Saturday, July 31, 2010

Philadelphia Phillies Puker Update. I Am on Board for a Proper Tazing.

On April 14, 2010, a Phillies fan (above) deliberately puked on a family (happened to be an off-duty cop and his family.) Gawd, I only hope that he hadn't enjoyed a cheesesteak wit before his hurling episode. Perhaps just several gallons of Yuengling lager.

Today, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Matthew Clemmens, the reckless puker, also nicknamed Pukemon, received 30 to 90 days in jail. That's an appropriately severe sentence for such scurrilous spew.

He's also sentenced to 50 hours of community service, via custodial work at Citizens Bank Ballpark. I'm no jurist or anything, but it seems to me it might have been more appropriate for him to work in a janitorial capacity at a bulimia clinic.

And I'll take that cheesesteak to go. Thanks.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Timing Is Everything. Especially in Pyongyang

Watching the World Cup, my buddy and I were rooting for North Korea. Yes. North Korea.

And why?

Well, we kept joking that if they lost, Kim Jong-Il would be ten kinds of pissed off and "re-purpose them." Probably making them work in some sort of munitions plant and most certainly would pack them off to the North Korean equivalent of a Siberian gulag.

And yet, I didn't post that at the time. As always, a day late and few thousand won short.

Newsweek reports that the North Korean soccer team was in fact publicly berated for their failure. And the coach has been made a construction worker or something.

"The players were then asked to step up in turn and publicly criticize manager Kim Jong-hun, who had apparently been singled out for punishment. He has been forced into a construction job because, it is thought, his team's failure is seen as a personal betrayal of Kim Jong-un, the son of current leader Kim Jong-il."

Sure. That's the official story. I think it went more like this:

"Um, but I don't know anything about construction? I coach soccer. Yes. Soccer. You know that game with a ball and no scoring and stuff like that.

"Oh, I see. I'm going to working as the ditch digger in Kusong. In Kusong!? Don't they manufacture deadly weapons there? What kinds of ditches? Hey, wait a minu.......Aaahhhhhrrrrghhhg."

So Long to True/Slant

By way of explanation, I had fully intended to move posts from True/Slant over here to Balls & Whistles as they were written/posted, but, ah, yeah. Not so much. Really.

So, with True/Slant shutting down, I thought I should move most of the work there over to here. As a result, there are about a beejillion posts in the last week of July, 2010 -- my sorry efforts to copy and cut and paste the True/Slant content here.

Man, that was tedious. But it is here and, I think, relatively easy to find. Things should get back to normal at Balls & Whistles and I've got a few irons in the fire, so we'll see what happens. Meantime, here's my goodbye post from True/Slant:

From True/Slant on July 29, 2010:

Elvis Has Just Left the Building.

All good things must come to an end, or so I’m told. And like the back up fullback who gets a visit from the Turk on the last day of NFL training camp, so it is with my ride with True/Slant. It’s been fun, difficult, frustrating, enlightening, annoying, gratifying and sometimes hilarious (in a Pinter-esque sort of way, I realize), but still. Sometimes, it was all of those things all at the same time.

What that means for now is that I’ll be blogging independently and selling my wares for other stories to the highest bidders. (Do people even pay reporters any more? And if they do, and if you know any of those people and, um, have them on speed-dial or are like ‘friends’ with them on the facebooky machine, drop a dime for me.)

Also, finally, for the love of all that is holy and right, I will be working on finishing my book on the Pittsburgh Passion, “Rough & Tumble, Pioneer Women in the World of Female, Full-Contact Football.” Look for it, um, sometime.

But before I hand in my playbook and skate-sharpener and turn off the jumbotron, I have to say, many thanks to Coates Bateman, Michael Roston and Lewis Dvorkin, for keeping True/Slant up and running, which gave me a comfy place to write, but also a place where I got to read and interact with so many great writers. To Coates and Michael personally, thanks for all of the encouragement.

You can find me here, at my regular, old-fashioned blog, Balls & Whistles.

In the words of the all-world, all-time great Pittsburgh Penguins announcer Mike Lange, Elvis has just left the building.

Five Things on My Mind as the Steelers Report to Training Camp

From True/Slant on July 27, 2010:

Training Camp Opens Soon. Five Questions Facing the Pittsburgh Steelers

It’s that time of year again when Pittsburgh faithful are allowed to avert their eyes from the mess that is the Pittsburgh Pirates (looks like what I wrote just a few days ago was overly optimistic — again) and gaze just beyond PNC Park to Heinz field, toward the six-time Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. With the Steelers reporting to training camp in Latrobe on Friday, I have five questions. They’re not burning questions, more like room temperature questions, but they are questions nonetheless:

1. What a friend we have in Jesus, a/k/a Troy Polamalu. In 2008, the Steelers had the No. 1 ranked defense in the entire league, allowing just 13.9 points per game and 237.2 total yards from scrimmage per game. They had the second most sacks in the league with 51. In 2009, most of the players returned from that amazing run. But it wasn’t so super. They dropped from first to 12th in points allowed, and gave up 300 yards per game. It was, well, it was depressing. How did it happen? One name. Polamalu. He missed 11 games due to injury and the team lost six of those, which is to say, they are one defense with him, and without him, they are the guys who lost to Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland. If he’s healthy, the Steelers have a decent shot at returning within orbiting distance at least of past glories. If he’s out nursing injuries, they can start thinking about the 2011 draft.

2. Clusterbomb at Quarterback. Coach Tomlin is dealing with a lot of crap here, just at one position. First, he has to get ready for the start of the season, which means getting either Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon ready. Both, I believe are capable, competent quarterbacks. Leftwich did a great job subbing for Ben Roethlisberger in 2008; last year, all Dennis Dixon had to do was make his first NFL start in a prime time game in Baltimore, of all places, and the kid played great. The Steelers lost the game in OT, but it was in no way due to Dixon. The challenge for Tomlin is how to split practice time at camp? He cannot cede the first four games through underpreparation of Leftwich/Dixon, but still, like it or not, the starter of the Steelers is Ben Roethlisberger and he, likewise, has to be ready in week five. It’ll be interesting to see how Tomlin balances it all.

3. Offensive Line. I probably could have started with this because whoever lines up under center – Leftwich, Dixon or Roethlisberger, may get killed before the midway part of the season. The line was not great last year. Hell, it wasn’t even great during the Super Bowl run of 2008. (I would posit that it was perhaps the worst O Line on a Super Bowl winning team.) But this year, that already suspect line lost its starting right tackle for the season and they still have a sub-par center, unless first round pick Maurkice Pouncey, can step in. But rookie centers almost never happen. So the line that allowed 50 sacks last year is already worse before the first day of training camp. Of course, both Leftwich and Dixon get rid of the ball faster than Roethlisberger, so his suspension may be a strange gift to this unit. But quick release or not and quick timing patterns or no, this unit is the most suspect on the team.

4. Mendenhall, Mendenhall, Mendenhall. The 2008 first round draft pick enters his third year and this is the make or break season for him. Rashard doesn’t have Willie Parker to share the load with him and will be backed up by third down specialist Mewelde Moore and a bunch of jabeeps. No offense fellas, but it all falls to Mendenhall. His first year was pretty disappointing. He played in only three games before Ray Lewis broke his shoulder. Seriously. His shoulder. Which prompted one of my friends to ask, who the hell breaks a shoulder? What is this guy, made of styrofoam? Last year, he was much better and didn’t break his shoulder, or any other broken bones, so that was an accomplishment in and of itself. Plus, despite occasional outbreaks of mad fumblitis, he showed real power and explosive speed, but it was like OC Bruce Arians didn’t trust the guy or something. He had 20 or more carries only six times. It seems to me, if you draft a running back with your first pick, the assumption is that he’s the feature back and a feature back does not get 11 or 12 carries per game; he gets 22, 24 and 25 carries per game. So the question regarding Mendenhall is twofold: Can he carry the load being the feature back? And will Bruce Arians patiently feed him the ball enough so that he can be the man?

5. Enthusiasm. This is a question for the fans, not the players. The 2009 campaign was not just disappointing, but repulsive. Despite losses to the Bengals and the Bears early in the season, the team rebounded and ripped off five nice wins, three against good teams (Chargers, Vikings and Broncos.) Things were looking good around here. What went wrong, went wrong fast. They dropped a game to the Bengals, ceding control in the division to Cincy. Then they inexplicably dropped games to the Chiefs, the Ravens, the Raiders and the Browns. An entire region threw up on itself in disgust. That’s pretty hard to watch, losing to teams of the caliber of the 2009 Chiefs, Raiders and Browns, all of which is to say that the team has to go a ways to earn back the trust and respect of any sane fans around here (not that there are many of those.)

Then, there is the 241 pound cleat-shod elephant in the room. Fans are in an untenable position. Can they root for the team and not root for Roethlisberger? How do you straddle that? Some people don’t care about Roethlisberger’s off-season transgressions, the allegations of rape, sexual assault and just general entitled, drunken assholery, but most people hold him personally in contempt. At least most people I’ve talked to. But, time has gone on since the story broke in Milledgeville, Georgia and as time as passed, people’s outrage has dampened, if just a wee bit. The fact that the elephant in question has kept a low profile all summer certainly helps. But I wonder how he’ll be greeted when he takes the field on October 17th versus the Browns? Is it possible to boo the quarterback while cheering the rest of the defense? Can you root for the franchise, but not the man leading it?

Are the Pirates Getting Better? And by Better, I Mean Tolerably Mediocre?

From True/Slant on July 22, 2010:

Okay Pittsburgh Pirates, You Got My Attention

Okay, Pirates, I am engaged. I am rapt. Plugged in. Enthralled. Well, maybe not enthralled, but you do have my attention so: now what?

Since the All Star Break, the heretofore pitiful Pittsburgh Pirates have played six games, winning four of them. It’s a nice number of wins versus losses, but it’s no great shakes. It’s how they’ve won that grabbed me by the throat, slapped me around and said, “Hey, dummy, wake up!”

In those games, the Pittsburgh line up, the same one which posted a winning percentage of .341 at the break and which had scored just 284 runs in those 88 games, have scored 50 runs in the past six games. They scored 86 runs in the entire month of May and just 80 in all of June. They were drubbed by the score of 20-0 in April. Ouch.

And yet, in less than one week, 50 Pirates crossed home plate, a pace which they cannot keep up over a long stretch, of course, but considering how moribund they’ve been at the plate, this is like watching the Bizarro Buccos.

Of course, management kept promising things would get better. Just wait, they said. The young guys are good, they claimed. Seriously. We know you’ve been hosed in the past, but we mean it this time. Really. They’re coming. And they’re gonna be good. Don’t tune out yet. Please.

I had heard that song and dance before. Andrew McCutchen is the real deal, but one guy does not a major league franchise make.

But the cavalry is here. Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, Pedro Alvarez. And they are really good.

Which leads me to believe that either:

(one) these guys are as promised.


(two) this is a blip. Or a bloop. Or a bleep. No. Scratch that. The last 17 years have been a bleep. So a blip or a bloop. Basically, this could be a fluke is what I’m getting at, because it’s hard to believe that this isn’t just a case of a blind pig finding an acorn, which I am told, happens from time to time.

It’s not like the management team are the most credible guys around. After all, they brought on Aki “Knee Brace” Iwamura to play 2nd base, paid him $4,850,000.00, and in return got a guy who had 30 hits in 54 games. (If you watched closely enough, you could almost see the bat move off his shoulder, so infrequent and glacial was it’s movement.)

This is the franchise that has strung together more consecutive losing seasons than any team in the history of professional baseball. And that’s saying something cousin.

You’ll pardon me if I haven’t drunk the Bucco Kool-Aid just yet.

But at the risk of being a Gulla Bull, it feels different this time. Which has to mean something, even if all the runs and these few wins don’t mean anything practical for this year. 2010 is a wash and will be another (record setting) losing season.

The way this team is playing now, this could be a portent of actual good things to come. Can they finish strong in August and September? And if they do, can they translate that into success in 2011? If they keep these guys together, and if they can get a few key elements (wily, veteran catcher anyone?), they could be a team with playoff hopes still alive in August of 2011.

What looms larger than Pedro Alvarez’ OBP is the trade deadline (July 31st). Is the Pirates front office dealing in good faith this year or will they be up to their usual tricks of sending young talent away, only to receive a bag of batting practice balls and some summer sausages in return.

So I’ve poured myself a Dixie Cup of that Bucco Kool-Aid, but I’ll wait to drink it until the returns are in from any trade deadline moves.

Please Come to Camp, Lamarr Woodley

From True/Slant on July 20, 2010:

The Steelers Need to Sign Lamarr Woodley.

So much is up in the air heading into training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers this year. Of course, they have to deal with the whole giant f*ckmess created by Ben Roethlisberger who, justifiably, is suspended for the first four games of the season

Coach Mike Tomlin will have to deploy either Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon in his place (or some combination of the two), to get through the first four games, which means he has to have one of those guys ready to play quarterback, plus he has to find a balance to get Ben ready, too, for when it’s his time to step back in. That’s a tough task. Who gets the reps? How many? How much? Because Tomlin has to do two things – try to win at least two of the first four games without Roethlisberger and then pray that Roethlisberger can play like he did in 2008 and through much of 2009. It’s a helluva task.

So Tomlin has to deal with all that is unholy coming from the #7 jersey and those offensive players left to clean up after him, plus he has to find a way to hold together a defense that was the best in the league in 2008 and looked aged and decrepit through much of 2009. There is no escaping this: that Steelers defense is old and one of the most productive young guys is pissed off. is reporting that linebacker Lamarr Woodley is unhappy with his contract. Woodley is scheduled to make $550,000.00 next year, a situation he characterizes as “all jacked up.” I kind of agree. But re-negotiating in the current CBA limbo is kind of jacked up, too. Which is to say there is a 30 percent rule, meaning that the Steelers could renegotiate and give another 30% over the $550,000 they are to pay Woodley, which would bring his salary to $715,000.

Of course, there are ways around that. Naturally, the Steelers could give Woodley a big fattie of a signing bonus (as the Eagles did with Kevin Kolb), but with the 2011 season up in the air, they might pay a lot for one year if they did that.

Still, the Steelers need to deal in good faith. Woodley is, in my estimation, the most productive player drafted in the Mike Tomlin era, which means he’s not only good, he’s young and good. This combination is invaluable.

The presumed starting defensive 11 players (as indicated by the Steelers own depth chart) are:

On the line, they’ve got Aaron Smith who is 34 and coming off a devastating shoulder injury. This guy is great and if anybody can come back from injury, it’s him; nevertheless, at 34 and playing such a physically grueling position, he does not have too many seasons in front of him. Casey Hampton is 32. Brett Keisel is the youngest starter on the line at 31.

At linebacker, the aforementioned Woodley (25) and James Harrison (32) on the outside. Inside, there is the venerable, wily James Farrior who is 35 and who, despite his greatness, looked every bit of 35 during the Steelers dreadful five-game losing streak last year. And Lawrence Timmons, who is 24 and was selected one pick ahead of Woodley in the 2007 draft, but who hasn’t produced as consistently as Woodley. Yeah, I know he was playing on a sprained ankle (or two) last year, but the guy looked lost half the time. Still, he’s young, so we’ll give him that.

In the defensive backfield, there is the wondrous, magnificent, Troy “Better than Jesus” Polamalu, who battled injuries much of last year. He is 29 years old. Seriously, the guy is better than Jesus, if Jesus had played football, that is. When he’s healthy, he’s the best there is in the league and Dick LeBeau has constructed his defense around this sure knowledge. But without him? They are ordinary. It showed last year when they didn’t have him. The other safety is Ryan Clark who is 30 and who, like Jesus, leads with his head, which leads to a few concussions. That does not bode well for a long career.

Then there’s Ike “Swaggin” Taylor who is 30, but plays like he’s 22 and I don’t mean that in a good way. And William Gay who is only 25. He’s young, but you know, he’s just not really very good. Seriously. Not really very good.

If you’re counting at home, that’s four guys on the whole defense under the age of 30. One of those guys is God. One of them has underperformed but still has tremendous potential. One of them kinda sucks. And the last one is Woodley. Combine past performance with the fact that great players like Farrior, Smith and Harrison cannot play forever, and Woodley is, right this second, their best young defensive bet.

Jesse Jackson Never Met a Microphone He Didn't Like

From True/Slant on July 12, 2010:

Jesse Jackson, Making America Safe for Lebron James

First there was the stupidity of Team LeBron deciding that he needed to express his inner special-little snowflake-ness to its fullest by announcing his intentions on an hour-long ESPN special.

Then, there was the callow stupidity of ESPN brass who agreed to air a full hour of such egomaniacal tomfoolery. To say nothing of the idiocy of Jim Gray’s fawning “interview” with LeBron.

And LeBron himself, who sounded like the love child of Narcissus and whoever was the Greek God of Dopes.

Just when it seemed impossible that anybody could out-stupid the ESPN-James-Gray cabal, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert released his petulant, idiotic response.

It was a nationally televised festival of absurdity. Where is Samuel Beckett when you need him?

I didn’t think it could get any stupider, really, because what could possibly be more inane than Lebron, ESPN and Gilbert? And that’s saying something, considering that we live in an era of NFL football players who are dumb enough to tweet about their marijuana use (hey, it happened, okay) but last week’s Lebron’s Ego Fair was a new low in brainlessness. What could surpass it?

Enter, one Reverend Jesse Louis Jackson, Sr. According to ESPN:

"Jesse Jackson criticized Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert on Sunday, saying Gilbert sees LeBron James as a “runaway slave” and that the owner’s comments after the free-agent forward decided to join the Miami Heat put the player in danger."

Gilbert’s comments were thoughtless and unprofessional. The guy is an entitled jerk, or at least that’s how he behaved. Frankly, he should be embarrassed for behaving with less maturity and grace than a 12 year old girl who’s parents won’t take her to the Jonas Brothers concert. But a runway slave? Putting Lebron in danger? Thanks, Jesse, for taking an already epically moronic situation and making it exponentially even more idiotic. What do you expect from the guy who said he wanted to cut a certain body part of a (then) presidential hopeful?

I already feel dumber for having written this.

2010 World Cup Wrap Up

From True/Slant on July 12, 2010:

Vuvuzelas, Penalty Kicks and Landon Donovan.

This year, I set myself to the ridiculous task of watching all the World Cup soccer I could fit into my schedule. The idea was to, once and for all, settle the matter of whether or not I could tolerate soccer, and maybe, hopefully, even like it. I admit, I didn’t see every match. Sadly, I did have other obligations that tore me away from my television from time to time, the kinds of obligations that required I actually changed out of my jammies for the day, which is annoying no matter how you cut it. Turns out, I liked the soccer. I didn’t love it, but at the end of the day, the more I watched, I had to admit I kind of enjoyed it. I liked it enough that I expect I’ll remember this World Cup for a long time. These are the things I’ll remember most.

1. Rhapsody of the Vuvuzelas. These sounded like a swarm of killer bees, hopped up on angel dust, attempting a dissonant Mahler composition. It was so bad that even antidiluvian old FIFA considered banning them. (They wisely did not.) The strangest part of the Vuvuzelas (aside from the strident buzzing noise) was that they were blown continuously throughout, with no discernible relationship to the action on the field. They didn’t get louder or softer, didn’t change with a scoring opportunity or amazing defensive play. They just were. Like it or not, nobody will ever forget the Vuvuzelas.

2. FIFA Idiocy. There is something to be said for tradition, for learning the old ways, so that we can understand where we come from and how we got here. That said, the tradition, the acceptance and the bizarre near pride in horror show officiating is not tradition or venerating those who came before. It is stupid.

I accept that officials make mistakes. They do. And you know what? That’s fine by me, because players make mistakes and coaches make mistakes. It happens. But any player as bad as the officials we watched would be benched immediately. Any coach that bad would be fired via a Twitter feed. So what would be wrong with weeding out the worst officials or holding all of them to a high standard of performance? FIFA operates in extremes: either we have to suffer the inadequate, primeval buffoonery we saw in South Africa, or we will be beset by a horrible dystopian technological future, with malevolent computers running the game. I have seen hundreds of high school games – basketball, football, baseball and softball – all of which were officiated better then the World Cup, none of which had the benefit of instant replay. Competence is not technology dependent. If the officials at a Division III women’s college basketball game in East Bejeebers, Western Pennsylvania are better then the FIFA officials at the World Freaking Cup, then FIFA needs better officials. Period.

3. USA! USA! USA! Yeah, they bowed out in the first game of the elimination round, but Landon Donovan’s rebound goal in extra time is the kind of sports moment that those who were watching will always, always remember. I’ll remember for a long time where I was, who I was with and what it felt like. That may not be enough to turn soccer into a big time sport in America (I have a buddy who says that soccer is the sport of the future -- and it always will be), but it doesn’t matter. I don’t care what happens in the future. This was one of those great moments, like Carlton Fisk’s homer, or The Catch, or Jordan’s Shot.

4. Down goes Ghana. Even when they beat the USA, I enjoyed watching Ghana. I admired their speed. They were fast and they were fun. And their uniforms were snazzy. And did I mention how freaking fast these guys were? Now, I have nothing against Uruguay (and their uniforms are snazzy, too), but there was something very endearing about team Ghana. I like underdogs and I did want to see an African team advance just because. Because South American teams are always around in the semi-finals, to say nothing of the ubiquitous Eurotrash. Then Ghana’s normally deadly penalty kicker, Asamoah Gyan booted the penalty kick off the crossbar, giving the Uruguayans new life. Remember that old “Wide World of Sports” opener, with the agony of defeat? If they ever resurect that show, they can use the footage of Gyan after the loss to Uruguay. It was painful to watch, no matter who you had been rooting for.

5. Hamtastic. What I’ll remember most about Spain’s run was the beatdown they put on Germany. Before this World Cup, had you told me that a game with a 1-0 final score was a blow out, I would have laughed in your face. And then probably said something both rude and crass. And maybe a little bit funny. Maybe. But certainly rude. No way around it though, Spain’s semi-final victory was nothing short of an epic smackdown. And it was a beautiful sight. My sincerest congrats to the fans of the Ham Capital of the World.

All of that said, as much as I enjoyed this World Cup for reals, I don’t expect I’ll be going off in search of a soccer bar to watch the English Premiere League any time soon (although Wayne Rooney was in my dream last night, he really was). So, for now, I’ll say goodbye to my new buddy (or at least casual acquaintance) soccer. So long, and thanks for all the Vuvuzela Etudes. I expect that buzzing sound will leave my head by the time the NFL season kicks off.

Team USA Advances Past the Group Round in 2010 World Cup

From True/Slant on June 23, 2010:

Team USA Saves Best for Last.

I admit it. I had my first, honest to goodness, moment of pure soccer elation when Landon Donovan scored the winning goal for Team USA in extra time. It was legit. I was jumping and screaming and hugging. It was as joyous as it was unexpected.

I set myself to a task – to watch every game of World Cup action – to see if I could embrace, or at least understand what all the vuvuzela honking was about. I learned that soccer is a slow burn. I was skeptical. I was bored. I was restless. But the more I watched, the more I didn’t mind watching. It was okay, I thought. Not great, but okay.

And then a weird thing happened. I started to look forward to matches. I was reading about different teams and watching the highlights to learn what I could from the commentary. I emailed a soccer expert buddy of mine to have her explain the ever slippery soccer off-sides rule. (So much more convoluted that off-sides in hockey, let me just say.)

Last night, I was twitchy in anticipation of the game this morning. Who the hell was I? I didn’t know. I didn’t even care. It was fun. I gave into it.

Yeah, yeah. I know. New to the sport. Bandwagon jumper. Neophyte. All of those dubious honorifics probably apply to me. I’ll own that. And yet … when Donovan netted the winner, it was genuinely euphoric, ecstatic and, yes, karmic payback, you FIFA officiating beeyotches.

It’s not just us annoying Yanks who have been complaining about the officiating. It is everywhere. Try doing a google search of “world cup officiating controversies” and you get about 30 pages of hits in as many languages. Handballs have been missed, egregious fouls have been missed, seemingly good goals have been waved off without explanation, and non-existent fouls have garnered cards of both the red and yellow variety.

Team Brazil is without their best player – Kaka – because of a phantom foul when Kader Keita of the Ivory Coast kinda brushed up against Kaka and then went down like Amy Winehouse after a long night full of jagerbombs. This phantom infraction earned Kaka a second yellow card for the match and thus, he is DQ’ed from playing against Portugal on Saturday.

To pour salt on the myriad officiating wounds, the refs themselves are shrouded in secrecy, protected from the media, and insulated from the real world. In short, they operate a lot like the Roman Catholic Church, or the International Olympic Committee, for that matter, with zero transparency and just as much accountability. The only group more getting worse press than the officials is Team France and you don’t need to be a lifelong fan of the English Premiere League to know that something is rotten in South Africa — the officiating.

But let’s not linger over what is wrong, but rather what is right. What is right is the American Cardiac Kids for the 21st century. Up against the wall because of the debatable draw versus Slovenia, and certainly well aware that England was hanging on to a 1-0 lead over Slovenia, the U.S. knew that a draw versus Algeria would not be enough to propel them past the round of group play. A win was essential. (Advancing on a draw would have been so less than satisfying anyway.)

They dug in and mounted scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity, but it seemed the goal, the one elusive goal, just would not come. Donovan was very quiet for much of the game. Herculez Gomzez missed the goal. Jozy Altidore missed the goal. Edson Buddle missed the goal. Clint Dempsey missed the goal. Michael Bradley hit a beauty, but right into the belly of the Algerian keeper, M’Bolhi. Hell, it seemed like the entire team missed the goal at one point or another.

But they kept coming. And coming. Tim Howard and Carlos Bocanegra held down the fort, making every necessary defensive play and save to keep the hope alive. These guys love to score late. In 18 qualifying games, they scored 10 goals in the last 10 minutes of regulation play and in their game against Slovenia, Bradley netted the tying goal in the 82nd minute.

It was fitting that it wasn’t until the extra time that their relentless pursuit paid off. Howard made a garden variety save, looked up the pitch, spied Donovan and winged the ball up to him. Donovan, the face of American soccer, streaked down field, fed the ball to Altidore, and then moved across the goal to be in position to blast in the rebound of Dempsey’s shot for the game winner.

Is this time — the 91st minute of play in the final game of group play — the exact moment when the USA crashed the rest of the world’s party?

Time will tell, but this is a team hitting every soft spot that we as a nation have. Americans love come backs. We love underdogs. While as a nation, we are rarely underdogs, but if ever we are, it’s on the soccer pitch.

An underdog team staging improbable victory against all odds in the waning moments — how much more American can you get?

Trying to Love Soccer

From True/Slant on June 14, 2010:

Stop Treating Soccer Like the Spectator Sport Equivalent of Brussel Sprouts

Americans suck. We don’t love soccer enough and, thus, we suck. For shame. Shame on all of us, a nation of cretins who watch five minutes of a soccer game, fall into a deep state of unenlightened torpor and flip to a rerun of Law & Order. That seems to be the accepted World Cup/Soccer meme, but I’m not buying it.

First, not every American hates soccer. That said, I’ll admit it that I don’t love it, but I am open to persuasion, so I started to wonder why willing consumers of sport like myself don’t love the game and how it can be made more appetizing? Short of changing the rules or shrinking the pitch, that is. Which is to say, how can the television broadcasts and promoters make the sport more entertaining?

Here are five ideas to bring the fun.

1. Let’s declare futbol detente. I come to bury the aforementioned stereotype, a Glenn Beck-style reactionary who hates futbol cause ‘it’s jess so darned fereign!’ But while we’re here, let’s put to rest the myth that it is more virtuous to watch futbol than football. Puh-leeze, people, it’s entertainment. I love women’s football. Does that make me a better person than you? Hardly. But I love the sport and I follow it because, hold on to your jocks kids, it’s fun. That’s right: Fun. Presumably, soccer fans watch because that’s fun, too, but non-soccer-heads are constantly hectored with the argument that soccer is spiritually superior, or something. This is not only false, it is the spectator sport equivalent of trying to force a willful five-year-old to eat her brussel sprouts. Nobody watches something on television because it’s good for them. We sit in front of the TV to have fun. So, put some bacon in those brussel sprouts, embrace the fun, and let’s agree to not bash each other’s heads in.

2. Make It Personal. Nearly every sport is dull if you don’t have some connection to it. I’ll be the first to admit that baseball is boring. It’s boring, people. It just is. Games take longer than it took to sell my house, big league pitchers take leisurely siestas between pitches and batters fiddle with the minutiae of their equipment and article of clothing between pitches, sometimes even calling time out to do so a second time. Home runs are down and hitless games are up. And yet, I love the game. Why?

As a kid, I was such a baseball geek that I used to keep score along with radio and television broadcasts, which is an embarrassing level of geekdom; even to this day, I keep score at the ballpark. This is just a shot in the freaking dark here, but I’m gonna go ahead and say that personal memories — of games attended, of crowding around a radio with my best friends to listen to the bottom of the 9th inning, of playing catch for hours as dusk turned to actual night, knowing that I was risking backyard rhinoplasty in my vain efforts to track and catch a badly scuffed up ball in the dark — constitute the mental muscle memory I bring to games even now. It is why a 1-0 pitcher’s duel is a thing of beauty to me, but might send a baseball neophyte to the Ninth Circle of Ennui. I get it.

So stop lecturing and start sharing. Tell me your favorite memory of playing, or about watching a game with your grandmother, or about soccer parties at your uncle’s house. If I hear that stuff, I’m in. I really am.

3. Television. ABC and ESPN, I’m begging you, we need your help! I’ve spent a lifetime watching hockey. I can see a neutral zone trap without the announcer pointing it out; I can spot a defensive breakdown, a goal saving poke-check, or a momentum altering hip-check without the color analyst commenting. But that came from years of watching hockey. Even when a team doesn’t score, a savvy fan can see what they were trying to do. And that makes the game exciting.

The problem with soccer is that, despite the preponderance of youth soccer leagues, many of us still lack that kind of knowledge, the kind of understanding that we unwittingly supply to hockey or basketball which makes those games more exciting and entertaining. For most of us Americans, soccer matches look like nothing more than a bunch of super fit guys in nice shorts running around on a ginormous grass field. Find a way to incorporate replay. Show me a play and how it developed. Explain the strategy behind it. Use a telestrator and explain it to me like I am six years old. It might be annoying for the lifelong fans, but for most of us, that insight would be invaluable. It wouldn’t solve the problem of being able to see only a fifth of the pitch (those things are bigger than Rhode Island) on the telly screen, but it would be a good start on the road to making the game more appealing for us bloody Yanks, yeah.

4. Personalities. God have mercy on my immortal soul for saying this, but the broadcasts can borrow a page from the Olympics in that regard. Most of us don’t know any soccer personalities beyond Pele, Beckham and, maybe Ronaldinho. Maybe. Until I read Jonathan Curiel’s post I had no idea that US goalie Tim Howard had Tourette’s Syndrome. Curiel is dead on when he says that personalities and backstories like Howard’s engage even the most casual fan. Who isn’t rooting for the goalie with Tourette’s? Not rooting for that guy, dare I say it, would be downright un-American.

5. Win. Not to go all Talia Shire in “Rocky II” on you, but win, guys. People love a winner and we love to celebrate. Give us a reason to.

Let me put it on a small scale. Steelers games are sold out from now until doomsday, but it wasn’t always thus. In fact, the playoff game between the Steelers and the Raiders which ended with the Immaculate Reception was blacked out in the Pittsburgh television market because, get this, it wasn’t sold out. But, from there, the Steelers went on to win four Super Bowls, an entire generation was converted to the church of Steelers football and games have been sold out ever since. If you sign up for Steelers season tickets today, you might get tickets by 2028. If you’re lucky. And you know somebody who can pull some strings. Maybe.

Winning changes EVERYTHING. America’s soccer has team made it to the World Cup’s final four just once (in 1930, no less.) Make it past the group stage and I guarantee scores of new fans will be won over. Make it to the final, and you may convert an entire nation of cement-heads.

Well, maybe not Glenn Beck.

Big 12 Conference Raids

From True/Slant on June 13, 2010:

Big 12 Conference Going Down Like a 98 Pound Weakling.

I grew up on comic books. On the back page of most of these comics there was always a cheesy ad. I remember this ad because it dominated my early childhood. It was the Charles Atlas ad featuring a 98-pound weakling being bullied on a beach. Through the miraculous Charles Atlas system, that same 98-pound weakling is transformed into the “Hero of the Beach,” whereupon he vanquishes the bullies and, of course, gets the girls. (Okay, there were also the ubiquitous Sea Monkey ads on the backs of comics that nobody of a certain age can forget, for if you ordered them, what arrived via snail mail was a packet of dried up salted shrimps that never did anything. I viewed it as an early lesson in caveat emptor.)

But this week, I found myself thinking about because I was wondering just when the Big 12 Conference turned into a 98-pound weakling? The Big 10 and Pac-10 moseyed on into America’s breadbasket (and beef basket) like that bully on the beach and kicked sand in the eyes of the Big 12. They cherry-picked them at will, and these raids are likely just the opening salvo.

If you haven’t been paying attention, here’s what’s happened so far.

Colorado is leaving the Big 12 (reducing it to 11 teams) to join the Pac-10, which would make it, unofficially, the Pac-11 (although admittedly that doesn’t have the same sweet ring as the Pac-10.)

Meanwhile, Nebraska is leaving the Big 12 (which departure makes the Big 12 unofficially the big 10.) The Cornhuskers headed to the official Big 10 conference (comprised of 11 teams) which, with the addition of Big Red, would make it a 12 team conference, although not The Big 12. Got it? Great. Moving on, then.

Currently, the Big 12, the original one, now with 10 teams mostly in the square states, is treading water, trying to withstand these raids and not simply disappear into the diaspora. The teams which remain (and yes, we’re talking about teams here because the actual colleges ceased to factor in these types of equations quite a while ago) are: Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Texas.) Nothing personal, but in this kind of power grab, many of those teams are at the mercy of the bigger, more powerful players. Kansas has one of the very best basketball programs in the country, but these maneuvers are about football and only football. And the revenue it generates, of course. Which means that Oklahoma, with it’s brand of Sooners football, is in a slightly better position than Kansas, but the prized jewel in all this, of course, is the University of Texas. Ever’thing’s bigger in Texas. Especially, and most importantly, television markets.

According to the Television Bureau of Advertising, Texas has four TV markets in the top 50, with two in the top 10 – Dallas (#5) and Houston (#10). With all those eyes watching the Texas Longhorns football games, Texas is the biggest prima donna in this little dance, so if Texas stays in the Big 12, the conference can make a go of it with 10 teams. Then, down the road, they can raid some other, weaker conference, of course. Or so the thinking goes. According to Sports Illustrated, the Texas Board of Regents meets this Tuesday, so the remaining nine Big 12 teams, including Oklahoma, will just have to wait.

But you didn’t seriously think the SEC was going to sit on the sidelines for this piracy party, did you? According to, which has been the go-to source on what they have cleverly dubbed “The Big 12 Missile Crisis,” Texas A & M doesn’t want to join the Pac-10, but is considering a move to the SEC. Which means that Texas might spurn the Pac-10’s advances and go to the SEC, too, because word is that Texas and Texas A & M want to keep their long-standing traditional rivalry in tact.

For the same reason, part of me almost hopes that Oklahoma follows Nebraska to the Big 10. What can I say? I’m a sucker for traditional rivalries. USC v. Notre Dame, Bama v. Auburn, Michigan v. Ohio State, Texas v. Texas A & M, and Oklahoma v. Nebraska. These games make college football vibrate with excitement.

Meanwhile, the Pac-10 still has their eyes on both Oklahoma teams, Texas and Texas Tech. Which would give them 15 teams. They likely want 16 total, so that they can have two divisions of eight teams each. Word via NBC’s College Football Talk is that if Texas A&M doesn’t accept the invite to the Pac-10, but Texas does, the Pac-10 may make overtures to Kansas. Of course, the state of Kansas doesn’t have much to offer in the way of television markets, but that would be a gem of a basketball program to add.

But if it is more television revenue the Pac-10 is after (and why would we assume otherwise), and if the Aggies tell them to take a hike, they may offer that last spot to Utah, and not Kansas, per the Deseret News. Salt Lake City has the No. 31 television market, according to TVB and the Utes, despite not playing in a BCS conference, have a solid football program.

Lost in all of this is just how the Big 12, one of the best football conferences in the country and one of the best basketball conferences (both men’s and women’s) in the country, became such an easy target. It hasn’t been reported and the inside dope on that would be some very welcome reporting. So, for now the Big 12 exists and they hope to exist in some form when the dust settles, but they may not be able to. And until Texas and A&M make up their minds, they just have to wait and pray.

In the meantime, it is becoming more and more apparent that the SEC, the Big 10 and the PAC-10 are determined to become “power conferences” before this is all over and, if they cannot achieve that through further raids of the Big 12, surely they will turn their eyes elsewhere.

All of which leads me to believe that the Big East and the ACC should start making sweet, sweet love to each other if they don’t want to become the next 98 pound weakling on the beach. Or worse yet, like those dead on arrival Sea Monkeys.

The Follow-Up at True/Slant on June 15, 2010:

Big 12 Conference Not Dead Yet, Alternately titled, the BCS conference commissioners and the boosters who love them. This story changes every 15 minutes so it’s worth updating my last post about it. I’m exhausted just following the movements.

Looks like the Big 12, in the form of 10 teams, is going to survive. All this because the Texas Longhorns agreed to stay, and, thus, A&M and Oklahoma are staying. We’re not dead yet! says the Big 12. According to the USA Today, Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe will speak about the new peace, but here’s how the television money appears to break down:

"He is expected to address reports by operators of Texas fans website, which cited people familiar with the decision, and other outlets that the schools were induced to stay by projections of increased TV revenue — $20 million a year for Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma and $14 million-$17 million for the other seven Big 12 members, a substantial rise from the $8 million-$13 million distributed this year. Beebe did not return a request for comment."

Texas also is free to continue pursuing its own TV network.

Which they no doubt, will do. I wonder, if Texas does establish it’s own network – UTTV or something versus a Big 12 Network (modeled on the Big 10 Network) - how will that affect the balance of power within the Big 12?

But, for the foreseeable future (i.e., the next seven hours or so), the Big 12 conference looks like this: Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor, Missouri and Iowa State.

I don’t expect them to sit still. Once feeding time at the zoo was announced, all the conferences got ants in their pants.

In the rest of the midwest, the Big 10 now has a dozen teams and they have said that they’re going to remain that way For at least another dozen months.

Here’s the Big 10 lineup: Michigan, Michigan State, THE Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Northwestern, Purdue and Nebraska.

Bear in mind that the Big 10 has never hidden the fact that they very much covet Notre Dame. Who knows how much longer the Golden Domers can hold out with power conferences gathering so much, well, power.

And, in the area of publicly declared lust, the Pac-10 made no secret of it’s desire to poach the Texas-Oklahoma axis from the Big 12 and has a bit of egg on it’s face now that the Big 12 retained the Texas-Oklahoma axis and has resolved to stand firm. But, with the addition Colorado (who they did manage to lure from the Big 12) the Pac-10 is sitting on 11 teams, but are probably not done maneuvering yet. For now, the Pac-10 looks like this: USC, UCLA, Cal, Stanford, Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, Arizona, Arizona State, and Colorado.

It is speculated that the West Coasters will continue to try to put together at least a dozen teams, if not the super conference of 16 teams originally envisioned. Word is that the 12th potential team is Utah, currently of the Mountain West Conference, which conference just poached Boise State from the WAC conference. Of course, by the time I hit the “publish” button, no doubt there will have been even more changes.

Why the push for super conferences? Money. Championship game money. Which is to say, football championship game money. With enough teams, a conference can split into two divisions, a’la the SEC, and then have a conference championship game. That one game can mean kaboodely millions on TV revenue for a conference. The Detroit Free Press estimates that a Big 10 championship game could mean about $15 mil in revenue just for one game, which is a whole lot of motivation for ADs and conference commissioners everywhere.

Washington Nationals' Ace's First Start

From True/Slant on June 9, 2010:

Strasburg-Mania Sweeps Through D.C.

94 pitches. In the end, that was what more than 40,000 fans queued up to see. 94 mostly great pitches from the biggest name in Washington baseball, one Mr. Stephen Strasburg, late of Harrisburg, now of the nation’s capital. It was quite the do, the most electric Nationals Park has ever seen.

The great bog of the east coast was already buzzing after the Nats drafted Sports Illustrated phenom Bryce Harper on Monday. Then, last night, they were treated to the much awaited debut of their own personal $15.1 million dollar man. I’m not sure he delivered $15.1 million dollars worth of delivering, but still, this has to be the best week the Nationals have ever had, from both a baseball and a publicity standpoint.

But back to the actual baseball. Strasburg’s four-seam fastball hit 99 mph with regularity, his sinkerball sunk, his changeup froze hitters like deer in the headlights, and the pitch he calls his slurveball, well, it slurved, I guess. His velocity was impressive. His control even more so. He had zero walks on the night. Yup. 14 strikeouts and 0 walks.

It was a wildly successful opening act wherein Strasburg struck out at least one Bucco in every single inning except the 4th. Lastings Milledge went down swinging in the 1st inning; Garrett Jones, Delwyn Young and Ronny Cedeno all went down swinging in the 2nd. Jaramillo was frozen with the bat on his shoulder for a called third strike in the 3rd and then the Pirates pitcher went down swinging, too. He got both Cedeno and Karstens again in the 5th. Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Milledge all went down helplessly flailing at Strasburg’s pitches in the 6th. Then he did the same to Jones, Young and Andy LaRoche in the 7th.

Strasburg struck out the last seven batters he faced, needing only 29 pitches to do so. Of those, 10 were swinging strikes (two fouls) and 10 were strikes that froze batters in the box, rendering them less mobile than Lot’s wife leaving Sodom. Sure, it was against the pitiful Pirates, so it all needs to be taken with some of that salt, but the fact is that as good as he looked in the early innings, he looked even better as the game wore on, which is the best news of all for Nats ownership, giving fans a reason to come to the ballpark. Once every five days, that is.

10 Favorite Sports Books, Part II

From True/Slant on June 6, 2010:

10 Favorite Sports Books, Part II

This list turned into such a monster, I had to split it into two parts so for Part I, books 6 through 10, see earlier post here. On with the countdown:

5. What a Time It Was – W.C. Heinz.
W.C. Heinz, or Bill Heinz, should always be spoken of as the Great Bill Heinz. This is the only book on this list which is a collection of writings, rather than one cohesive narrative story, but Heinz was such a master story-teller, I had to include it. These are wonderful stories, some of which were features and others of which were deadline writing. Deadline writing is a skill that writers work at for the duration of their careers. The best reporters learn to excel at telling the who, what, where, when and hopefully how, concisely and on tight deadlines. A rare few are able to do all of that and also breathe life into the words. Heinz is one of those guys. His newspaper report, Death of a Racehorse, was written on deadline and it is so wonderful, so clean and elegant, I can remember it almost word for word. My favorite story in the collection is Brownsville Bum, about boxer Bummy Davis which Heinz wrote for True Magazine, of all places.
(Read “Death of a Racehorse” click.)

4. Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? – Jimmy Breslin.
Okay, this is almost cheating, because Breslin is one of the greatest chroniclers of American character. He also happens to be one of my favorite writers, with a firm seat at the head of the table in my Pantheon of Brilliance. So Jimmy Breslin + Sports is a no brainer for me. But this book is better than simply the sum of its parts. It is laugh out loud funny and captures the characters who made up the inaugural Mets team, nobody more than Skipper Casey Stengel and Marvelous Marvin Throneberry. And since I can’t find a link with an excerpt, I’ll let Breslin do the talking:

“When the Mets came to bat, Throneberry strode to the plate, intent on making up for the whole thing. With two runners on, Marv drove a long shot to the bullpen in right center field. It went between the outfielders and was a certain triple. As usual, Marv had that wonderful running action. He lowered his head and flew past first. Well past it. He didn’t come within two steps of touching the bag. Then he raced to second, turned the corner grandly, and careened toward third. The stands roared for Marvin Throneberry.

While all this violent action and excitement were going on, Ernie Banks, the Cubs’ first baseman, casually strolled over to Umpire Dusty Boggess.

‘Didn’t touch the bag, you know, Dusty,’ Banks said. Boggess nodded. Banks then called for the ball. The relay came, and he stepped on first base. Across the infield Throneberry was standing on third. He was taking a deep breath and was proudly hitching up his belt, the roar of the crowd in his ears, when he saw the umpire calling him out at first.

‘Things just sort of keep on happening to me,’ Marvin observed at one point during the season.

Which they did. All season long.”

3. The Breaks of the Game – David Halberstam.
The late, great David Halberstam wrote about everything. He wrote about important things, like Vietnam, the Korean War and an entire decade in American history. He has wrote about important people like Ho Chi Minh and the Kennedy administration. Generally, Halberstam wrote big important books about big important things. But Halberstam was also a huge sports fans and often turned his talented pen and critical eye to the field of play. He wrote two of the best baseball books ever written (The Summer of ‘49 and October 1964), but it is this book, his book about the Portland Trailblazers basketball team that makes the list, which is astonishing given that I am more passionate about what kind of salt I use (kosher versus sea) than I am about the NBA. This is the gift that is David Halberstam. He followed the Portland franchise post-championship, as the team teetered on the brink of what would be their decline. Halberstam is unflinching in his treatment, bringing his relentless zeal for investigative reporting to the task, but still his genuine affection comes through, too. If a writer can get me interested in a basketball franchise clear on the other side of the country, wow, just wow. Again, I can’t find an excerpt on line, so here is a short one:

"Because he was black and from a small town and because he often seemed to use the wrong words, there were those who knew him only peripherally who thought he was dumb and treated him as such. Those who knew him better thought he was quite possibly the shrewdest man on the team. Once during a prolonged painful recuperation from an injury he had told Cook, ‘Maybe I should have been a chess player, it would just be a lot easier.’ But even as he said it, he caught himself. ‘But then it would probably be my brain that hurt all the time.’ He was, in truth, a kind man, a mark for others; his teammates like to tell of Lloyd Neal taking a phone call from his wife in the locker room after a particularly tough practice, ‘No, Marcia, no … I can’t do the shopping … no, goddammit, Marcia, I’m a professional athlete, and I’ve been busting my ass up and down this court for two hours and I can’t move and I’m exhausted and I’ve got to go to the exercise room and I can’t shop … No, Marcia, I refuse to … two quarts of milk, a pound of butter, three boxes of diapers, sugar, two pounds of hamburger … All right, Marcia …’"

2. Among the Thugs – Bill Buford.

I don’t care about soccer, or, rather, more to the point, I don’t care for soccer. It is tedious. If I want to watch a bunch of guys running, I’d rather watch a track and field competition. As an astute friend once pointed out, soccer is the sport where something almost happens. Handy then, that Among the Thugs is only tangentially about soccer, or football as the Brits call it. The object of Buford’s attention is really violence. Mob violence, and very specifically, the kind of mob violence associated with soccer hooligans. He describes being in Turin, with “the Lads” before things, “go off.” And then in Sunderland and Cambridge and Sardinia. Buford puts you there, with him, as the crowd increases speed from a walk to a run, the change of pace the turning point between a peaceful march and a dangerous mob. I don’t know how much hard science went into this and I’m not sure that’s the point. Buford was trying to get at what it feels like to be with the lads and learning that the football match isn’t the point; it is the gathering, the creation of a powerful force of young men (mostly), which is the point. It’s strange, bizarre, funny and unnerving all at the same time.
(Excerpt here.)

1. About Three Bricks Shy … And the Load Filled Up – Roy Blount, Jr.
I am not exaggerating when I say that this book is everything a book about a professional sports team should be. It doesn’t hurt that it chronicles my favorite team. Not just my favorite franchise, mind you, but my favorite team of all time – the Steelers of the 1970’s. It’s no surprise that a great writer like Blount pulls it off, but the ease of the read is astounding. This book is so funny and engaging, such a wonderful ride that I find myself re-reading sections of it from time to time. I often revisit his handling of race — this was 1973 after all and it’s not like we’ve fixed all of our race issues in the meantime anyway. Sometimes, I just want to re-read his take on Pittsburgh of 1973 or just get lost all over again in his descriptions of certain players, like Dwight White (my personal favorite Steeler of all time) or Ray Mansfield (Blount’s closest friend on the team). Blount allows himself a first-person narrative, so he’s in the story, but he’s never in the way of it. Simply put, Blount just gets it. Again, because I can’t find an excerpt, here’s one of my favorite stories in Three Bricks:

“Still things happened that were too dumb to laugh off. Dwight (White) and I were eating Mexican food in the hotel at Palm Springs when a small pink man sitting with two white-haired ladies came over and said, ‘Excuse me. Those two boys that stuck their heads in the door a minute ago. Those two black boys. Were they basketball players?”

Dwight said he didn’t know.

‘Because they were so tall,’ persisted the man.

‘Maybe they were with the free love convention,’ I said.

‘Oh,’ said the man. ‘You with the free love convention?’ he asked Dwight.

‘Yes,’ said Dwight.

As a matter of fact, the two tall people had been Dwight and Webster. The pink man went back to the two ladies. ‘He’s with the free love convention,’ he reported.

‘Now that man,’ said Dwight gravely, ‘is a fool.’”

What are your favorite sports books? I’m always looking for recommendations, but these are on my nightstand currently:

Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams – Robert Peterson;

Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed and the Corruption of America’s Youth – Dan Wetzel and Don Yaeger;

Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro Leagues – Martha Ackmann;

The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball – Janet Bruce;

The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America – Joe Posnanski;

Counting Coup: A True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn – Larry Colton;

Why She Plays: The World of Women’s Basketball – Christine A. Baker; and

Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor-League Misfit – Matt McCarthy

The Death of the Greatest Coach Ever

From True/Slant on June 5, 2010:

Remembering John Wooden.

Sports fans love to make lists. Top 10 best World Series Match Ups, Top 10 worst basketball teams, Top 5 Best NFL Quarterbacks, and on and on and on. I myself love to do it. There are multiple Top 10 lists at Fan Overboard.

But the thing about making a list of the best coaches, in any sport, is that everybody agrees on the number 1 spot. The argument usually goes,

“Okay, best coaches,” I say.
“All-time?” says my buddy.
“Yes. All-time. Any sport.”
“College and pro?”
“Yes. Any sport, both college and pro,” I clarify.
“Right, so the number one spot is John Wooden. Who do you list as two?”

And we move on there, arguing about spots 2 through 10, because there is no argument, no sports fan living or dead, professional writer or barstool expert who would argue Wooden’s place at the top. There’s John Wooden. And then there’s everybody else.

Here are just a few highlights of his incomparable career:

Beginning in the 1971 season and ending in 1974, UCLA won 88 straight games. It is an NCAA record that may stand forever.

Wooden’s UCLA teams went 30-0 in a season four times.

They won 19 PAC-10 conference championships.

Wooden Bruins teams won 10 NCAA titles in his last dozen seasons.

They won seven straight national championships (from 1967-73.)

For those who knew him best, he will be missed — losing a friend like Wooden must be an awful loss.

I always felt like Wooden would live forever, that the cameras would pan the stands at a UCLA basketball game in 2020 or 2030 and there he would be, faithfully watching over the program. Though he will not be courtside, Wooden will be remembered forever. He will be remembered for his winning records and his championships, of course. But he will mostly be remembered for his spirit, his view of the game that extended so much further than a basketball gym. He instilled beliefs into his players that turned boys into men, and turned those men into a team. We would all be a little better off to remember the foundation of Wooden’s philosophy – to focus on doing your very best, giving your very best to any endeavor you undertake.

Thanks, coach.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

10 Favorite Sports Books, Part I

From True/Slant on June 4, 2010:

It’s not a summer reading list, really, but sports books are light fare, generally speaking. I mean, if you pick one of these up, it’s hardly the same as re-reading Proust or even cracking the spine of “Team of Rivals,” but still, these are some of the best sports books ever written. (I have a bookcase nearly full of sports themed books, so I could have made a list of 20 or 25.) These are my favorites, the ones that stayed with me the most and that I refer to most often. In short, each one changed the lens through which I view sports. Any of these would be the perfect date for a few days on the beach:

10. Paper Lion – George Plimpton.
A truly inside look at an NFL training camp. Admittedly, it is the Detroit Lions training camp but … Plimpton is wry and self-deprecating, candid about the moments when he feels most like an interloper among professional athletes, a stranger in a strange land, play-acting at training. The best parts are the stories he relays about the players hanging out together in the evenings — guys like Dick Lebeau, Night Train Lane, and Joe Schmidt. And also the parts about his helmet, which fit his head like a vise, took some wrangling to get on and off, bent his ears this way and that, and left furrowed grooves in his head, the process of which was so unpleasant that he put it on and left it on for the entirety of practice every day.
(Click here for the 2003 NPR story about this book.)

9. Rammer, Jammer, Yellow Hammer – Warren St. John.
This book makes the list because it sits at one of the most interesting intersections in America – at the crossroads where fans meet the big business of sports. St. John took off, traveling in an RV caravan of rabid Crimson Tide fans, chronicling the University of Alabama football season, the people he met along the way, and his insights into the mind of a deranged fan – his own. It’s been at least five years since I read this and I could give a rat’s butt about ‘Bama football, but the book stays with me because St. John explores the very essence of what it means to be a fan. And why on God’s green earth, people who are otherwise sane, curl up into a fetal position after “their team” loses a heartbreaking game? It’s a great read for sports fans. And the people who love them.
(Click here for St. John’s introduction.)

8. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning – Jonathan Mahler.
I almost disqualified this book because of the ESPN mini-series loosely based on it, but thought better of it, because the book is to the television version as Derek Jeter is to Frankie Crosetti. And the book is about so much more than baseball. It’s about New York in the late 1970’s, about ConEdison, crime, labor relations, race relations, New York politics, and just the weirdness that was the 1970’s. Mahler weaves it all together with the Yankees season, the power struggle within the Yankees locker room between Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson, and the parallel power struggle between Billy Martin and Georgie Steinbrenner.
(Click here for the NYT review.)

7. The Miracle of St. Anthony – Adrian Wojnarowski.
I’m a sucker for stories about overcoming great odds. It is perhaps a distinctly American soft spot, but so be it. Any tale that amounts to the Little Engine That Could sucks me in. This is one of those stories. If you pick it up, the first familiar name you’ll see is coach Bob Hurley. If you are a Duke fan or a Duke hater, yes, that’s the same Hurley — coach Bob Hurley is the father of Bobby Hurley of the 1991 and 1992 Blue Devil championship teams. But this isn’t the story of Bobby or Duke. It is, however, the story of a compelling group of young men who play basketball for St. Anthony, a tiny Catholic school in the embattled city of Jersey City. Sr. Maria Felicia Brodowski and Sr. Mary Alan Barzczewski, who run the school, change lives. They are teamed with coach Hurley who runs the most demanding, most successful, most life-altering basketball program in the nation.
(Click here for an excerpt.)

6. Veeck as in Wreck – Bill Veeck with Ed Linn.
This is a book that I think of more often than any other on this list. The ultimate showman, Veeck usually operated on a shoe-string budget, so if he couldn’t give his fans the best talent money could buy, he was determined that his fans would have a great experience at the ballpark. The financial inequities of baseball — I guess MLB hasn’t changed much. His teams were entertaining, he listened to his fans and, every once in a while, he actually won. He also tweaked a lot of stuffed shirts and sacred cows along the way that that is always, always a good thing. Sure, Veeck is best known as the guy who sent Eddie Gaedel (a 3′ 7″ midget) to bat when he was owner of the St. Louis Browns, but he should be remembered as the most creative sports owner of all time. Mostly, I wish I could sit down to a few beers with Veeck and just allow him to talk, stream of conscious style, about his life in baseball. Short of that, this book is the next best thing. Beer, optional.
(Click here for an excerpt.)

Part II in the next post ... it was so monstro I had to break it up.

10 Greatest Sports Comebacks of ALL TIME

From True/Slant on May 15, 2010:

10 Greatest Comebacks in Sports History (& Where the Flyers Rank)

The Philadelphia Flyers, unholy visigoths adorned in Halloween colors, have added a chapter to the greatest comebacks in sports history with their 4-3 victory at the Boston Bruins, coming back from a 3-0 first period deficit, to complete the comeback in a series in which they were down three games to none. Where does it rank in terms of all time greatest comebacks?

10. 2005 Illinois Illini over the Arizona Wildcats in the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tourney. Channing Frye’s Cats had a 15-point lead going into the final four minutes. The game? It was over. Until Luther Head, Dee Brown and Deron Williams started draining every shot they took and Frye started missing layups. Head created a turnover and then dished to Williams, who hit a three pointer to tie the game. The game went to OT before the Illini won by a score of 90-89. Basketball comebacks are just so much fun. I don’t know that this one has as much historical weight as many of the others on the list, but it’s here because it was just such a wild ride.

9. 1995 Indiana Pacers over the New York Knicks, Eastern Conference Semifinals. Knicks fans hate Reggie Miller with the heat of a 1,000 suns. They hate him so much that ESPN made it the subject of one of their 30 for 30 documentaries. The bad blood wouldn’t be enough to warrant mention on this list, but Miller’s performance in Game 1 of the E.C. Semifinals does. Single-handedly, Miller lead his team to a stunning 107-105 last second victory over the Knicks in the Garden. With 18.7 seconds left, the Knicks lead by six points. Miller kicked into action, hit a three point shot, stole the ensuing inbounds pass, dribbled back behind the three point line, and hit that three-pointer. Miller then hit both free-throws to put the Pacers ahead for the win and up 1-0 in the series. Like I said, basketball comebacks are just so much fun.

8. 1972 Dallas Cowboys Divisional Playoff Victory over the San Francisco 49ers, a/k/a the emergence of Captain Comeback. In the 4th quarter of this 1972 Divisional Playoff Game, the 49ers had built a comfortable 28-13 lead. Pokes coach Tom Landry finally pulled Craig Morton from the game and replaced him with Roger Staubach, who lead the Cowboys to score 17 unanswered points, throwing two touchdown passes with less than two minutes remaining for a 30–28 win. The legend of Captain Comeback is born.

7. 1984 Maryland Terrrapins over the Miami Hurricanes, a/k/a, the Frank Reich game. Bernie Kosar had staked the U to a lead of 31-0. Finally, backup quarterback Frank Reich came into the game for Maryland and completed 12 of 15 passes in the second half, throwing for three touchdowns and running for another. With the score 34-28 Miami, Reich hit Greg Hill with a 68-yard touchdown pass (which deflected off the hands of Miami safety Darrell Fullington) to take the lead. Maryland scored once more to cap an incredible 42-9 second half, and won the game by a final of 42-40.

6. 1975 New York Islanders over the Pittsburgh Penguins, Conference semi-finals. Pittsburgh didn’t merely hold a 3-0 lead over the Islanders, they were abusing them. Through the first three games, the Islanders had never led the Pens for single second. Then they won Game 4 on home ice. No biggie. Then Game 5 in Pittsburgh. Um … nah. Never happen. They won Game 6 easily back in New York. Game 7 was scoreless well into the game, into the third period, as the Pens hit about a hundred posts before the Isles got the game winner from Ed Westfall. Depending on your perspective, it was either the worst choke job of the decade or the greatest comeback. The most colorful part of the story comes courtesy of George Plimpton’s Open Net: ” … the New York Islanders carried around a fifty-pound sack of elephant dung to bring them luck. It has mysteriously arrived special delivery when the club was three games down to the Pittsburgh Penguins. It came with no return address in a big potato sack. Nobody knew who had sent it, or the significance of it being sent. Obviously, it could have been an indication of someone’s extreme displeasure. … So they took the sack to Pittsburgh and it worked. By then a talisman of high value, it disappeared just before the final playoff game with the Philadelphia Flyers.” (which, it should be noted, the Isles lost.)

5. 1972 Olympic runner, Lasse Viren of Finland. Competing in the 10,000-meter final, he tripped and fell while tangling his feet with Frank Shorter. He was done. But he got up and gained on the pack in front of him. Then he passed them. In the bell lap, he just blew away the field and is all alone crossing the finish line. It’s right out of “Chariots of Fire.”

4. 1993 Buffalo Bills over the Houston Oilers Wildcard Playoff Game. The second Frank Reich Game. Things couldn’t have been bleaker. The Oilers led 35-3 early in the second half. Bills QB Jim Kelly was injured. Linebacker Cornelius Bennett was injured. Thurman Thomas played sparingly. The only thing that could have made things more depressing would have been a plague of locusts descending from the sky. The blowout was that biblical. Then Reich drove the team for one touchdown. 35-10. Steve Christie recovered his own on-side kick and Reich hit Don Beebe for a TD. 35-17. The Bills D forced the Oilers to punt. Reich hit another TD pass, this one to Andre Reed. 35-24. And it was still the third quarter. No. Freaking. Way. Henry Jones picked off Warren Moon, setting up Reich at the Houston 23 yard line. Another TD pass to Reed. 35-31. The Oilers missed a FG and the Bills got another TD (again from Reich to Reed). The Bills were ahead for the first time. 38-35. The Oilers tied the game to send it to OT and won the coin toss. It looked like they might avert disaster, but Moon threw an errant pass setting up the Bills in FG range and Christie completed the most ridiculous, unlikely, unbelievable comeback in NFL history.

3. 2010 Philadelphia Flyers Eastern Conference Semifinals over the Boston Bruins. Though the Flyers and the B’s no longer play in the same division, the bad blood between the two goes back generations, at least to the Broad Street Bullies era. But nothing that team ever did will hurt Boston fans like this series will. This will haunt them for the rest of their lives and well into the afterlife. It took a miracle OT win in Game 4 to get the Flyers comeback rolling. Then the Flyers lost netminder Brian Boucher in the Game 5 victory and back-up Michael Leighton stepped up in the Game 6 nail-biter. In a fit of melodrama, the Flyers came back from a score of 3-0 in Game 7, getting the game winner from Simon Gagne, who had come back early from injury (and also scored the OT winner in Game 4.) It is the stuff movies are made of. Bad movies. Unbelievable movies. The kind of movies that are so bad they go straight to video. Philly fans should never whine or complain about their hard luck ever again.

2. 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs over the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals. Believe it or not, I wasn’t alive to see this one. Though the actual games didn’t seem to be as dramatic as 1975 Islanders, this was, after all, for Lord Stanley’s Cup and all the guacamole it can hold. But since I wasn’t around for this, here’s the take of Joe Pelletier of Hockeylegends:

"The year is 1942. The NHL witnesses the greatest comeback in the history of professional sports in North America.

Entering game 4, the Leafs were on the verge of imminent elimination. The Detroit Red Wings had convincing victories in each of the first three contests, and held the series in a 3-0 stranglehold.

Cue the Leafs comeback. Coach Hap Day benches regulars for game four and inserted rookies who responded to win game after game, coming all the way back to take game 7! They were the first team in hockey history to win a series after being down 3 games to none. …

Goaltender Turk Brodawas so good in the final 4 games of the finals that they actually engraved his name on the Cup twice. It was actually an oversight."

1. 2004 Boston Red Sox. Yeah, everybody is beyond their saturation point with the Sox stuff, Sweet Caroline, the Cask & Flagon, the Green Monster, Dan Shaunessy and the Dennis Leary truck ads. But these were New York Yankees we were talking about, a team that had tormented Boston fans for generations and generations, the team that always won in the end, no matter how heroic or beloved the Boston players. The inevitability of the Yankees victory was certain. The history of the match-up, and the fact that the 2004 Sox actually won the World Series, puts this at the top of the list.

Greatest Sports Comebacks. In My Mind.

From True/Slant on May 14, 2010:

The 10 Greatest Sports Comebacks that Never Happened

I hated watching every second of the Penguins Game 7 loss to the Montreal Habs. And I hated myself for not being able to turn away, but a small voice in my head kept saying: “What if they come back? What if the Penguins stage one of the greatest comebacks in the history of sports? And I turned it off? I’d never forgive myself.”

(Following the 2002 season, the Steelers played the Cleveland Browns in the Wildcard round of the playoffs. My buddy the Deadhead was at the game. With the Steelers down 24-7 in the third quarter, he left in disgust. And then, from the parking lot of Heinz Field, he heard the stadium nearly explode with cheers as Tommy Maddox, of all freaking people, lead one of the greatest comebacks in franchise history. I’ve never let him live that one down.)

I started to think about the Penguins coming back — the alleged, hypothetical, completely imaginary comeback — and what it might have meant. I decided to make a list of the greatest comebacks that never happened. But I needed rules.

First, I limited myself to the pros. There are too many college teams and divisions, conference championships, bowl games, March Madness and on and on. Too much. I was dizzy. And I eliminated the solo sports like golf and tennis, although I think one could do a humdinger of a list with those. I gave myself an arbitrary cut off point of 1974.

Then, I decided that the games would have to be important games – playoffs or championships, no random mid-June game when the Pirates are getting their asses kicked.

The list is a little football heavy, but I think that’s due to the single elimination nature of the NFL playoffs, versus the best of seven series of the NHL, NBA and MLB. Without further ado, the ten greatest comebacks that never happened.

1. Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVI v. Washington Redskins. (Wash. 37 – Buff. 24.)
I went back and fourth on this pick. A Bills loss, it seems to me, is crucial to the list. The problem was, which one? I settled on this one because, if there were any justice in this world, Jim Kelly would never lose to Mark Rypien. Like, never. That just never happens. To say nothing of the relief of splitting up the four year Buffalo reign of futility.

2. San Diego Chargers. 1981 AFC Championship Game v. Cincinnati Bengals. (Cinc. 27 – SD 7.)
Heading into the 4th quarter, the Chargers were down 20-7, but worse, they were frozen stiff, icicles dangled from Dan Fouts’ beard, and players looked like they very much wanted to go back to the warmth and comfort of San Diego. But what if Fouts had mounted a comeback? They needed just two touchdowns and two successful extra points, chump change for Air Coryell under ordinary circumstances. The notion of a southern Cali team engineering a comeback in sub-zero temperatures with the wind whipping through Riverfront Stadium at like 30 miles per hour? Legendary.

3. Chicago Cubs. 2003 NLCS v. the Florida Marlins (Fla 4 games, Cubs 3 games.)
Yes, these are the Bartman Cubs. But that was Game 6 of the series. What if the Cubs weren’t the Cubs, which is to say, if they were able to shrug off the disappointment of Game 6 to win Game 7? What if Kerry Woods hadn’t given up seven runs in five innings of Game 7? What if the Cubs hitters were able to actually score some runs off Josh Beckett? But that’s so unlikely that it might have caused the entire solar system to collapse in on itself.

4. New York Rangers. 1974 Eastern Conference Finals v. Philadelphia Flyers. (Philly 4 games, Rangers 3 games.)
So much would have changed. The Broad Street Bullies would have had their own eyes blackened, which has to be viewed as an absolute good. And the Rangers may have gone on to win the Cup in 1975, which would have spared the world of the melodrama and preening of Messier’s Rangers 20 years later. That, too, must be viewed as an absolute good.

5. Cleveland Browns. 1987 AFC Championship Game v. the Denver Broncos – The Fumble. (Denv. 38, Cleve. 33)
Everybody remembers Byner’s fumble with about a minute left. What is often forgotten was that the Browns had, in fact, mounted one of the great comebacks in NFL history up to that point. Down 21-3 at halftime, Kosar scored four second half touchdowns. And this at Mile High Stadium, the toughest stadium for a visiting team in the 1980’s. What would the sports landscape look like had Byner held on and scored? A Byner TD would have tied the game, so the Browns would have had to have won in the waning seconds (unlikely) or overtime (more likely.) Such a comeback would no doubt be considered one of the 10 greatest in NFL history, given all the circumstances but, instead, Browns fans are waiting for their first trip to the Super Bowl 23 years later.

6. Boston Red Sox. 1986 World Series v. the N.Y. Mets. (NYM 4 games, Bos 3 games.)
No list is complete without the Buckner Sawks. Like the 2003 Cubs, the 1986 Sox were unable to pull their shit together enough to win in the 7th game after the debacle of Game 6. If they had, the Big Papi 2004 Sox wouldn’t have been such a cause celebre, Dan Shaunessy wouldn’t have written “The Curse of the Bambino,” and Dennis Leary’s career might have been cut short. I can almost hear angels singing when I think about it.

7. Oakland Raiders. 2002 Divisional Playoff Game v. New England Patriots. The Tuck Rule. (NE 36, Oak. 33)
The tuck rule, it happened. It remains an abomination of all logic and reason (if it looks like a fumble, then it IS a fumble), but it did happen. But what if, after the heinousity that was the Tuck, Gruden had decided to try to mount a drive with the remaining 27 seconds? Just what if the Raiders had managed to kick a last second field goal instead of playing for overtime? The world just might have been spared the birth of the “nobody respected us” meme courtesy of this New England Patriots squad.

8. Dallas Mavericks. 2007 First Round Playoffs v. Golden State Warriors. (G.S 4 games, Dal. 3 games.)
Dallas entered the playoffs with the sixth best regular season record in NBA history; Golden State got into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth. Can these Mavs be considered anything but choking dogs, as Tony Kornheiser likes to say? After going down 3 games to 1, why couldn’t the Mavs come back to win three of the last four? Instead, they played dead, or should I say, played like they were already dead, in Game 6, depriving the world of one of the great comebacks in recent NBA memory.

9. Buffalo Sabres. 1999 Stanley Cup Finals v. Dallas Stars. (Dal 4 games, Buff. 2 games.)
What if the the Sabres had come back to win Game 5? What if they had put three goals behind Ed Belfour in the 3rd period of that game? Game 6’s controversial No Goal would not have mattered. At least, not much. Had the Sabres mounted a come back in Game 5, perhaps they would have shaken the OT loss in Game 6 and won the series. Oh, who am I kidding, this is Buffalo we’re talking about. They probably just would have lost Game 7. (See the 1986 Sawks and 2003 Cubs, above.)

10. Cleveland Cavaliers. Last night.
Beyond that fact that no professional Cleveland franchise has won a championship in over 50 years, what will this mean for the future of the Cavs, Cleveland’s best chance for a championship? They are nothing without Lebron. That much is clear from the Celtics man-handling of the Cavs in 6 games. Some thought that Lebron would stay had he won a championship, that he would want to keep the team together and try to repeat. But the loss? Will it push him out the door? Cleveland may have just seen the last of the best athlete they’ve had in decades.

NHL 2010 Playoffs: Montreal Canadiens Upset Pens in Round Two

From True/Slant on May 13, 2010:

Montreal Canadiens Knock the Crown Off the Pittsburgh Penguins and Dance On

Image by Getty Images North America via Daylife
The end of the line was more brutal, bloodier and more horrifying than “Friday the 13th” or “Jaws” or “Halloween.” The defending Stanley Cup Champs were not only felled by the Montreal Canadiens, but they willingly, knowingly rushed headlong into Freddy Kruger. They gave themselves a full-body moisturizing treatment with chum before diving into shark infested waters. It was as though Jamie Lee Curtis had offered herself up to Michael Myers for death and dismemberment. The final game in the old barn called Mellon Arena was the hockey equivalent of a team hoisting itself on its own petard.

All credit to Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens. They got in the Penguins heads. It was something no other team has been able to do in the Sidney Crosby era. It’s not to say the Pens were unbeatable in that time. Clearly, they were not. But Sid’s team had never been self-defeating and self-defeated before. This was largely the same team that was so cool going into Game 7 in the second round versus the Capital last year, and then Game 7 of the Cup Finals against the Red Wings. Mentally, they could not be beaten. Until this series, until last night, until the Canadiens. The Pens hit a mental wall. To say nothing of the Halak wall in net.

The players they most needed to step up were nowhere to be found.

Sid was, once again, neutralized.

Geno seemed almost afraid to put the puck on Halak. At one point, he put a shot on net which Halak pulled in like they were playing pitch and catch, and Malkin just dropped his head. Defeated.

Brooks Orpik had only three hits and none of those were of the tooth-rattling, glass-shattering variety that are his trademark.

Sergei Gonchar made two heinous non-plays on the puck. They weren’t technically turnovers, but more like apathy toward the puck and the Hab player in front of him.

Flower. Oh, poor Flower.

On the other side, the Canadiens did everything they wanted to do and they did it to perfection.

Brian Gionta put two more in net, proving that he is still a burr under the Pens saddles. (Do penguins have saddles? Can you saddle a penguin? Gionta can.) Mike Cammalleri added a goal and assisted on another, continue to be the best player in this series. Well, the best player not named Jaroslav Halak. The defense blocked shots, altered shots, deflected shots and shrunk available passing lanes so as to be so tiny they were not visible to the human eye.

Everybody is calling this Montreal team a Cinderella, but after watching them closely for two rounds of hockey, they don’t look like a Cinderella to me. This team is not winning on flukey, lucky plays. (Okay, a bit of luck is involved, but a bit of luck is always needed for any team to advance this far in the charnel house known as the Stanley Cup playoffs.) This Canadiens group plays with the chemistry of Fred and Ginger on the dance floor and the attitude of the Bad News Bears. They were unimpressed by the hype and laser shot of Ovie and anything but intimidated by the pedigree of the defending Stanley Cup Champs.

Of course, one player is more responsible for the Canadiens miracle run than the others and too much cannot be said about the brilliance of Halak. They could have played another eight periods of hockey last night and the Pens would not have been able to get three more goals behind him. He’s quick, with a great glove and a great blocker pad. You can’t get a shot under him, either. He is almost impenetrable. But what’s most amazing about Halak is his vision. The Habs put two and three of their defenders in front of their net minder, to say nothing of Billy Guerin or Matt Cooke loafing there, so Halak is looking through a minimum of two other players to see a a small disc of vulcanized rubber flying toward him.

Any NHL caliber goalie can do that for one game. Sometimes, goalies can get in a zone like that. But to do that for 14 games? Against the likes of Crosby and Malkin, Ovechkin and Knuble? That’s an other-wordly zone, a whole other solar-system of a zone. Without exaggeration, it’s one of the greatest performances from a goaltender I’ve ever seen. And despite the fact that I wanted the Penguins to mount The Most Improbable Comeback Ever, by the end, I was really enjoying watching Halak work. That kind of excellence takes my breath away.

Last year, after Fleury had put in a particularly stellar performance, I compared him to a great mushroom hunter with his eyes on. That is to say, a person skilled in foraging for mushrooms can spot the elusive little fungi in areas that seem like a homogeneous visual plain to the untrained eye. Where I see leaves and tangled branches and such, a good mushroom hunter can edit the field of vision to spot the mushrooms. It’s an evolutionary adaptation known as “the pop-out effect.” I think Halak is the living embodiment of the pop-out effect right now. I can hardly wait to see what can do to Mike Richards or Patrice Bergeron.

NHL 2010 Playoffs: Flower Saves Game 3 for Penguins

From True/Slant on May 5, 2010:

Marc-Andre Fleury is not the kind of goaltender who pitches a shut out night after night. He’s no Patrick Roy, no Martin Broudeur, not even Grant Fuhr. Heading into Game Three in Montreal, he had allowed an average of more than three goals per game.

However, Fleury does have an impeccable sense of timing. He is to goaltending what Lucille Ball was to comedy. Her timing? Flawless. Try to find a mistake, a glitch, a missed opportunity to set up a joke or capitalize perfectly in Lucy’s chocolate shop conveyor belt antics or her Vitametavegamin pitch. You can’t. They are perfect, in execution, timbre and timing. Perhaps, if you culled over Lucy’s entire oeuvre, you’d find mistakes, the comedic equivalent of soft goals in the NHL, but when the vulcanized rubber hit the road, she was perfect.

And when the Penguins needed a flawless performance from the man they call Flower, he delivered. Big time. Fleury seems to have a sense of when in the ebb and flow of a game his team needs a big save from him. but this time, his team needed him to save the entire game, particularly that the Canadiens came out soaring.

The Habs played their game to a tee, putting together and executing the game plan they want and need to play to beat the Pens. They dictated tempo for the entirety of the first period. They pitched their tents right in front of Fleury and cycloned the puck into the offensive zone constantly.

Then, just four and one-half minutes into the game, the Canadiens went on the power play and cycled the the puck in front of Fleury pretty much for the duration of that two minutes. Orpik blocked a shot, then a Cammaleri shot went wide of the net (just), before Fleury turned away Brian Gionta and then made another save on another Gionta shot.

This was the game Montreal wanted, a low scoring affair, a game that was 1-0 the waning seconds. Low scoring games = Advantage Montreal. In their series with the Capitals, the average total goals scored in each of their four wins was four goals. That’s both teams. Whereas, in the three Washington wins, there was an average of nearly nine goals per game.

The Canadiens know how their bread is buttered. A low scoring affair, perhaps one with a one-goal differential, is what they were after. On home ice. In front of the best fans in the NHL.

The best chance was to score first and then fall into the rope-a-dope they’re becoming famous for. And for much of the game, Fleury was the only thing standing in their way.

Actually, that’s inaccurate. It’s not like Fleury withstood a constant barrage of pucks coming his way. First off, his defensemen were doing all they could in front of him to block shots and even Evgeni Malkin was credited with three blocks on the night, which thrills me almost more than his power play goal.

What Fleury faced, rather than a constant bombardment were several flurries of activity, separated by long lulls. I often think that it is harder for net minders to stay focused when they’re not in the action. The Canadiens got seven shots into the net in the first period, and then Fleury had to defend only four in the second period, with no seriously sustained rushes as he had seen earlier. It would have been so easy for him to lose focus, to let down, just a wee bit in the final period after Geno put a laser behind Halak just a minute in.

The Penguins, led by the diminutive Flower, regrouped, refocused and turned away opportunity after opportunity in the third period. That is one tough flower.

A flower by any other name would smell as sweet, or so the old saying goes. I’ll take my flower, the variety that only grows on a sheet of ice, the variety originally grown in Sorel, Quebec and transplanted to Pittsburgh any day.