimes have something wild and amazing to hang our collective hat on and get to witness the unbridled joy of David slaying Goliath. Yesterday, that is what we got.

What I can reassure myself with is that great minds must think alike, since Barack Obama suffered the same fate as me and will likely not be winning his pool either. Obama can always cling fast to his propensity for making strong choices in the Women's Bracket, where he's apparently 15-for-16 so far. Of course, if you ask me the real excitement lies in the Women's NIT, where my Wildcats, just four years after I covered them in the midst of a typically abysmal campaign, got their first postseason win in program history this week.

As for Barry, no longer having a chance in his NCAA pool will afford him more time to focus on somewhat more important endeavors. As for me, I'll be free to focus on some more important endeavors of my own over the next three weeks.

I'm calling it now. Apple gets knocked off by Pumpkin in the Elite Eight.

Meanwhilst, I believe there actually are more basketball games today, with what looks like a far more intriguing slate than we expected yesterday to be. It would be hard for this afternoon's set of games to match what happened on Day 3, but if Gonzaga, Mizzou or Cornell win I may eat my words again.

That is if I have any left.

Of course, you could also watch hockey. I don't know if anyone told you, but it's awesome.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Oh, Hello Round Two

Despite some painfully remarkable jetlag last night, I'm doing my best to catch up on all the sports news I missed  -- (the Browns traded Brady Quinn to Denver? Really?) -- but I think I'm doing an alright job of catching up. Jumping right into the swing of the NCAA Tournament is a sticky wicket, however, and I'm having some trouble getting everything in order. Last night at work I was struggling to stay awake and do my job competently let alone watch the tourney.

Evidently, I lost several games without even realizing it in a second day that appears to have been considerably less exciting than the first. No matter. Let's see how I'm doing.

I finished the first round 22-10, which considering I wasn't in this country for most of the last two weeks isn't awfully surprising. Of course it isn't awfully good either. Also, Barack Obama is kicking my ass. A number of my upset picks didn't come through as Louisville, Siena and Florida State all were unable to knock off higher seeds. Siena, who I had getting through to next weekend in one of my more optimistic cinderella picks was particularly painful, but all in all I'm really not shaping up too badly as far as deep teams are concerned.


Siena and Vanderbilt are my only Sweet Sixteen teams that I didn't get through to the second round and my entire Elite Eight is still alive, so if all breaks right I have the potential to come out looking ok. Or pretty good for someone who had read nothing and was on three hours of sleep when he filled out his bracket anyway.

Today only presents me with one game that really gets my stomach anxious and it's already well underway. Villanova is doing a fantastic job of making me look like a complete fool for putting them in the Final Four as they look flat early against St. Mary's on the heels of their great escape against Robert Morris on Thursday. Hopefully the Wildcats can get their feet under them, but if not this bracket could be in the garbage soon. The rest of Saturday's slate isn't too wearying, though it wouldn't surprise me to see Washington knock New Mexico out of my Sweet Sixteen. Every other game ranges from uninteresting to completely dull, particularly that barnburner-in-waiting between Old Dominion and Baylor.

Oh, but it is the NCAA Tournament. There's plenty of time for the games to prove me wrong. And even if they don't, I'm a sap who's going to spend most of a 72-degree day inside watching anyway.

It's called Madness for a reason.