Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Terrible Towel Maloiki

I posted this
at True/Slant and I left to go to lunch.

There's a great little authentic Mexican joint about a block away called Mexico City. It tastes much more like the food that I've had in Central America than anything else I've ever had. It's on the corner of Smithfield and the Boulevard of the Allies, so give it a whirl if you're downtown. You won't regret it. At any rate, everybody who works there is latino and many of them speak little english. Soccer is on the tv, around the clock, really. They serve Fanta sodas. This joint is legit.

So I finish my post and walk down the street to get some banging flautas and the first thing I see when I walk in the door is a Terrible Towel hanging behind the register. I swear I snorted. Some days, I love Pittsburgh.

Here's the full post from True/Slant on October 21, 2009:

The Terrible Towel Will Put a Curse on You

The Tennessee Titans are 0-6 and their stock is falling faster than AIG.
Last Sunday they were beaten 59-0, a smack-down of biblical proportions, and as much as I was tempted to say that Patriots piled on (because we know that Bill Belichick likes to pour it on), that one was on the Titans. It looked to me like many of them quit. The defensive backs looked less interested in covering New England wide outs than I am in having botox treatments. It was embarrassing.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Ice and cold and snow. But both teams played in cold and snow and ice. This kind of performance from a team that played 10 games last year before dropping even one is beyond shocking. Nobody can figure it out.

So what in the Sam Hill is going on around here? What turned these world beaters into egg beaters?

Sure, Jim Schwartz left Tennessee to go coach the Lions, and Albert Haynesworth was lured by the deep pockets of Danny Snyder. But they’ve dropped their last eight games.

I think it’s something else, something supernatural, perhaps metaphysical and well beyond the power of ordinary human comprehension (or at least that of most NFL analysts) which has done in this Jeff Fisher lead team.

It all turned in one moment of the otherwise hugely successful 2008 season, for on a warm December Sunday afternoon in Nashville, the Titans defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers. And disrespected the Terrible Towel, unleashing a great scourge on the franchise.

They haven’t won a game since.

They lost the season closer to Indy, then were slapped around by the Ravens in the playoffs. This year, it’s been more of the same and getting worse daily. Behold the power of the Towel.

For those people from any one of the other 31 NFL cities, I’m sorry. I realize that a few thousand loud, obnoxious, yellow towel-waiving Pittsburgh fans descending on your fair hamlet like so many unwashed Visigoths is probably nauseating. I get it. But the Towel itself must be respected, for it is more than just a revered symbol for Steelers fans: it has black magic and mojo. It is a Pandora’s box of voodoo pain waiting for some unsuspecting footballer to open it.

In December, 2005, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, then of the Cincinnati Bengals, wiped his shoes with one. A few weeks later, the Bengals lost in the playoffs to the Steelers and missed the playoffs every year after. That Cincinnati now sits atop the AFC North – after Houshmandzadeh’s departure for Seattle – is only more evidence of the power of the Terrible Towel.

Don’t believe T.J.? Ask the Titans how things are working out since LenDale White stomped on it, Jevon Kearse wiped his shoes on it and I think I saw one of the Titans blowing his nose in it. All that got them was a dirty towel and a world of hurt.

A moment, if you will, about the Towel itself. In 1975, Myron Cope, writer, raconteur, radio voice of the Steelers, and Pittsburgh legend came up with the notion of the Terrible Towel. The radio station he worked for was looking for a gimmick and Cope thought it should be something small, light-weight, and portable, and also something that people had at hand or could purchase cheaply. He went on the airwaves in the lead up the 1975 playoff game against the Colts exhorting fans to bring yellow or gold towels with them to the game. In his memoirs, Double Yoi, Cope remembered those first days after the conception of the Towel:

“Mind you, I did not see the Terrible Towel as witchcraft to hex the enemy. It would be a positive force, driving the Steelers to superhuman performance, but if it experienced a yen for mischief and created fatal mistakes by opponents, I would tolerate that. Not entirely sane by now, I daily intoned on the air, ‘The Terrible Towel is poised to strike!’”

You must realize that this was Myron Cope, who stood all of about 5′ 5″ and answered calls to his radio show by saying things like, “You got Cope, what’s on your noodle?” in his inimitable style with a voice that, well, to say that his voice was like chewing aspirin while working a jackhammer just begins to describe it. His voice was a hefty, hoarse Midwestern cheerleader chewing concrete mix, a Yorkshire Terrier choking on a Milkbone, a small, feral woodland creature being run over on a bike trail. It was gravely and squeaky, flat and excitable; he sputtered and stuttered and stammered. Sometimes he lost the ability to form words at all and shouted out things like “Hmmm Hah!” or “Yoi!” He seemed to be tipsy during game broadcasts from time to time.

In short, he was an unlikely radio celebrity, but Pittsburghers loved him and he us. So in 1975, when Myron Cope told fans to bring yellow towels to the playoff game, they did. And the flag of a nation, the talisman of a nomadic tribe of fans was born.

Before you knew it, officially licensed Terrible Towels were for sale, the proceeds from which Cope signed over to the Allegheny Valley School which provides care for more than 900 people with mental retardation and physical disabilities, including Cope’s autistic son.

Steelers fans can tell ourselves that it’s for a good cause, but if we’re being honest here, it’s also a compulsion. People carry them to games and bars and drape them over their television sets at home. (Heck, I took mine with me hiking all over mountains and glaciers in Patagonia because, you know, indigenous people love when we do that kind of stuff.) Steelers fans are buried with their Terrible Towels, and new parents wrap their infants in them. It’s silly and stupid; it’s possibly obnoxious and it is most certainly ridiculous. But it’s bigger than all of us. When Myron died, locals spontaneously hung Terrible Towels from their windows and on their front doors. It just happened.

Cope told us that the Terrible Towel was poised to strike, but it’s more than that: the Towel happens.

So, sacrifice small animals on the altar of your team, pray that they kick all holy hell out of the Steelers, burn Ben Roethisberger voodoo dolls at the 50 yard line and post incendiary comments on Steelers message boards.

Just don’t disrespect the Terrible Towel. Lest ye conjure a great evil.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Charlie & Me

Me and Charlie Weis, we go way back. We're like peas & carrots, bacon & eggs, salt-n-peppa. Oh, Charlie. He's not the devil, but he is bewitching. Gotta love the fat man.

From True/Slant on August 25, 2009:

Ode to Charlie Weis.

I love Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis. I love him so much that I feel chagrined about a story I penned a long time ago titled, “Charlie Weis Is the Devil.” It was one of the first things I ever wrote for publication; it was meant to be fun and ridiculous. Looking back, I guess Weis got my so-called career kick-started, so a thank you is long overdue. More to the point, I’d like to think I’ve matured as a writer and as a human being, too. In fact, I’ve grown so much since Weis’ inaugural season in South Bend that I do believe I’ve come full circle on the man with the big waist-size and even bigger ego.

How do I love the head man of the Golden Domes? Let me count the ways:

I love Charlie Weis because his Fighting Irish are ranked in the Top 25 heading into the 2009 football season. It may make for a wonderful fall to reality. The higher the perch, the bigger the splat. At least that’s what the nuns taught me in grade school.

I love the “decided schematic advantage” that Weis brings to Notre Dame football. But then, who doesn’t?

Back in April of 2006, Weis’ blue-chip recruit Jimmy Clausen wooed me when he committed to N.D. What made it special was that he made the proclamation at the College Football Hall of Fame. You can’t make this stuff up. If Clausen weren’t playing quarterback for the Fighting Irish, you have to think he’d have a choke-hold on a spot for the next round of MTV’s “Real World,” where he would no doubt get the shit-stirrer/villain edit.

I love Charlie Weis for losing to Navy in 2007. Some people might call that an epic fail. More like nautical fail.

Who doesn’t love a 2009 schedule which has a dozen games, eight of which are at home and only one of which is against a ranked team? Way to set the bar high for your program. As my buddy Prong! noted, perhaps college football needs something like the degree of difficulty formulas used for diving and figure skating.

I’m head over heels with the N.D. athletic department ever since they saw fit to re-up Weis’ contract barely halfway through the first year of his six-year contract in order to ink him to a new 10-year deal (worth $30–40 million.) Thanks for keeping Charlie at Notre Dame through 2015. You guys are beautiful.

I love Charlie Weis for this masterpiece: Syracuse 24, Notre Dame 23.

After Weis left the New England Patriots, Tom Brady only got better, winning the NFL MVP award for the 2008 season. So I guess that kinda means I love Tom Brady. Um, not really. No. Ewwww. Still, I’m sure Weis’ system was absolutely essential to Brady blossoming into the dominant player he is.

I love Notre Dame official coach’s bio which covers just the 2005 and 2006 seasons, as though 2007 and 2008 never happened. (Of course, the records are there, if you want to look for them, but in the text, ah, um, wait, I’m sure it’s here somewhere.) [] The English department may want to teach the football media guide in its advanced literature courses.

Few things are as entertaining as former N.D. coach, current pundit and all around goofy guy Lou Holtz. It was especially good of uncle Lou to partake in the annual Fighting Irish Kool-Aid Ritual to pick Notre Dame to win a National Championship this year.

I love Charlie Weis’ vocabulary. I haven’t heard that much profanity since my last viewing of “Reservoir Dogs.”

Perhaps the most beguiling, most alluring aspect of the big man is that fact that he actually believes his own hype. Come on over here, ya big lug, and give me a hug.

But the best part of coach Weis is that he is the gift that just keeps on giving, so I’m sure that, before it’s all over, the Charlie Weis Era will have so many more valuable lessons in store for me. In store for all of us, really, because Weis is a teacher; he’s more like a sculptor of souls, if you will. See, he’s all about giving back and passing on wisdom, like how things usually work out in the end, that water seeks it’s own level, and the belief that you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need. Wow. I guess that Notre Dame really does build character.

Marvin Harrison Will Catch for Food

How damaged is starvin' Marvin? Can he be in that bad of condition? Like Cash for Clunkers bad? Weird. I find it weird. So weird, that I spent hours and hours and hours culling through depth charts and salary cap figures. Sigh.

From True/Slant on August 23, 2009:

Marvin Harrison says he wants to play again, if some NFL team would sign him. While Harrison sits at home, running windsprints and perfecting his skills at Madden (or maybe Guitar Hero) there are three questions facing NFL teams: (1) can he still play, (2) do they need an upgrade at wide out, and (3) can they afford Harrison? Instinct tells me that at least half of the NFL teams could use an upgrade, but instinct is an unreliable, ephemeral beast, so here’s a quick stroll through all 32 NFL depth charts to see which ones could use Harrison, not as their featured, go-to guy because those days are behind him, but perhaps as a 3rd or 4th receiver. To address the byzantine and confusing matter of salary cap room, I’m relying on some fine work done by Jason Cole at, so a big, sloppy thanks to Jason, for sparing me hours and hours of googling and math.

1. NY Giants. The Giants offense struggled after they lost Plaxico Burress for the year last season. They’re heading into the 2009 season with Domenik Hixon, Steve Smith (not that Steve Smith), and Mario Manningham; plus they drafted Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden this year, so they’re probably more interested in cultivating those young guys than adding an old reliable set of hands.

2. Philly Eagles. The Eagles addressed wide out in the 2008 draft, using their second round pick to get DeSean Jackson. This year, they used their first pick to draft another wideout, Jeremy Maclin from Missouri. And, you have to figure that in week six, Mike Vick will be lining up in some sort of hybrid position and catching Donovan McNabb darts.

3. Dallas Cowboys. Meh. That’s my take on their depth chart at WR. Nobody stands out on this roster in terms of wideouts. Patrick Crayton is a good, but not great receiver. Roy Williams has a lot to prove before he lives up to the tag of No. 1 receiver. The rookie out of Virginia, Kevin Ogletree, has looked pretty good in pre-season. And it’s no secret that Romo will find his favorite target, Jason Witten, but it’s a depth chart that could be improved with the addition of Harrison. The ‘Boys have very little in cap room right now – $3.9 mil – so it’s very unlikely.

4. Washington Redskins. I was about to say there’s no way the Redskins have any room at all under the cap, but it turns out they have $7.7 mil. How is that even possible given little Danny Snyder’s uncontrollable spending habits? Seriously. There’s gotta be some AIG type accounting going on there. I can’t even think about it. Moving on.

5. Chicago Bears. I’m simply going to list all of the receivers on the Bears roster right now: Devin Aromashodu, Earl Bennett, John Broussard, Rashied Davis, Devin Hester, Juaquin Iglesias, Dereck Kinder, Johnny Knox, Eric Peterman, and Brandon Rideau. Between them all, they have a total of 156 NFL receptions. With $22.5 million in cap room, what on earth is Lovie Smith waiting for?

6. Green Bay Packers. With Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, plus a couple of younger guys on the horizon and Donald Lee at tight end, the Pack feels pretty comfortable at wide out.

7. Minnesota Vikings. Sorry, full up on aging superstar free agents in Minneapolis.

8. Detroit Lions. Okay, anything the Lions would do would be an upgrade, but you know, considering their execrable history with wide outs, maybe they should steer clear.

9. Atlanta Falcons. Roddy White doesn’t get much national attention, but he should, and Michael Jenkins and Marty Booker are both solid. Still, I can’t help but think that Harrison would love to play nine of his games in a dome in 2009. They have $12.5 million to work with before bumping up against the cap.

10. Carolina Panthers. Everybody knows two truths about the Panthers: John Fox wants to run the ball and Steve Smith is one of the most explosive receivers in the game. Plus, Marvin got used to having the ball tossed to him with freakish accuracy by Peyton Manning and his head might actually implode trying to adjust to the, um, variable nature of Jake Delhomme’s game. With $8.3 million in cap room, I wouldn’t rule them out.

11. New Orleans Saints. Drew Brees managed to put up 34 touchdown passes and over 5,000 yards last year throwing to Devery Henderson, Marques Colston, and Robert Meachem last year, so I guess he’s doing okay.

12. Tampa Bay Bucs. Okay, they’re heading into the season with either Byron Leftwich or Luke McCown on the trigger throwing to Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton. Bryant is finally reaching his potential, but Harrison would be a major upgrade to this unit. And with nearly $43 mil. in cap room, why isn’t Marvin’s phone ringing off the hook?

13. Arizona Cardinals. With only $300,000 in cap room and three receivers named Fitzgerald, Boldin and Breaston on the roster, the Cards are standing pat. As they should.

14. San Francisco 49ers. They thought they addressed wide out by drafting Michael Crabtree in the 2nd round. Now, who knows if he’ll ever show up and most of metropolitan San Fran has given up hope of his ever signing a contract. With $15 million of room under the cap, you’d think they’d love to get a guy like Harrison as a stop gap measure for just one year.

15. Seattle Seahawks. With the addition of T. J. Whoseyourmamma (nod to one of the great ads of all time) to Nate Burleson, Deion Branch, and Deon Butler, they’re full up at wide out.

16. St. Louis Rams. They finished 2-14 last year. Torry Holt, their most productive, if old, wide receiver went to Jacksonville in free-agency. They could use an upgrade. At just about every position, actually. They’re $14.6 million under the cap.

17. New England Patriots. It looks like Joey Galloway’s best days are in the rear-view, but by adding third round draft pick Brandon Tate to Randy Moss and Wes Welker, they’re not really hurting at wide out. Still Mr. Hoodie loves to sign old guys who have been discarded (see, Dillon, Corey; Taylor, Fred; and Galloway, Joey), so it’s surprising they haven’t gotten starvin’ Marvin in for a workout, particularly as they have a little more than $10 mil in wiggle room under the cap.

18. NY Jets. They didn’t go after any receivers in the draft and it’s an obvious area of need. Tell me they’re not going to start their No. 1 pick, Mark Sanchez, at QB. Exactly. Couldn’t a young guy like that use a veteran wide receiver as a go to guy? This is an obvious fit, but with only $4.5 mil in cap room, the price would have to be right.

19. Miami Dolphins. They added Pat White from WVU in this year’s draft. Given their adeptness at working out of the wildcat, I think that Pat White + wildcat = points. Still, the Dolphins are not particularly deep at wide out and they’re $21 million under the cap.

20. Buffalo Bills. Somehow, I don’t see Marvin Harrison getting on terribly well with Terrell Owens. I could be wrong.

21. Pittsburgh Steelers. With lanky second year man Limas Sweed filling out the receiver depth chart with former Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward and recent Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes, the Steelers are fine.

22. Baltimore Ravens. Derick Mason’s un-retirement returned the Ravens passing attack returned to 2008 levels, but there is still a boatload of room for improvement of this unit. They only have about $4.5 million in cap room, though.

23. Cincinnati Bengals. Ha. Okay, sorry, I just always laugh when I think about the Bengals. Maybe new helmets would help … We all know about the greatness that is Chad Ochocinco. (If only Chad were as prolific a receiver as he is place kicker. Or a twitterer. Is that tweeter? Oh, Ochocinco tweeted this as I was typing: “Attention:want a job at ESPN on first take: no sports background needed just the ability to say the dumbest shhh you can think of!!SkipSucks.”) Anyway, so we’ve got #85, Chris Henry and Laverneous Coles. Coles is a surprisingly astute signing for the franchise that put the franchise tag on their kicker, and Henry has the ability to be a game breaker, so long as he can stay on the right side of the law.

24. Cleveland Browns. Donte Stallworth is suspended for a year. Braylon Edwards failed his physical. Saying they could use some help is like saying Usain Bolt is kinda fast. They have $12 mil to play with.

25. Tennessee Titans. The Titans looked to upgrade their wide outs in the off-season by adding Nate Washington in free-agency and drafting Kenny Britt with their first pick. I’d guess they were going to stay put, but they have tons of cap room (over $27 mil.) Merde. How is any NFL team that far under the cap?

26. Indianapolis Colts. Nothing to see here, keep moving.

27. Jacksonville Jaguars. They already signed one great old wide out in Torry Holt. With over $26 mil in cap room, why not go for two?

28. Houston Texans. Is Andre Johnson the best receiver in the league? Check. Think he might like the company of the guy who used to be the best receiver in the league? Check mate. They’ve got $15.6 million under the cap.

29. San Diego Chargers. One 1,000 yard guy in Vincent Jackson, plus LaDainian Tomlinson, plus Antonio Gates makes the Chargers a solid aerial attack.

30. Denver Broncos. Brandon Stokely. Brandon Marshall. Jabar Gaffney. The Broncos have holes, but wide receiver isn’t one of them. Too late to tap Harrison to coach, then?

31. Kansas City Chiefs. Quick, other than Matt Cassel, name one other Kansas City Chief. The Chiefs list Terrance Copper and Devard Darling at the top of their depth chart at wide out. Heading into his sixth year in the NFL, Copper has a total of 61 receptions. Darling has only 37 catches over three seasons. Amani Toomer is third on the depth chart, but this will be his 14th year in the league. They have $30 million in cap room. Just saying.

32. Oakland Raiders. Oakland has little wiggle room with $6.4 million, plus they drafted Darrius Heyward-Bey with their first pick. Besides, zombie Al Davis likes reclamation projects, not guys like Harrison. Besides, Al’s probably still trying to lure Biletnikoff out of retirement with a fattie contract.

Starting a Jon Gruden Fan Club

Who is with me?

From True/Slant on August 16, 2009:

Jon Gruden Makes Monday Night Football Must See TV
I’ve never watched a sporting event on the basis of an announcer or color analyst. Certainly, there have been a few I’ve enjoyed. There’s also a crowded hall of shame filled with announcers and analysts who are so irritating that I’m tempted to turn off whatever game they’re working because I’m so turned off by them. (Yes, Tim McCarver, Nancy Lieberman, Al Michaels and Phil Simms, I am looking at you.) Still, my desire to watch sports overrides all, so I’ll put up with even the most moronic, abrasive, and narcissistic talking heads.

And then came Jon Gruden. He had me at hello

In his first game in ESPN’s “Monday Night” booth, working a meaningless pre-season tilt between last year’s Super Bowl contenders alongside Mike Tirico and Ron Jaworski, I enjoyed Gruden as much as I enjoyed the game itself, which is the highest praise I can offer. The coach who pissed people off because he got more face time on the sidelines than his players did on the field was not adequate, nor merely good in the booth: Gruden was great. He is nothing short of an announcing phenom.

If announcing was a baseball swing, Gruden would be Ted Williams’ sweet stroke; if it was a jump shot, he would be Larry Bird’s jumper; if it was a tee shot, he’d be Ben Hogan’s explosive drive. Okay, that’s pretty hyperbolic even for me, and I realize it’s a little early to put “Chucky” in the broadcasting hall of fame after just one game. That would be like calling a rookie running back picked in the sixth round who lit up the third-string defenders in the 4th quarter the next Jim Brown. But Gruden was informative, natural, funny and self-deprecating. Most important of all, he didn’t talk too much, sparing us the inane prattling that goes on in way, way too many broadcast booths. He was the anti-Phil Simms. God, it was beautiful.

As a coach, Gruden’s work-ethic was legendary. Reporters ate up his practice of getting to the office at three and four a.m. to start his preparations, so it shouldn’t have been surprising that he had arcane data seemingly at his fingertips. It felt effortless as he tossed out Kurt Warner’s QB rating on play-action pass plays only and evidenced a real depth of understanding about Dick LeBeau’s complex defensive schemes.

Given the match up, naturally talk turned to last February’s Super Bowl meeting of the Steelers and the Cardinals, and Tirico mentioned that Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt hadn’t watched the film of that game until a week ago when he started prepping for this game. For his part, Jaws said he could relate because he has never watched the film of SB XV, in which his Eagles were soundly beaten by the Raiders. Nearly 30 years have passed and it’s still too painful for Jaworski. Gruden commented that he watches his Super Bowl (XXXVII, when the Buccaneers whomped on the Raiders) every chance he gets, sometimes twice a day. It was a great moment.

A bit later, after the crew had spent a good deal of time on the signing of ex-con Mike Vick by the Philadelphia Eagles, Gruden chided Jaworski about his anemic 772 yards rushing over his 10 years in Philly, adding that Vick had that many yards in two games — against Gruden’s teams. Given the seriousness of Vick’s crimes, talk about him always turns understandably heavy, but after a serious discussion, the booth had turned funereal and needed a lighter touch. Gruden brought the funny. It was a welcome respite.

I figure that pretty much every guy doing color analysis for the networks knows more about football than I do – from Troy Aikman to Brian Billick, Steve Tasker to Chris Collinsworth. Each played or coached at the highest levels and they’ve forgotten more about football than I’ll ever know. Nobody doubts that. Not even me. But announcers who talk down to the audience just come off as pompous gas-bags, who bludgeon the viewing audience with their supposed superior intellect and knowledge. Nobody wants to listen to that. Nobody wants to hear an announcer whose subtext reads as some holier-than-thou, let me explain football to you, little lady, attitude apparent in so many. Maybe these guys would be well served to remember one of the lessons of early elementary school — nobody likes a know it all.

What I want, what I crave, really, is the illusion that I’m eavesdropping on a conversation between a few guys who have greater understanding and greater access than I do.

Gruden seemed to get that on some instinctive, organic level. Despite rumors of a monolithic ego, Gruden’s ego was nowhere to be heard. He let his broadcast partners take the lead in the dance and he let the game itself dictate his commentary.

Monday nights just got a lot more fun now that I have a standing date with Jon Gruden.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Pirates. Killing Me. Not Very Softly. Not at All.

So, yeah, I got a call from the Buccos. I guess I'm playing 2nd base on Friday night. Who the hell else is going to start there?

Penned last night for True/Slant. Of course, fewer than 24 hours later, the Bucs traded Gorzelanny and Grabow, too. No huge loss, but you know, that blue light is only on for a few more hours, Pirate-Mart shoppers!

From True/Slant on July 30, 2009:

How to Kill a Sports Franchise.

Are you one of the millions of Americans who would like to kill a sports franchise? You’re in luck. For this special offer, at the low, low price of simply logging on, here’s a handy eight-step how-to guide for killing a professional team, courtesy of the brain trust at the Pittsburgh Pirates.

1. Trade All-Star, Gold Glove centerfielder Nate McLouth, making just $2.5 mil a year (Wal-Mart pricing by baseball standards) to Atlanta. In return, receive several prospects, including left-handed pitcher Jeff Locke (2nd round draft pick in 2006) currently pitching single A ball; Charlie Morton, right handed pitcher who has made eight starts since arriving in Pittsburgh, with a 2-3 record, a 3.72 era and averages 4 2/3 innings per start; and Gorkys Hernandez, an outfielder currently playing AA ball with the Altoona Curve, where he’s batting .257 with two home runs.

2. Wait for the fans to settle down from this dust up. About three to four weeks should do it.

3. Trade wildly popular, fleet of foot, energetic, engaging left fielder, Nyjer Morgan to the Washington Nationals. Be sure to cite his lack of power hitting. In return, obtain pitcher Joel Hanrahan, a right handed pitcher with a 6.7 ERA; and, of course, known headcase Lastings Milledge, who started the season so slowly (batting .167 with 1 RBI) that even the lowly Nats sent him down to AAA ball. Milledge was rehabbing from an injury at the time of the trade. Since returning from injury, Milledge has played 17 games with the Pirates AAA affiliate, the Indianapolis Indians, where he is batting .333 with zero home runs. Whups. So much for that need to get a power hitter in left field.

4. Bide your time. Wait. A craptacular offer is bound to cross your desk on the eve of the trade deadline.

5. Trade Jack Wilson. Yup, the 2004 All-Star rep, the winner of the Silver Slugger for shortstops in 2004, the guy who is one of the five best fielding shortstops in the league and who, as of July 17, helped to turn 100 double plays, most in the majors. Send the guy who willingly took on the tremendous burden of this accursed franchise and actually wanted to remain in Pittsburgh to turn things around to Seattle for shortstop Ronny Cedeno (batting .167), first baseman Jeff Clement (batting .227) and pitching prospects Aaron Pribanic, Brett Lorin and Nathan Adcock. Oh, last thing, tell the fans that this wasn’t a salary dump.

6. As news of the Wilson move is burning up the internet machines, even causing the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website to go all wonky (not that that’s anything new), quickly orchestrate a trade that sends the other key element of that middle infield to the San Francisco Giants. In return for three time All-Star 2nd baseman Freddy Sanchez, receive Tim Alderon, pitcher who was selected third in the 2005 draft and is currently working in double A ball. Aldereson seems to be a superb pitching prospect, but by this point, the fans can’t even see straight, let alone read this breakdown per ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick:

“The Giants paid a big price for Sanchez in surrendering Alderson, who was ranked by Baseball America as the No. 4 prospect in the San Francisco organization entering this season. Alderson, 20, is 6-foot-6 and 217 pounds. He has a 7-2 record and a 3.65 ERA in two minor league stops this season. The Giants selected Alderson with the 22nd overall pick in Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft two years ago and gave him a $1.29 million signing bonus.”

7. Act indignant over widespread media indifference to your team while everybody obsesses about the Steelers, who aren’t even practicing in shorts and t-shirts yet. Act perplexed when irate fans start staying away from the ballpark in droves.

8. Blame the media and the fans for an historic 17 year run at suck.

Oh, and would the last fan out of the ballpark please turn off the jumbotron? Thanks.


Meanwhile, my virtual buddy the Sports Noter said in one quick paragraph what it took me 600+ words to say:

All right, settle down, I think we're all here so let's take seats. I'd like to welcome you all to the Pittsburgh Pirates Mid-Summer 2009 Strategy Meeting. Item No. 1 on the agenda ... The Steelers open up training camp in just a few days. What do we do? Okay, let's see some ideas, people. Trade Adam LaRoche to the Red Sox? Didn't we send Jason Bay to them last year? Never mind, it's brilliant. I love it. Make the call. Okay, next ... Trade Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez? Wait, aren't they our double play combo? Whatever, I like it. Do it. Wow, I'm getting goosebumps here. You guys are on fire. What else you got?

Here's Bob's real blog. He's a panic. And quick. Man, is he quick:

Ugly Pete

How long have they been playing baseball?
About 110, 120 years.
Who has more hits than anybody else in all that time?
Pete Rose.
Put that Jackass in the Hall.

From True/Slant on July 28, 2009:

Pete Rose. Jackass. And Hall of Fame Worthy

Pete Rose is in the news again, which is never good news for MLB commissioner Bud Selig. (Or anyone who is a fan of comely coiffure, for that matter.) The recent chatter centers on whether or not the all time hits king should be enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame, despite his lifetime ban from the game. Baseball legend and Selig pal Hank Aaron thinks so and publicly stated as much, saying, “I would like to see Pete in. He belongs there,” which has prompted Selig to at least consider lifting the ban.

That would make Rose eligible for the Hall, but also for employment with MLB. What on earth is Selig thinking?

Here’s what we know on the Rose case to date: Rose gambled on sports and lied about that. He gambled on baseball and lied about that. He gambled on his own team when he managed the Cincinnati Reds and lied about that. He maintains that he always bet on his team and never against them, but given what we know about Rose, why would anybody believe anything that comes out of his mouth? Ever?

Going back to the days of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the former judge turned baseball’s first commissioner, gambling has been the most taboo, verbotten transgression known to ballplayers. There is to be no gambling on baseball. And no fraternizing with gamblers. Essentially, if you don’t want to get hit by the train, don’t play on the damned tracks. Simple enough.

It’s the number one deadly sin.

Steal some signs? Gamesmanship, my silly friend. Doctors baseballs with a nail file or vaseline? Again, gamesmanship. And an advantage that could be easily rectified by diligent umpires in live game situations. Pop some greenies? Shoot some steroids? Hey, everybody was doing it!

Gambling? On Baseball? On games involving your own team? Indefensible. And deserving of the ban from ever participating in MLB in any capacity beyond buying a ticket to sit in the bleachers.

But what if Pete could be banned from baseball and still be enshrined in the Hall of Fame? The Baseball HOF is an independent animal from MLB proper, although the two share a cozy, hand in glove relationship. Per their website:

“The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is independent of Major League Baseball, however it does maintain an excellent relationship with MLB.”

The HOF did not respond to my request for clarification via telephone or email, but my reading of the above is that, technically, the HOF could make Rose (or Shoeless Joe Jackson) eligible for induction and then let the chips fall where they may with the Hall voters. Theoretically, at least.

So, they could, I’m thinking, put a plaque in the Hall of Fame for Pete Rose, all time hits king and book-makers buddy. And an even bigger plaque next to it that reads: Banned for Life from Baseball for Gambling.

UPDATE: Shortly after posting this story, I did get an email note back from the Hall as follows: “Thank you very much for your note! At the Baseball Hall of Fame, we work very closely with Major League Baseball, but we are a separate entity. We are not owned by Major League Baseball.”

Again, that reads to me that they can go their own way on this matter.

Interview with Insane Ultramarathoner - Wow. Just Wow.

I always feel like such an ass when I interview people like this. First of all, I'm genuinely interested, so I sound like a dork. But also, I feel like a piker. The longest I've ever run is 6 miles and I nearly died. I mean, that was hard. Like really, really hard. So I can't even begin to imagine ultramarathoners.

And then this. 135 miles.

Chin. Floor. Resting.

From True/Slant on July 26, 2009:

Inside the Mind of an UltraMarathoner
Imagine standing in Death Valley at 280 feet below sea level. It’s anywhere from 120 to 30 degrees farenheit, temperatures so high that, if you don’t run fast enough, your running shoes will literally melt on the pavement. When you can finally stop running, you will have run continuously throughout an entire day, well-over 24 hours. You will have climbed and descended, climbed and descended, and passed through landmarks like Furnace Creek, Salt Creek, Devil’s Cornfield, Devil’s Golf Course, and Stovepipe Wells, none of which sound particularly inviting. At the end, you will have climbed to the finish at Mt. Whitney, 8,360 feet above sea level. And you will have covered 135 miles.

That’s just a thumbnail of what awaits runners competing in the Badwater challenge. What the hell would possess somebody to do that to themselves? Seriously, wouldn’t you have to be certifiably crazy to even consider something like that?

I had questions. Lots of them. So I called up Jamie Donaldson, who just completed her third Badwater challenge over the weekend of July 13-15.

Put it this way, if you left the gift shop of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and ran to the cafe at the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, you would cover 135 miles. When I put the Badwater distance in that perspective, even Donaldson admitted with a laugh, that yes, it did sound a little crazy. But Donaldson herself didn’t sound at all crazy. In fact, the sixth grade teacher based in Littleton, Colorado sounded pretty normal on the phone, with a self-deprecating sense of humor and more perspective than I expected.

She said that the heat is the biggest factor, “because you never know how your body’s going to handle that,” but the heat didn’t bother her much this year as it did her first two years. She fought through heat-induced nausea during her second run at Badwater, in the summer of 2008, but still finished about 10 minutes under 27 hours. Yes, 27 hours non-stop. To cover 135 miles in 27 hours, a runner must average five miles per hour, or a 12 minute mile — a remarkable pace to keep up as morning turns to afternoon, afternoon to evening, evening to night, and then to morning again. Competitors have to essentially pull an all-nighter while running and I’m ashamed to admit that the last time I pulled an all-nighter, it was fueled by caffeine and nicotine and George H.W. Bush was Commander in Chief.

This year, Donaldson was the first woman to finish, coming in fifth over all at just hair over 27 hours. She wasn’t too bothered by the heat and perhaps, she suggested optimistically, she’s gotten used to it.

But why? And how?

The how is grueling, but simple: to train for one of these races, she runs 200 miles a week and often runs several marathons in one day.

The why is more complicated. Garden variety 26.2 mile marathons were the gateway drug, as it were. She ran her first in 2003 in Pittsburgh (she was born and raised not far from Pittsburgh) and ran just a handful more before the challenge wore off and she was kind of, well, bored by them. She needed a bigger challenge, something tougher, something that would push her to her absolute limits. So she did a 50 mile race; she was hooked and her ultramarathoning (distances of 50 miles or more) has taken her to such far-flung locales as Korea and Italy. One of the most fun races (if I can use even the word ‘fun’ in relation to such distances) is a 100 mile run that cuts through a Hawaiian rain forest. Donaldson says it’s awesome.

The Badwater challenge is the toughest of all of them. Even for a highly trained athlete, taking the race in its entirety, considering the 135 miles of the course as a whole, is discouraging, seemingly impossible. To get through the endless hours, Donaldson plays mental tricks on herself, breaking the race into more bite-sized chunks to make it palatable, saying to herself, “Oh, I only have another 18 miles to the next stop,” using the stops along the route (there are designated stops at 17.4 miles, 41.9 miles, 72.3 miles, 90.1 miles, and 122.3) as mental carrots, as well as for physical respite.

If the mental challenge kicks in as day turns to night, the first half of the course may be the most grueling physically. Specifically, the first 42 miles from Death Valley to Stovepipe Wells are the hottest. “You’ve got to be really careful about your pace in that heat,” according to Donaldson. After that, the course starts to seriously climb from sea level to nearly 5,000 feet over a 17 mile stretch; then it drops over 3,300 feet for the next nine miles, an extremely steep, dangerous descent. “It’s the worst,” said Donaldson. “You run the risk of blowing out your quads if you run too fast. But you can really hurt your knees if you go too slow, because you’re braking all the time. Plus, you can wipe out.”

After that, it’s smooth sailing. For another, you know, 67 miles to the finish line.

With another Badwater under her belt, Donaldson’s taking it easy, running short (for her) distances, doing a lot of walking before she’ll get on the road for her next race, a 100 miler right in her backyard in Colorado. It’ll be a piece of cake after Badwater.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Five Teams to Head Bang By

From True/Slant on July 16, 2009:

Five Teams that make fans want to smash their heads on their desks

There are teams whose fans throw up their hands in disgust, wallow in despair and watch through paper bags. There are franchises with nothing to celebrate in the rear-view nor any promise of success on the horizon.

Then there are the Pittsburgh Pirates, a franchise in pursuit of a record breaking 17th consecutive losing season. Somehow, the locals remain invested enough to smack their faces off their desks in frustration. Trust me, I know.

It’s particularly bad because Pittsburgh fans can always point to the other local franchises, and few hold up well against the standard set by the Super Bowl champ Steelers and Stanley Cup champ Penguins. Of course, the Pirates don’t help themselves much by (a) losing a lot, (b) trading away nearly every player with any talent, spark or connection to the fans, and (c) losing a lot. (The losing. It bothers folks.)

Still, I suppose there are worse things than being a Pirates fan. Like having your eyelashes tweezed out one by one. Or being questioned by a knuckleheaded pissant like Jeff Sessions. But keeping in the world of sports, as the Pirates complete their annual crawl of shame, here’s my very unscientific short list of fans who have it worse than I do as a Buccos fan:

New York Knicks. Only the Knicks would amass a payroll larger than the GNP of Papua New Guinea and fail so miserably on court. Only the Knicks could allow Isiah Thomas to run the team into the ground from the front office, then add head coach to his job description. To add whipped cream and cherries to it, he was paid to stick around but kinda go away. There is failure, there is incompetence, there is malfeasance. And then there is Isaiah Thomas. It may get better for Knicks fans, but to hoops fans all over New York, particularly those who grew up with Frazier or Ewing, it must feel like James Dolan purchased the team specifically for the purpose of torturing them. Commence head banging.

Buffalo Bills. Remember back in the 1990’s when the Bills lost the first of their four consecutive Super Bowl losses on an errant, last-minute field goal try? Yeah, well those were the good old days for Bills fans. Ownership is financially strapped and there has been talk of moving the team. Since the retirement of Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, the fans have witnessed such luminary quarterbacks as Drew Bledsoe (past his expiration date), Kelly Holcomb, Alex Van Pelt (I am not making that up), J.P. Losman and Trent Edwards. The Bills wear some of the busiest, most hideous uniforms in all of the NFL. And, as though Buffalo fans haven’t suffered enough, enter Terrell Owens (and his shadow, Drew Rosenass.) Good times.

Cleveland. You cannot look at any one single Cleveland franchise without recognizing the sorry state of affairs all over. Context, like timing, is everything. Cleveland fans haven’t enjoyed a championship of any kind since the 1964 Browns. In the 1980’s the Browns lost to the Broncos in back to back AFC Championship games, dubbed “The Drive” and “The Fumble.” but they would be more appropriately titled, “Kill Me, I’m A Browns Fan,” and “Please Kill Me, I’m a Browns Fan.” Did I mention the hijacking, um, relocation of the franchise a decade later? Yeah, that, too.

The Indians came close to a title, but lost in the 1995 World Series to the Braves. And for a super-special encore, they followed that up with the 1997 soul-crushing loss to the Marlins. Do not say the name Jose Mesa in northern Ohio unless you want a fist to the throat.

Those kinds of things take a toll on the collective sports psyche of a town, so much so that ESPN conferred the title of most tortured sports fans on Cleveland a few years back.

But, you say, the Cavaliers have King James! They just got Shaq! This is the year, baby. Except I can’t hear you over the constant, ear-ringing din about Lebron leaving for a bigger market as soon as this contract is up. Every media outlet from Boardman, Oh. to Bristol, Ct. insists he’s already gone, ready to trot off to some bigger market to make more money and become more famous. (I wonder, how much more famous could the guy even be?) Lebron’s assumed departure must hang over Cleveland fans like the sword of Damocles. It’s no way for the city to enjoy what might be the last best chance it has at a title.

Detroit Lions. No list of of futility can skip the team which drives fans to the streets with torches and pitch forks while burning the general manger in effigy. The dome? Football indoors is depressing all by itself. Add the Lions to the equation and I can actually feel my body decaying while I watch them. The Lions draft record was once read at a comedy club. It killed.

Some fans have their hopes dashed every year, but at least they have hope. Despair, thy name is Detroit.

Chicago Cubs. When I was a younger, I thought Cubs fans were reinvigorated each spring. They seemed excited when pitchers and catchers reported for spring training and the tingle of a new start mingled with the spring chill that typically remains on opening day at Wrigley. They kept their hopes for a championship just barely under wraps, but they were there. Oh, they were there. Cubs fans meant it when they said get ‘em next year.

In more recent years, in the post-Bartman era, I get the feeling that a century without a title has gotten the best of them. Cubs faithful are tighter, crankier, and just barely teetering on the edge of sanity. Misery loves company. Maybe it all turned sour after the Boston Red Sox fans and crosstown Chi-White Sox fans got to celebrate in 2004 and 2005. With those historic wins, Cubs fans stood alone as the loneliest long-suffering franchise. It doesn’t seem fun for fans anymore, which is a bummer even for me. Every loss carries the weight of 100 years, every missed opportunity seems inevitable. The Cubs are the face of disappointment. Goats optional.

Honorable mention: L.A. Clippers, Ottawa Senators, N.Y. Jets, Hartford Whalers (I interviewed some locals a couple of years ago for a story on Ron Francis; they’re still bitter).

Fox F&^#$ Up Obama's First Pitch

Bored by the All-Star Game? Me Too!

Mediations on Running Barefoot

Stinkie Hippies Make Impressive Climb

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

More Evidence Pirates Really Are Trying to Kill me

From the Post-Gazette: "The Pirates and Washington have agreed in principle to a trade that would send outfielder Nyjer Morgan and reliever Sean Burnett to the Nationals for outfielder Lastings Milledge and reliever Joel Hanrahan."

Just when I find a player I love to watch, they have to send him away. Which is not to say that Lastings Milledge is not a better player. He might be, but I doubt it. He's batting .167 with one RBI. One.

Admittedly, he's played only seven games. Oh, because the Nats sent him down to AAA affiliate Syracuse in April. You have to be a special kind of suck to be sent down by the lowly Nationals. Super. His 2009 game log is an impressive steaming pile if ever there was one:

Why do I keep thinking about Tyke Redman? (
Only more injury prone. And way more of a head case.

If it pans out that way, you heard it here first.

The Nyjer Morgan era is over in favor of a head case, injury magnet, and bust. Let the Lastings Milledge era begin!

Meanwhile, I'm still hot about the McLouth trade. Not because Nate McClouth is the second coming of Ralph Kiner, but because I'm convinced that Gorkys Hernandez, Jeff Morton and Jeff Locke are going to end up just three more testaments to mediocrity. Hurrah. More mediocre players.

And people around here wonder why the great unwashed masses yearn for Steelers training camp? Look no further than your Pittsburgh Pirates.


Still Bitter on the North Side

P.S. Is it hockey season yet?

Passion Loses in Playoffs to D.C. Divas

27-17 loss bounced Pittsburgh from the post-season at True/Slant:

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Hey Buddy, Can You Spare a Nine Iron?

I believe that developing a proper mastery for watching a sport is a lot like learning a second language: the younger you are when you do it, the richer your understanding will be, which puts me at a decided disadvantage among golf fans, given that I watched my first golf tournament only six years ago while housebound, rehabbing an ankle that looked kinda like Jimmy Caan's ankle in "Misery" after Kathy Bates hobbled him. In fact, when my buddy the Deadhead called to browbeat me into watching the back nine at the Masters, I didn't know what the back nine was, though I didn't admit that to him. I thought it might be some sort of farming term. Or possibly a boy band along the lines of "N'Sync." (I've since learned that the back nine are the last nine holes of golf to be played in the final round. At least I hope I've got even that much right.)

At the start of that day, I was much more familiar with runways than fairways, but by evening, through the final round which included many calls to the Deadhead, I learned that a bogie was bad, a birdie was good and the importance of a "short game." And to my surprise, I kinda liked it. Not enough to play, because I would never spend even the price of a Starbuck's latte to walk on manicured lawns and curse, but watching golf in hi-def, the clarity of which can give me an allergy attack from the comfort of my sofa, is pretty entertaining. So, I learned enough to enjoy any major tournament on Sunday, but there still remained the problem of how to get truly engaged.

For me to really connect to a sport, I need to have a rooting interest and it's not so easy in golf as it with team sports. I have a highly refined ability to turn on a random, Division II college football game, make a split-second judgment about a team based on location or conference, the posture of the coach, or the color and design of the uniforms, and thus instantaneously, it will become very important to me that that team lose.

When I decided to make the leap to golf, the first task was to find some go-to guys. There were two no-brainers in Jim Furyk and Rocco Mediate. Both are both local guys, seem pretty decent and it doesn't hurt that Mediate looks just like my regular UPS driver. Who else? Mike Weir won the first Masters I watched, plus he's Canadian and I love all Canadians, so I decided to root for him.

Of course, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson loom over all things golf and, despite the fact that both are fun to watch, I felt like I had to pick sides a'la the Hatfields and McCoys.

I chose Phil. I had a soft spot for that squirrelly lefty the moment I discovered that he always lost major tourneys, usually in stupdendously dramatic fashion. That really appealed to me -- the gifted guy who couldn't seem to get out of his own way -- so I got on the Mickelson bandwagon. Of course, he went out and won the Masters in 2004, which was great for him, but not so much for me, because a little of his lovable loser sheen was buffed off. Thankfully, Mickelson returned to form by imploding in the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot (here for more info for other golf neophytes.) Phil himself said of that performance, "I'm such an idiot," and I never loved him more. It was, as baseball fans might say about a certain juiced slugger, just Phil being Phil.

To fully connect, though, I needed a villain, the golf equivalent of the Dallas Cowboys. I have this pilot friend who once flew Vijay Singh on a privately chartered flight. He said Vijay was a total dork, only substitute the middle two letters with two other letters so that you get the nickname for Richard, and with that, I had my first villain. But Singh has faded and heading into this year's golf season, I was in need of a new, proper villain. John Daly's a train wreck, but despite his Kenny Chesney wannabe fans, he's no Charlie Weis, no Bill Belichick, no A-Rod. I needed a real heel, someone who combined the worst traits of Mike Vrabel, Roger Clemens and Ohio State football fans.

And then, as though the golf gods answered this humble supplicant's plea, the pride of South Africa arrived to save the day. Thank you, Rory Sabatini.

Thanks for Rory's stupid face.

And his pot belly.

Thanks for his idiotic sartorial choices.

I'm eternally grateful for his stupid hair.

And how could I ever repay him for that moronic belt buckle?
So I'm rooting for Phil right now (although not as much as I'm rooting for his wife who is just beginning her battle with breast cancer) and I'll always be a sucker for Rocco. But truly, I'll okay with just about anybody winning at Bethpage Black, so long as it's not that jack ass Rory Sabatini.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Favre, Favre, Go Away, Don't Come Back Another Day

Earlier this week, Brett Favre went on Joe Buck's new HBO show (who thought that was a good idea?) and admitted that the rumors are true: he's hoping to play football again, specifically with the Minnesota Vikings. As reported in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune:

"Brett Favre ended weeks of silence Monday by making it clear that if his surgically repaired right arm is healthy, he wants to return to the NFL -- as a member of the Vikings. During an interview on HBO, the retired quarterback admitted it 'makes perfect sense' for him to play in Minnesota, even referring to the Vikings as 'we' at one point."

There was no doubt much rejoicing from one, John Madden, Favre's biggest cheerleader, and also from Vikings fans, who apparently believe their team will be improved with Methusela's younger brother, a/k/a Brett Favre, under center, but I've reached my complete and utter saturation point. What comes beyond saturation? Whatever that is, that's where I am with Favre. I'm anticipatorily over-loaded on future SportsCenter stories about him, more tired debates on the Sports Reporters, and sideline reports detailing his relationships with new teammates, coaches and even equipment managers. I'm dyspeptic when I think ahead to the Vikings Week 4 prime-time match up versus the Green Bay Packers, which will no doubt bring pre-game hype to heretofore unreached levels of inanity.

Somewhere along the way, Favre morphed from a mere-mortal quarterback into the gun-slinger monolith, unwilling to give up on the mystique of his own greatness, even as his abilities manifestly diminished. This version of Favre -- the older, annoying version that tearfully retires and un-retires annually -- has been so omnipresent that it retroactively taints my happier memories.

Every time I even hear his name, I make an unpleasant face, like the one I would make if I had to suck on an aspirin tablet. It's the exact same face I make when I see Madonna.

Tragically cool music snobs will deny ever enjoying the Material Girl, but I don't know anybody who didn't dance up a sweat to her first clubby, catchy self-titled disc back in the early '80's. Oh, sure, Madonna made mad missteps. For every "Express Yourself," there was a "Papa Don't Preach," and for every charming "League of Their Own" performance, there was a ludicrous stinker like "Body of Evidence." She produced some absolutely painful drivel, but she also had moments of greatness. She made some great dance music and dominated pop culture for a long time. Personally, I counted "Like a Prayer" as one of my top 10 favorite pop songs of all time. If anybody bothered to ask, which nobody did. Just saying.

Somewhere along the line, Madonna crossed a line and her miscues started to outnumber the moments of artistic genius; her knack for recognizing a trend just nanoseconds before it happened and then capitalizing, turned into an egomaniacal, solipsistic need to create the trend, to actually BE the trend. She tried on any pose, any outfit, any style to seem relevant. Heck, she tried on Kabbalah, and she even tried on a phony British accent when she started loafing with Rupert Everett. On a visit to the Holy Land several years ago, she asked to be called 'Esther', about which one of my wittier friends commented, "She's so biblical."

At some point, the current Madonna incarnation -- the yoga obsessed, Kaballah quoting, third-world child adopting, anorexic, surgically altered, A-Rod canoodling Madonna -- consumed and ruined the earlier eras. I deleted "Like a Prayer" from my iPod running mix.

Likewise, I used to love Favre. He was my favorite NFL player who didn't play in Pittsburgh. It was easy enough. I always had a soft spot for the Packers: the appeal of Green Bay as an NFL city, the charming chant of the locals, "Go Pack Go," Lombardi and Starr, the odd sartorial splendor of the green and the yellow, the frozen tundra and all that.

Then there was Favre himself, funny, reckless, fun-loving, with a canon for an arm. He won a lot and when he did, it was often in dramatic fashion. It was flat-out fun to watch Favre and the Packers. Back then, the gunslinger routine was fresh and organic.

Like Madonna, Brett made a lot of missteps along the way. His 464 career touchdown passes rank as the most for any QB; of course, his 310 career interceptions rank at the top, too. He won one Super Bowl but there are those who think he could have, in fact, should have had more. There were times when he carried his team, elevated them to heights unattainable without him. And then, like Madonna in her "Swept Away"/"Die Another Day" phase, there were games that he threw away: the 2003/2004 divisional playoff game versus the Eagles, when he threw a late game interception that lead to the winning kick for the Eagles; or the 2007/2008 NFC Championship game in which he tossed two killer picks that sent the Packers into the off-season and the New York Giants into the Super Bowl.

The thing is, he always threw bad picks. That's just who he was and his penchant for the big mistake used to be counter-balanced by some entertaining heroics. But, as with Madonna, Favre's stinkers became more frequent and his moments of greatness more remote. The 2008 Favre devoured the 1996 Favre.

What could a return possibly accomplish that he hasn't already accomplished? Another MVP or Super Bowl title are highly unlikely. And besides, how many of those does he need to solidify his already secured spot in the pantheon? And, truly, how many more hit records are in Madonna's future? At this point, they both seem like the party guests who see you cleaning up, yawning, even brushing and flossing, but don't know that it's time to go.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Welcome Back to Pittsburgh, Lord Stanley

I'd like to welcome Lord Stanley's official representative, Cup, back to Pittsburgh. It's been a while since your last visit, Cup, and a few things have changed.

What's that? Oh, yes, you are not mistaken, in fact that was the soft, sexy caress of Mario Lemieux's hands on you last night, but he doesn't play hockey any more. He owns the team now. Yes. Owns. No, I'm not kidding.

The Pirates? Oh, it really has been a while since you were here. They didn't win any titles and they've been just soul-crushingly horrible since you've left, but they have a pretty new ballfield, so they've got that going for them.

Yeah, a few other things have changed around here since then, too. We have a new Mayor. Sigh. I'll just leave it at that. And the housing boom that hit the rest of the country? Well, we never had that, but it's cool because when it all crashed and burned and brought the entire nation's economy down with it, it had a negligible impact here. In fact, ironically enough, Pittsburgh is being touted as a model of fiscal responsibility and good old American, ah, something or other involving character, I think. The city's in the New York Times all the time. Suddenly, they love us, though we're not so sure if the feeling is mutual.

Oh, yeah, that new Steelers coach that you met when you were here in 1992? He stayed for a long time and had a very good run. He finally won a Super Bowl in the 2005-2006 season, but then he retired and moved to Raleigh, North Carolina where he very publicly started rooting for the Carolina Hurricanes. Now he's about as popular around here as Marian "goal-less in the seven most important games of his career" Hosebag (tm Smiley). I guess those two can start golfing together any time.

You'll be spending your summer with a new bunch of guys, so let's get you up to speed on your hosts.

Let's start with Sidney Crosby, the youngest captain ever to tote you around the ice. (Notice, I didn't say 'hoist.' Why do people always say 'hoist?') Anyway, Sid's been touted as the great savior of the game since he was about 9 years old, which is good amount of pressure to carry around, but he never complains about it; he just works harder than he did the day before and, in spite of his youth, the guys in the Pens locker room would follow him to the ends of the earth. He's pretty much an assist machine. Just ask the old-timer and relative Pittsburgh newcomer, Billy Guerin, about what it's like to receive a pass from Sid right on the tape as he's perched in the goal mouth. He's rarely demonstrative and his game is less flashy than a few others, but he is a complete player in every way. He has fantastic hands and great vision and sees things opening up two and three moments before anybody else on the ice does.

The other guy I'm sure you'll be spending a lot of time with is Geno Malkin, the young Russian phenom who hauled in the Conn Smythe trophy, even as Detroit netminder Chris Osgood was thinking about where he'd display it in his home. Malkin's an amazing player. He can just physically take over a game and in Game 7, with Sid out with knee injury for much of the game, Geno threw himself all over the ice with reckless abandon to preserve the Pens victory. His english isn't great, but he's a good kid and he hasn't even reached his peak as a hockey player yet. Oh, don't be surprised if his mother uses you to serve her famous borscht.

Max Talbot is a local superstar, as he'll be the first to tell you, as much for his ebullient personality as his gritty style of play. He plays every shift with his foot flush on the gas peddle. His Game 7 heroics were the stuff made of legends. First, he and Geno irritated Brad Stuart into turning over the puck near the goal and then he buried it by going five-hole on Osgood. The second goal, the one that turned out to be the game winner, was again started when Talbot, this time teamed up with Chris Kunitz, badgered Stuart into another stupid turnover, this one at the blue line. Talbot raced towards Osgood, considered a cross-ice pass, reconsidered it, and lifted the puck over Osgood's shoulder. Top shelf, as Talbot himself would describe it. You'll have a lot of fun out with Max and I'm sure you'll get a lot of attention from the ladies.

Some of these guys aren't so young, and surely you remember Guerin from the old days with the New Jersey Devils, and Petr Sykora, too, from his 2000 performance with those Devils. Sergei Gonchar's been waiting a long time to meet you, but he was so anxious to do so that he played his usual steadying role after suffering a nasty knee injury in the Capitals series; we'll probably find out that he was skating with zero cartilage and ruptured ligaments in his knee ever since, but still played around 20 minutes a game. In Game 7, he logged of 24 minutes time, so yeah, I'd say he was pretty desperate to spend some time with you.

Even old Miro Satan made a return trip from Wilkes-Barre himself, just in the hopes he might dance with you.

The coach? Yeah, that's a crazy story to go from coaching in the AHL in Wilkes-Barre on Valentine's Day to winning the Stanley Cup just a few months later. It is stranger than fiction, indeed. By the way, is it kinda gay of me to have reading glasses that look like Bylsma's glasses? Even a little bit?

But this team is surprisingly deep and so many contributed. Jordan Staal is not even old enough to drink legally in Pennsylvania, but he was a penalty killing machine all playoffs and scored a short-handed goal in Game 4 that probably turned the whole series around. Tyler Kennedy is a grinder if there ever was one and he ended up having the game winner in Game 6. Line-mate Matt Cooke crushed everything within his vision in a red sweater. So did defenseman, Brooks Orpik. But then, he did that last year, so nobody was really surprised. Rob Scuderi single-handedly saved Game 6 with his in-goal heroics.

Well, yes I was getting to that. I was just saving the best for last, because, appropriately enough, so did he. Marc-Andre Fleury is a lithe, acrobatic guy, more of a dancer in net than a jock. They list him at 6' 2" and 180 pounds, but you'll see what a crock that is when you meet him. Perhaps Flower stands 6' 2" in his skates and weighs 180 in all of his gear, skates and stick included. He catches a lot of heat from the media and some of the fans love to disparage him, maybe because he seems so delicate, a trait which masks his iron will. Certain folks will dismiss his performance by pointing to his playoff goals against average (2.61 -- ranks 9th among playoff goalies), or his save percentage (.908 --10th among playoff goalies), but I'd direct you to his post-season wins: 16. It's the only number that matters. It must be said that he's had some rough moments. He let in two flukey goals off those funky springboards in Detroit in Game 1, then he let in a soft goal against Justin Abdelkader (who?) in Game 2. His brilliance in Games 3 and 4 was overshadowed by the Pens offensive firepower. Yeah, I know. He was horrible in Game 5. Just horrible. But when his team needed him most, he turned in back to back brilliant performances in Games 6 and 7 and he fought up until the very final moment, making a spectacular save on Niklas Lidstrom with less than one second left in Game 7. It was a save worthy the Mount Rushmore of saves, one of the Seven Wonders of the World kinda things.

It took a moment, after the clock wound down to zero, for anybody to realize that he had done it, and that the Pens had done it. With that, any questions about Fleury's capacity to perform in the clutch, to come up big in big moments, were answered. He went into a building that had his number, against a team that had his number, a team that circled like vultures for the last 20 minutes of action, and he stoned them. He just fucking stoned them. To be the best, you have to beat the best. That's what Fleury and the Pens did and that, my old friend, takes some stones.

So, welcome back. Give our best to Lord Stanley and enjoy your stay in Pittsburgh. You should get used to it. I can envision you spending a lot of summers here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

We're Not Dead Yet!

These playoffs have reduced me to monosyllabic grunts, groans, yelps, and shrill exclamations. When I manage to even form words, it's usually just a player's name: Gronk! Sid! Brooks! You get the idea. Every now and again, I curse. But last night, there was one name I screamed more than any other: Scuds! Somebody much more articulate than I once wrote:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

-- Dylan Thomas.

Although it coulda been Rob Scuderi.

It wasn't so long ago in the spring of 2006 that the nicest thing I could say about Mr. Scuderi was, "um, he clears the puck well." He's not an offensive defenseman, like Sergei Gonchar, or even Kris Letang. He's not a body-blow delivery machine like Brooks Orpik, nor is he the humongous slab of humanity that we call the USS Hal Gill. But watching Scuderi's maturation from a mediocre player (sometimes even a liability) to a team leader who makes all the right plays at all the right times, has been one of the more surprising elements of this Penguins journey. He finished the regular season at +23, a remarkable stat for a purely defensive defenseman, and even more remarkable when you consider that, with the arrival of coach Dan Bylsma, Scuds was often deployed to blow up the opposition's best offensive unit.

He's had a tremendous run this post-season, too. He limited Alex Ovechkin. (You cannot entirely stop Ovie, merely limit him and Scuds made sure that Ovechkin never put his team so far ahead that the Pens offensive stars weren't within striking distance.) Then he contributed to the utter dismantling of Eric Staal, the Carolina Hurricane's number one offensive weapon.

But the Red Wings? The Red Wings are a different animal. They can attack from so many lines. If Henrik Zetterberg's not crashing the net, then it's over-grown ginger kid, Johan Franzen. Or Dan Cleary. Or Tomas Holmstrom, who parks himself in the Pens goal crease so much, he's starting to have his mail delivered there.

Last night, it looked like we might see more of the same kind of demoralizing, flukey, ugly scoring we saw in last year's Game 6 when Zetterberg put a puck in the crease that Marc-Andre Fleury accidentally knocked back into the goal with his own derriere. It was the game winner. I try to forget that the Wings' Stanley Cup winning shot was put in by the ass of the Pens net-minder, but Zetterberg clearly hasn't, and he was looking for a little deja vu last night when he dinged a shot off the goalpost that landed behind Fleury. Unlike last year, Zetterberg's shot remained harmlessly in the blue paint. As Fleury tried to move the puck forward, from his post alongside his netminder, Scuderi made one of the smarter plays we've seen all series, as he simply held his stick down on the ice behind Fleury to provide an extra layer of defense against potential errant puck dribblage. Zetterberg and the Red Wings were thus denied and I started to get the feeling that this Game 6 was going to be different.

All night, Scuderi was all around the goal mouth, on two crucial back-to-back penalty kills in the third period, and also scuttling a third-period Pavel Datsyuk rebound out of harm's way. The puck nestled just to the right of the net, just out of reach of Fleury, tantalizingly close to going in. It was precisely the sort of opportunity the Red Wings always seem to capitalize on in typically annoying fashion, except this time, Scuds was there to foil them.

Still, Scuderi saved his best heroics for last.

If you read the official play-by-play of the game, it reads simply: 19:43 - Johan Franzen shot blocked by Rob Scuderi.

And yeah, I guess you could say that. In the same way that you can describe Mt. Kilimanjaro as a big hill and Helen of Troy as okay looking. I guess you could also say that the Beatles were pretty popular once upon a time, too.

With the potentiality of a Game 7 hanging in the balance, Scuderi really was the piece, the most elemental, crucial piece of the puzzle necessary to block not one, not two, not three, but four attempts to stab the puck into net by the Red Wings, and all with Franzen's unappealing ass right in his face. Unlike Zetterberg's crafty move in Game 1 when he gloved a puck on Chris Osgood's back, Scuderi made all the stops with his stick, his leg and his skate, per the letter of the law. By the time the officials blew the whistle for a stoppage of play, 11 players were piled in net, with Scuds at the bottom, still keeping the puck from crossing the line.

There are blocked shots. And then there are blocked shots.

In the words of the inestimable Monty Python boys, 'We're not dead yet!'

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Pitiful Penguins Performance. With Video.

I woke up this morning thinking of the 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers, who opened their season by losing at home, at Three Rivers, to the divisional rival Browns by a score of 51-0. That's not a typo, the Cleveland Browns had 51 points and the Pittsburgh Steelers had zero. It was a game in which the Steelers turned the ball over eight times (five fumbles and three interceptions.) Watching the game on a beat up Zenith television set in my first apartment, I remember thinking the Steelers were just snakebit that day. Nothing worked. Every phase of the game looked like the climax of a slasher flick. No matter what they tried, it blew up like one live hand-grenade after another. It was just one of those games where you knew that, not only would they not be able to right the ship, they wouldn't even be able to claim any moral victories. There would be no drives to build on, no defensive stands to feel good about. As good as the Browns were that day, the Steelers were equally putrid.

That's what the Penguins game felt like last night. Only turned up to eleven.

And like that Steelers game, through my own sheer stupid stubbornness, I watched until the bitter end. It was like a self-imposed 'Ludovico Technique,' with beer. ( )

It was so promising for a few minutes. The Pens came out flying high, cycling the puck, finishing their checks, forcing the action in the Detroit defensive zone, and playing up to the occasion. Then Niklas Kronwall tripped Chris Kunitz, the Pens went on the power play, and it all turned to shit. Smelly, stinky, pungent penguin scat.

The Pens put not one single shot on Chris Osgood with the man advantage. The Red Wings special teams, which had heretofore been foul-smelling themselves, got a huge lift from the penalty kill and just four minutes after the neandertal Kronwall made his return from the penalty box, Daniel Cleary blasted a shot between Brooks Orpik's legs, which sailed right past Marc-Andre Fleury. I don't think Fleury was even aware of the shot, just felt the breeze in his hair as it whistled by. The 1-0 lead would have been good enough for the Red Wings on the night.

Things only deteriorated from there. The Red Wings played like champs so I don't mean to take anything away from Detroit when I say that the Pittsburgh Penguins played like a bunch of jackass penguins.

I don't think we need to revisit in detail the horrors of the Red Wings power play success (3 for 9) or Marc-Andre Fleury's turnstile impersonation in net. Meanwhile, the officials, the same crew which had worked Game 3 and had allowed a, shall we say, Anaheim Ducks style of play, decided to call this one closer to the vest. Much closer. The Red Wings adjusted. The Pens didn't, leading to 18 minutes worth of minor (2-minute variety) penalties served by Pittsburgh and the embarrassing 30 minutes of game misconduct penalties (three 10 minute misconducts handed out near the end of the game to Craig Adams, Matt Cooke and Max Talbot).

Though, if I'm being honest, it's hard to be genuinely pissed at Talbot, Cooke and Adams as I myself was calling for Bylsma to send out the Hanson Brothers by the beginning of third period.

The good news is that regardless of the final score, whether 1-0 or 51-0, it still only counts for one game. (That, and the fact that Benedict Arnold Hossa has zero goals in this series, and is showing his true stripes as a regular-season phenom and post-season weakling.)

The Pens can win Game 6 at home on Tuesday, provided, of course, that they don't play like a bunch of jack-asses again. But you have to wonder, even if they win Game 6, are they capable of taking a single game at the Joe in Detroit? If you listen hard enough, you can almost hear Morgan Freeman's voice-over narration, "Sadly, none of the Penguins would survive their journey to Motown ..."

Friday, June 5, 2009

Haiku Pucks

Game 4, in haiku form:

Geno swoops and scores
post-season point thirty-four
Mom and Pop high five

Jordan Staal explodes
Rafalski caught flat-footed
Epic short-hander

Detroit special teams
give up two goals in must-win
May cost them the Cup

Flower's eyes are on
unflappable acrobat
Hossa's shots denied

Malkin feeds Crosby
Mortal Osgood looks shakey
Sidney buries it

Sid spins, passes, scores
Zetterberg chasing the Kid
Gives in to fatigue

Kennedy's poke-check
Another Pens takeaway
Chris to Sid to Ty

The springboards beckon
Sid ready to feast on squid
Lord Stanley, come home

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Pittsburgh Pirates Are Dead from the Neck Up

Just when I thought it was safe to go back to PNC Park, when I thought it was okay to peek over my morning coffee into the baseball scores. I crunched the numbers and saw progress, real for real progress, in a lot of areas. So just when I thought it was okay to care, just an eentsie bit, the Pirates became the Pirates. Stupid is as stupid does.

You have to ask: Do they want to lose?

Secondly: Are they trying to kill me?

I don't buy the ruse that they're making room for Andrew McCutchen. As Danny Murtaugh once said, a McLouth batting in the three hole is worth a McCutchen in the minors. Unless they got the second coming of John Smoltz in this deal, they were outplayed at the bargaining table. Again.

I knew this guy when I was a kid, George the Greek. That's what everybody called him. I have no idea what his surname was. He did light construction work. I think he worked for the Borough's municipal works crew or something. I remember him pouring a sidewalk at my childhood home. That's what George the Greek was -- a basic guy who knew how to fix a few things, was good with his hands and lived pretty simply. I don't mean to say he was dumb, but he saw the world in simple terms. Something worked or it didn't. Certain foods tasted good and others didn't. Working hard and having a couple of beers at the end of the day was a good thing. Being paid to loaf and having a few beers at the end of the day was an even better thing.

What I'm getting at is that even George the Greek would have known to hang on to Nate McClouth. Not only that, he's the kind of player you can start building the franchise around.

We've all had this conversation about and with Pirates management for years. My uncle recently reminded me of something George the Greek used to say that is particularly applicable here.

Ah, what's the use of talkin'.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

More Fun Than a Barrell of Bengals

You know, when those *&&%##@!!*#$s at HBO canceled "Deadwood," I canceled HBO in a fit of pique. I haven't missed it much, to tell the truth. But now, with the Cincinnati Bungles slated to be on tap for the HBO sports/reality show, "Hard Knocks," I may have to re-up with them. This is too delicious to miss out on.

According to ESPN:
"Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer took a swipe at Ochocinco's absence from the team's voluntary offseason workouts on Tuesday in an interview on Sirius NFL Radio. ...

"'It's definitely a new look for the Bengals receiver corps but I couldn't be happier with the guys we've got," Palmer said Tuesday during the Sirius NFL Radio "Movin' The Chains" show, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. "T.J. [Houshmandzadeh's]" gone and Chad's pretty much gone, he hasn't been here, so we've got guys that want those two spots, guys that compete day in and day out, when we're out there on the field, running, conditioning and in the weight room lifting.' ...

"When asked what he expects out of Ochocinco this season, Palmer told NFL Sirius Radio: 'Well, I really don't know. I haven't talked to him. I haven't talked to anybody that has talked to him. He wasn't here last year so I'm expecting him not to be here at all this year. Last year I think he was here for the mandatory camp but didn't participate in it. So I'm planning on him not being here just because he hasn't been here yet.'"

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

From Russia, With Love

The best thing about the Penguins Game 1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Finals, besides Miroslav Satan's head fake of netminder Cam Ward, was seeing Mama and Papa Malkin in the stands cheering on their son, Evgeni, as he flopped to the ice in celebration of his goal (a nifty little flip of a Phillippe Boucher pass over the shoulder of Ward.) Moments like that keep me tuned in. Not just to the magnificent Malkin and Penguins hockey, but to all sports. There's nothing so exhilarating as the synergistic dance of fan enthusiasm and player exuberance. When those fans and that player are kin, the enjoyment factor increases exponentially.

So few aspects of fandom are as satisfying as watching the Malkin family become part of the Pittsburgh family through the course of three hockey seasons. Vladimir and Natalia Malkin first traveled to Pittsburgh for a short stretch, to watch their son play and visit with him before returning home to Russia. For their son's part, he elevated his play when his parents were in the stands, prompting my buddy the U.Conn fan to note that the sooner we could transplant the Malkins to Pittsburgh, the better.

With each visit, Mama and Papa became more comfortable among the Mellon Arena rabble. At first, they looked like those sepia photographs of immigrants exiting the boats at Ellis Island, circa 1900, back before folks figured out that it was okay to smile in the presence of a camera, so they all just stared morosely and ended up looking stiff, dour and humorless for all eternity. (Somewhere in a huge trunk of family photos left to my mother by my grandmother, there is a photograph of my great aunt Lena on her confirmation day. In Italian Catholic circles, confirmations are pretty joyous occasions, but if you looked at this snapshot of my great aunt next to her mother, my great-grandmother, you would be certain they had just returned from a funeral. Or mine cave in.)

During those early visits to Pittsburgh during Evgeni's first season with the club (2006-2007), Vlad and Natalia looked as though they should be lurking in the background of that photo of my great aunt, like refugees straight off of the boat from Minsk and Pinsk. And understandably so. I'm not kidding when I say that they come from the Russian equivalent of Pittsburgh. They are not trendy, nor do they appear to be urbane dilettantes. Who knows what they thought of the nearly 13,000 insane Pens fans at the Arena? They're just regular folk whose son, as it turns out, is a freak on the hockey pond.

So they came to Pittsburgh to watch their son play and with each visit, they seemed to relax -- just a little. You had to watch it from the beginning to really see it. The changes were positively glacial. Slowly, bit by bit, game by game, one artistic Evgeni Malkin goal building on another, each point peeling away layer of discomfort from Natalia and Vladimir Malkin of Magnitogorsk, Russia.

With the Pens down two games to none in the 2nd round against the Washington Capitals, the young Malkin came alive. It was no fluke that it was on home ice, with his parents in the stands. His stat sheet read simply, 1 goal, 0 assists, but Geno was all over the ice. He dominated the game from the first puck drop. He soared, deeked, spun, drew penalties, created opportunities, wore down, and dazzled his opponents. When young master Malkin drilled a wrist-shot behind the previously impenetrable Simeon Varlamov, on a power play he himself created by goading fellow countryman Alexander Semin into a silly hooking penalty, I thought Mama Malkin was gonna climb over the glass and chest bump her son at center ice. I'd swear under oath that Papa Malkin teared up.

I usually tire of the needless, gratuitous shots of player wives or children in the stands. Because I just don't care. Just show me the damned game. But there is something so endearing, so normal and yet compelling about all of the Malkins - Vladimir, Natalia and Evgeni. This is one family drama I can get behind.

The transformation from 2006, when they looked like strangers in a strange land, is complete during these 2009 playoffs. There's Vlad, rejoicing, high-fiving and hugging other Penguins fans around him. There, too, is Natalia, who appears to be sporting an updated hairdo, waving her Penguins home white towel, exploding with unbridled ecstasy at every great play.

Perhaps it is because they take such palpable joy in their son's accomplishments that the fans embraced them, both literally and figurative. (They've become recognizable Pittsburgh style celebs with fans back-slapping and hugging them everywhere they go.) It's a genuine love affair on the side of Pittsburgh fans. I don't think the Malkins will have to pay for a drink in this town for a long time to come.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

And Then There Was One

The Penguins-Capitals series is everything I thought it would be. Every game is a nail-biter. There are huge swings, emotional peaks and valleys in each game, not to mention the ebbs and flows throughout the series. Momentum is mercurial. Frankly, I don't think I can take anymore. During the epic Game 6 of the Penguins-Capitals series, I'm pretty sure my heart stopped. Just momentarily, but stopped nevertheless.

In the aftermath of six magnificent games, I intended penning something about the role players, the unsung contributors on each team. I was going to compose rhapsodies in honor of Pittsburgh defenseman Rob Scuderi, who has flat out robbed Ovechkin of golden opportunities again and again. (Ovie would have double the seven goals and 13 points he has in this series were it not for the unbelievable play of Scuds.) I planned to pen odes to the unexpected beauty of defenseman Mark Eaton's offensive skills. I was going to verily sing of the Capitals Brooks Laich and sing of Tom Poti. In my bed, in my head, I had half-composed a rant about Washington's Dave Steckel and the enormous pain he was causing to my Stanley Cup yearning Pittsburgh heart.

But then, that would be missing the forest for the trees. Or something like that. As great as the netminders have been, as wonderful as Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeni Malkin have been, with every passing period of hockey, I became more convinced that Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are without peer. They are better at what they do than any two athletes in any other sport, anywhere.

My pulmonary distress occurred when Ovie unleashed a 50 foot laser of a slapshot in overtime. I have no idea how Marc-Andre Fleury tracked and caught that. I was shocked that the puck didn't simply burn through the netting of Fleury's glove, torch through the goal net, flame through the Mellon Arena boards before finally ending it's trajectory by impaling some poor bastard seated behind the net. I haven't seen a faster shot. Ever. Though Ovechkin didn't score the tying goal in the third period (that was Brooks Laich), or get the go-ahead tally (that was Viktor Kozlov), he had assists on both and Ovechkin assists aren't "lucky" assists, the kind you get because somebody scores on your shift, as happens from time to time. His mere presence creates opportunities for his linemates. His aggressiveness is unparalleled. Ovechkin's offensive drive is almost feral, his desire to score goals is rapacious.

In many ways, Ovechkin reminds me of the NFL's Earl Campbell of the Houston Oilers. When Campbell came into the league in 1978, he dominated every game the Oilers played. He was big, strong, elusive, and willing to dish out hits. He ran over, through and around everybody. For a while, he was nearly unstoppable. Then the hits, both those he absorbed and those he delivered, took their toll and his career just tailed off. But while he was at his best, he was mesmerizing.

So, too, is Ovechkin. The issue is that Ovie is occasionally too aggressive, always riding the thin edge between tough and dirty hockey. In the words of Pens play-by-play man Paul Steigerwald, there is a difference between playing to hurt and playing to injure. You can make a strong argument that he intends to injure, but I suspect that he is needlessly, selfishly and thoughtlessly reckless. Whatever the case, regardless of whether you think he's great or a punk, his talent is so prodigious, were he to play in a different era, he would be completely unrivaled.

But he plays now and Mr. Crosby has matched Alex the Great in every game, and particularly in Game 6. Simply, Sid left everything he had on the ice. Every bit of heart, soul, muscle memory, guts, determination and skill were out there, on the Mellon Arena ice in the third period as he frantically worked to tie the game, single-handedly dragging his team into overtime.

With about nine minutes left in the third period, and trailing by a point, Crosby was tireless and fearless. He came around from behind the net to try to create a scoring opportunity, if not for himself, then one of his teammates. As he tossed the puck toward net, there was a collision which he lunged headlong into. He saw it coming, but threw himself toward the crease anyway, the puck skittered wide with no Penguin there to try to grab a rebound, as Sid flew backward from the force of an unceremonious Capital elbow to the face. It didn't stop him.

Night after night, Crosby crashes in front of the net, inviting contact, willing the puck in. To tie Game 6, he batted the puck up and into Varlamov not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times, before directing the game-tying goal into the net, over Varlamov's left shoulder, with a little over four minutes left in regulation. The thing about that Crosby goal was, despite it's defiance of gravity and logic, it wasn't the most amazing thing he's done this post-season.

Both players are so great they make their teams greater. But while Ovechkin inspires through his brashness, Crosby's greatest strength may be his equanimity. His teammates know he'll always be there, steady, never quitting on play, on a game, on a series. In addition to his freakish level of skill, it marks him as a truly great, pantheon worthy player. I expect more of the same from both tonight.