"If more of us valued food and cheer and song over hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world." - J.R.R. Tolkien
Friday, December 25, 2009
Bowl Season: A Little Hawaii, A Little Vermont
The current Hawaii Bowl has been around since 2002 but bowl games were being played in the islands as early as 1936, well before statehood. Be happy for the SMU and Nevada marching bands who got a free vacation in the sun.
We went on a quick snowshoe hike yesterday, just up to the top of our road and back. It is my unfortunate tendency to watch my feet when snowshoeing but I did take a moment or two to look up and admire the winter wonderland we call home. There are times when I wonder what madness drove us to move to Vermont but then I look around and the scenery never fails to take my breath away. I had a lot of things growing up where I did but my neighborhood was nowhere near as beautiful - not even in the same league. This is the childhood we have given our daughter. Deer and wild turkeys in the backyard and a forest of snow-frosted hemlocks for a decent portion of the year - this is her normal. Lucky kid!
Merry Christmas to all!
Peace on Earth.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Bowl Season: Not a Flower
In other news, NBC Bay Area has done a piece on Vernon Davis's creative works. Here is the link: http://www.nbcbayarea.com/enjoy-this/The_Art_of_Vernon_Davis_Bay_Area.html/.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Bowl Season: Las Vegas
The Maaco Bowl Las Vegas used to be the California Bowl, also known as the California Raisin Bowl, and was held in Fresno until 1991. There was also a Raisin Bowl in Fresno back in the '40s. While referring to these games as bowls has to do with the shape of the stadiums and nothing to do with crockery, I like it when the games are named for things you might actually put into bowls: fruit, flowers, etc. What are you going to put in a Maaco Bowl? Cans of spray paint? I had a friend in elementary school who came up with the idea of having the two worst teams in the country play in the Toilet Bowl.
I'm a sucker for lists and SI.com is doing its end of decade wrap up with bests and worsts of the past ten years. I highly recommend "The Decade in Sportsmanship": http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/magazine/specials/2000s/12/07/sportsmanship/index.html. The softball story gets me every time. Victory comes in many forms.
Monday, December 21, 2009
Checking in with the Redskins: In the Beginning
Before tennis and even basketball, my sports interest began with professional football. To say that the Skins are a big deal in the DC area is putting it mildly. In perhaps the world's most contentious city, love for the Skins is the best hope for consensus. When I was 9 years old, the team shrugged off years of mediocrity and followed the great Joe Gibbs in only his second season as an NFL head coach to win the franchise's first Super Bowl. I was hooked for years afterward, never missing a game if I could help it.
Two more titles would come during Gibbs's first reign. His genius was manifold but his main contributions to the pro game were in the run offense. Gibbs favored a single-back set, allowing for an extra tight end on the offensive line. His plays and blocking schemes have become essential to the arsenal of any rush-heavy NFL offense. But perhaps even more extraordinary than his chalkboard work was his ability to win despite an ever-changing roster. He won his three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks and three different halfbacks. There were plenty of changes on defense and in the receiver corps as well. One thing remained constant. For 11 years, the Redskins had the best offensive line in football - perhaps the best the NFL has ever seen. When the Hogs were on their game, the Skins were unstoppable. Gibbs could put whomever he wanted in the backfield and still win. The results speak for themselves. And yet, none from that unit has made it to the Hall of Fame - criminal!
Just as my basketball sensibilities were formed by the Hoyas of the '80s, so too were my football concepts shaped by Gibbs. I worshiped the man. The whole city did. We were excused from school for the victory parade after they won in '88. I stood ankle-deep in a fountain on a ridiculously cold day just to catch a glimpse of the conquering heroes along with half a million fellow fans.
I liked Gibbs almost enough to care about NASCAR when he switched sports in the '90s. The organization hasn't been the same since his initial retirement in 1993. My interest quickly waned as well. The fact that I'd gone to college in another part of the country didn't help.
In May of 1999, the team was bought by Daniel Snyder for $800 million, at the time, the most ever paid for a sports franchise. While his pockets are plenty deep, Snyder has been a notorious micro-manager, running a long string of big-name head coaches out of town, including Gibbs himself in a return engagement. Always willing to shell out money for free agents rather than build a talent base over time, the Redskins never seem to fulfill their promise in a given season. What was once the organization's greatest strength has become a liability: a patchwork offensive line which can't protect QB Jason Campbell to save its life.
But this is the NFL and perhaps the league's greatest strength is the reasonable belief that a bad team will come around someday. As I have written previously, the NFL, with its Any Given Sunday philosophy, preserves parity better than any other American sports league. Every franchise has its ups and downs. Even Snyder can't hold the Skins down forever. He hired a new general manager this past week, the first person to hold the position during Snyder's tenure. He's a Redskins legacy: Bruce Allen, son of George Allen, the Redskins' coaching hero of the early '70s. Current head coach Jim Zorn is surely on his way out so there will be a fresh start there as well. One hopes that Snyder can learn from the George Steinbrenners of the world that meddling less might actually produce a happier and more effective organization. Plus, this year's miserable record will mean a decent draft position. Win or lose, the Redskins are one of the most powerful brands in sports. They've broken the NFL attendance record for eight years running. So, there is hope.
But not tonight. Game over. Giants win, 45-12. The Commish is surely happy.
Now, if we could please do something about the name of the team...
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Bowl Season: New Orleans
The New Orleans Bowl has been around since 2001. They were displaced by Hurricane Katrina in '05, playing the game in Lafayette that year.
Bowl Season: Wyoming Crashes the Party
The question, of course, is how I could be led to care about a game between Wyoming and Fresno State at all. I have MOCK!, my colleague and fellow blogger (http://cmock127.blogspot.com/), to thank for it. He invited me to join him and his friends/cousins in a college bowl pick'em group. It's a small group with only six members. I only know one of the other guys as he is also a music teacher. I had an uneven day yesterday. We all picked Fresno State so we all came up goose eggs on that one. I did pick Rutgers over Central Florida in the St. Petersburg Bowl, though, so that will help.
I will not go on too long about how ridiculous the bowl games are. Many people have written very eloquently on the subject. I do think that the BCS is an absolutely absurd way to pick a national champion. However, the one thing more absurd is the United States Congress spending any time whatsoever legislating upon the matter. I think it was dumb for them to get involved with steroids in baseball, too. Come on, there's nothing more important for all of you to be doing with your time?!!
The fact of the matter is that as long as the bowls continue to make gobs of money for everyone involved, they're not going anywhere. So, we might as well enjoy them for what they are. It's not a tournament. It's more of a three-week, nationwide football festival. I had friends in the University of Maryland marching band back in the day and I know they really enjoyed bowl games. They provided a chance for a free vacation in a warmer locale. Hawaii was the best case scenario, of course.
The New Mexico Bowl was born in 2006, primarily a means of assuring that at least one of the state's two FBS schools would be invited to a bowl game when eligible. Unfortunately, both the University of New Mexico (1-11) and New Mexico State (3-10) fell well short of the 6-6 win-loss threshold this season. Wyoming was not considered by the clearly useless experts to have much of a chance. The Cowboys did play horribly, as expected. Fortunately for them, and unfortunately for me, the Fresno State Bulldogs played worse.
I had a more natural rooting interest in the St. Petersburg Bowl (in its second year of existence). I spent two years of graduate school at Rutgers and have been absolutely astonished by their rise to prominence over the past few years. During the two years I was in New Brunswick, the Scarlet Knights won a total of five games. There was much discussion of whether they actually belonged in the Big East conference or even Division I-A. But this season marked the fifth consecutive bowl appearance for Rutgers. They're finally capitalizing on being the largest university in one of the nation's most populous states. You'd think they could have a better men's basketball team, too, but one thing at a time.
If I were to build a football or a hockey team around a single athletic skill, it would be speed. You can't hit a player if you can't catch him. Rutgers is a very fast team and UCF always seemed about a step behind them.
I think the camera angles can do a lot to enhance a football game. The higher vantage point used in the New Mexico Bowl, and that most typical of football coverage, is great for watching plays develop. However, the lower angle used in the St. Pete Bowl is much better for exhibiting the skills of the athletes. There is not a sport in the world which benefits more from television than does football so I'm sure they've explored all of this. But I think the lower angle makes for a more exciting game.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Checking in with the Hoyas: Paying Homage
I was worried about the Hoyas in the first half as they exhibited much of the same sloppiness they showed in the Butler game. But they really cleaned up their act in the second: fewer turnovers, fewer careless fouls, more patience in waiting for the offense to develop before taking shots, more offensive rebounds, etc. The adjustment is a strong testament to Thompson's coaching and bodes well for the rapidly approaching conference schedule.
There's no shame in winning ugly, of course, but the Big East is a completely unforgiving conference. It was a nasty league back in the '80s and it's only gotten worse since. Seven different teams in the league have won national titles: Connecticut, Cincinnati, Louisville, Georgetown, Villanova, Syracuse and Marquette. By comparison, the ACC only has four schools that have won it all.
As noted previously, Thompson's coaching pedigree is strong indeed. He learned from his father (JT2) and Pete Carril, both coaches who believe in disciplined execution. The trick, of course, is to convince talented players to buy into the system. Today's performance was encouraging.
Greg Monroe is going to be important this year, of course, but it's always good to see strong performances from the supporting cast. Today was a good one for junior forward Julian Vaughn who finished with a career-high 18 points. No seniors in the Hoyas' starting five, suggesting a bright future even when Monroe inevitably bolts early.
Washington point guard Isaiah Thomas is not related to the NBA great but is named after him. The story of his naming is on Wikipedia and it's a good one. He got the name when his father lost a bet. Full story at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaiah_Thomas_%28basketball%29#Personal.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Checking in with the Hoyas: The Season of Giving
Georgetown played their first ranked opponent tonight, the Butler Bulldogs, and came out on top, 72-65, in the first game of the annual Jimmy V Basketball Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York. It was not a pretty game. The Hoyas are going to have to clean up the fouls and turnovers if they're going to be competitive in the Big East this year. Sophomore center Greg Monroe certainly looks a man among boys at the moment, averaging a double-double and leading the team in points, rebounds and assists. All signs point to an early jump to the NBA for him so they'd better make the most of his talents while he sticks around. Still undefeated and currently ranked #15 in the AP poll, Georgetown has three more games before the conference schedule begins on New Year's Eve against St. John's.
Follow Up: Vernon Davis, Painter
I did write to ask if there's more anywhere. I can't help being intrigued. I'm impressed by anyone with talent in the visual arts as I have none. All this AND an NFL career. It hardly seems fair.
Monday, December 7, 2009
All Part of My Fantasy: Best 11th Round Pick Ever
My MVP: Drew Brees (QB, New Orleans) with 35 completions for 419 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, 1 sack
Melodrama: watching my admittedly slim playoff hopes slip away
Despite this week's victory, I fell short of the playoffs. As previously explained, I needed some help in other matchups and it didn't work out. I suppose I can't feel too bad. I'm ending the season on a three-game win streak and am really pretty proud of the team I had assembled by the end. Without my double-quarterback-rib-breaking fiasco in the first two weeks, I might be singing a sweeter tune right now. So it goes.
There were rookie mistakes in the beginning, I'm sure. I could have drafted better and certainly could have made better roster moves in the early going. Amazingly, at the end of the season, I only have four players left from my original draft: Derrick Mason (WR, Baltimore), Kellen Winslow (TE, Tampa Bay), Matt Hasselbeck (QB, Seattle) and Vernon Davis (TE, San Francisco). All four have had MVP weeks for me.
Must say, I've had a blast. It was great to reconnect with old friends and, hopefully, make some new ones.
Time to hand out some hardware...
My MVP for the season: Vernon Davis
While I made a lot of mistakes early on, my 11th round draft pick could hardly have worked out better. I grabbed Davis as my backup tight end. Instead, he has become my most consistent point producer over the 13-week season. He is having the best season of his career, leading the league in receiving touchdowns and already breaking the 49ers' team record for touchdowns by a tight end in a season. He is the highest-scoring tight end in our league and seems destined for the Pro Bowl. My only regret is that I didn't play him every week. I almost traded him away one week - so glad I didn't!
Davis is a DC native and a Maryland Terrapin. He was the 6th overall pick in the 2006 draft. Before this year, Davis's performance had been steady but unspectacular. He had developed a reputation as a hot head, fighting with teammates at practice. But everything has come together for him this year as he has emerged as a vital weapon in the San Francisco offense.
Most interesting to me is the fact that he was an art major in college. He has an official Website (http://www.vernondavis85.net/) and I was rather hoping that there might be some examples of his work. There's a question link. Maybe I'll ask him about it.
And so, the offseason begins.
Saturday, December 5, 2009
Davis Cup Final 2009: Spain Again
Davis Cup is a far from perfect enterprise but of all the events on the tennis calendar, it does best by doubles. The doubles match is always on Day 2, meaning it is always a consequential match. If the two nations split the two singles matches on Day 1, whoever wins the doubles match has a huge advantage going into Day 3. If one nation sweeps the Day 1 matches, the doubles match becomes a matter of survival, as was the case today.
Relatively few of the doubles teams on the regular tour hail from the same nation but Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez (Left-Handed Spanish Cover Model #3) have played this role in Davis Cup enough to compete with anyone, especially since they can usually count on teammates like Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer to carry the load in singles. Even a well-tuned team like the Bryan brothers doesn't often see a team of two south paws with howitzer forehands. Today, they faced Radek Stepanek and Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic. The Spaniards' strategy was both obvious and sensible: attack Berdych, the less experienced doubles player of the pair. The Tennis Channel commentators criticized them for trying so many lobs over Berdych but it's tough to argue with a straight-sets win.
Davis Cup is kind of funky as far as scheduling is concerned. Despite its high entertainment value, it doesn't draw anywhere near as much interest as the Slams do. Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated has suggested golf's Ryder Cup might be a good model to follow but I think international soccer's format offers much greater possibilities: a Tennis World Cup every four years with zonal competitions in off years and qualification rounds interspersed throughout. It would still be a neat trick figuring out how to fit it all into the calendar but the ATP already has a team competition in Dusseldorf just before the French Open so a model does exist.
The aptly named, yet marketing-insensitive dead rubbers will be played tomorrow. But otherwise, the tennis season is essentially over. The tour begins anew on January 3rd in Brisbane, Australia. Davis Cup resumes in March. The USA will travel to Serbia which means having to contend with Novak Djokovic in singles and Nenad Zimonjic in doubles, most likely on clay if the climate allows. In other words, they pretty much have to win the doubles match to have a shot. It shall be a tall order.
Friday, December 4, 2009
Sports Flicks: Hoosiers
Friday night is Family Movie Night at our house. The three of us take turns picking a movie to watch together as we sit on the living room floor and eat dinner. Two weeks ago, my wife picked Totoro, the Japanese anime film. Last week, our daughter picked Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. This week was my turn and I picked one of my all-time favorites, a movie I watch every year as a matter of ritual: Hoosiers.
For me, basketball season doesn't officially begin until I've had my annual Hoosiers viewing. It is a lovable film for so many reasons: it is the prototype for the inspirational sports film, it is a classic underdog story and it really happened - sort of. But for me, what truly sets it apart from other sports flicks is the obvious affection which the filmmakers had for the subject matter. The love for the sport is abundantly clear, of course ("I know everything there is to know about the greatest game ever invented"). Equally evident is an affection for the setting: the time and most definitely the place. Indiana is as much character as setting in the story.
My wife is from Indiana. My own ties to the midwest are strong, too: parents from Nebraska and Ohio plus five years of my own life split between Iowa and Minnesota. Driving through small towns and cornfields in late autumn - I've done that. Granted, there is rarely a single trumpet calling out a song of yearning as I drive but I can certainly imagine how there might be.
If you own or have access to the Collector's Edition DVD, I highly recommend that you watch with the commentary. The creators have wonderful stories about the location scouting and also the casting of the film. They worked very hard to preserve the authenticity of 1950s Indiana.
I first saw the movie in the theater with an old friend whom I've not seen in years. We were about 13 at the time. I remember waiting in the lobby afterward for our parents to pick us up. I don't think we talked a whole lot. I remember pacing and thinking. It's the sort of movie that gives you a lot to think about at that age.
Over the years, I've probably watched it more than any but a handful of movies. Tonight was my first time to share it with my daughter. She seemed to enjoy it. I guess they started basketball in PE at school this week. She was pleased that she got to play with a basketball that was the right color (orange) while other kids had to settle for other colors. My wife tends to roll her eyes whenever I talk about the film - or inspiring sports movies in general - but I think she had a good time, too, as we talked the girl through parts of the story. The girl seemed genuinely pleased when the final shot snapped the twine.
"I love you guys."
Monday, November 30, 2009
All Part of My Fantasy: I Have to Push the Pram a Lot
My MVP: Drew Brees (QB, New Orleans) with 18 receptions for 371 yards, 5 touchdowns, 1 sack, -1 yard rushing
Melodrama: A squeaker in a match-up that didn't involve me directly. My week 13 opponent barely got by Orson Welles which kept my slim playoff hopes alive.
It's hard to believe but I am still in playoff contention. One game out with one to play. I'm hopeful for a win for myself but I need help in other corners as well. I suppose I should be pleased just to be in the mix after my dismal 0-4 start but I'm holding out hope for more. That trade with The Kicker is looking better this week as Fred Jackson (RB, Buffalo) had a huge game as well.
I suppose I'm okay with Derek Jeter as SI's Sportsman of the Year. He's a Yankee but it's hard to argue with his bona fides. I think he's a better choice than Peyton Manning would have been. I would still argue that Roger Federer is considerably more deserving but it's a lost cause.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
ATP Tour Finale: Nikolay Makes His Case
Doubles Partner: Max Mirnyi (Belarus)
Notable Conquests: Bryan/Bryan, 2nd seed; Dlouhy/Paes, 4th seed and Cermak/Mertinak, 5th seed
Personal Website: http://www.erlichandram.com
Yes, that is written correctly. Mirnyi and Ram had a round-robin win against the Bryan brothers but lost to them in the final.
This was Andy Ram's first time in the final match of the year-end tournament, though not his partner's . Mirnyi is, in fact, a former champion with the great Jonas Bjorkman (Sweden). Mirnyi is not Ram's usual partner. They have teamed up for the current year because Ram's usual mate, Jonathan Erlich, a fellow Israeli, has been out all year with an injury. Erlich will be back in the coming year and will team up with Ram again. Mirnyi will return to a former partner: Mahesh Bhupati (India). That leaves Mark Knowles's dance card open once again, though with his sure hands at the net, he won't be alone for long. A hard-serving lefty would seem a good fit, Frenchman Michael Llodra, perhaps. The partner carousel probably adds to the difficulty in fans latching on to doubles but if you like soap operas, it can get interesting from time to time.
Hats off to the Bryans. They needed to win four straight matches in order to clinch the year-end #1 ranking and they pulled it off.
And my goodness, hats off to Nikolay Davydenko (Russia) as well. The list of players who have beaten Federer and Nadal in the same tournament is very short. Add to that del Potro and he bagged all of the year's Slam winners in the same week. The quietest perennial top-10er you'll ever see, Davydenko has sent out a warning shot for next year. Success at year-end does not always translate to the following season but Davydenko has certainly had an impressive fall swing: Kuala Lampur, Shanghai Masters and now London. At 28 years of age, Nikolay has just had the best week of his career.
2010 should be very interesting indeed. All of this week's contestants plus Roddick, who was supposed to be here, should be strong again next year. And then, of course, there's the brute squad that follows.
One bold prediction for the coming year: Novak Djokovic will be year-end #1 for 2010. However, Federer's still the favorite for the Australian until proven otherwise.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
ATP Tour Finale: The Backhand's Pretty Good, After All
Notable Conquests: Rafael Nadal (Spain), 2nd seed and Novak Djokovic (Serbia), 3rd seed
Any week in which you've beaten both Nadal and Djokovic is a great week, especially considering the fact that Soderling only made it to London courtesy of Roddick's withdrawal. He fought hard today but JMDP was just too good in the end. Soderling will finish in the year-end top 10 for the first time and, as previously discussed, can take credit for the biggest upset of the year in beating Nadal at the French.
Did you hear that? That was a collective "Uh oh!" from the men's tennis world in response to del Potro's play today. He had some absolutely breathtaking shots on the backhand side today. How many players do you try to keep in the middle of the court because his shots from the wings are so devastating?
Hats off to Davydenko for finally beating Federer for the first time in his ATP career. He is now 1-12 lifetime against the mighty Fed.
ATP Tour Finale: Roger Is Snubbed Again
Doubles Partner: Lucasz Kubot (Poland)
Notable Conquest: Dlouhy/Paes, 4th seed
Personal Website: http://www.marach.at
An unusual number of players have been eliminated in the group stage despite having 2-1 records: Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic on the singles side and Kubot/Marach on the doubles side. This is the partnership's first time in the year-end tournament. Marach is the older and the lower-ranked of the pair.
So, once again Roger Federer will not be Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. It's perhaps a minor detail for a man who has received just about every other award the sports world has to offer but the premier American sports publication has been in denial of the world's greatest athlete for quite some time now. The window is probably past. Great as he is, Federer's years of greatest dominance are probably behind him.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
ATP Tour Finale: First Eliminations
Verdasco had never qualified for the final gala before and will finish with his highest ever year-end ranking. I can imagine it's pretty hard to take three losses in a single week but he did well to get here. Hiring Darren Cahill as his coach shows that he's serious about contending for Slams on a regular basis.
Verdasco and Murray have both been eliminated with Federer and del Potro moving on to Saturday's semis. On the doubles side, Fyrstenberg, Matkowski, Nestor and Zimonjic go home while Bhupati, Knowles, Cermak and Mertinak soldier on.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
ATP Tour Finale: Is He Real?
"Is he still alive?"
It was really very sweet. I didn't get into explaining about live television vs. fictional stories on television. It was a reasonable question. It seemed overly simple to just say "this is happening right now."
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
ATP Tour Finale: Poaching
Bhupati/Knowles d. Fyrstenberg/Matkowski in three sets
Juan Martin del Potro d. Fernando Verdasco in three sets
Night session -
Cermak/Mertinak d. Nestor/Zimonjic in straight sets
Roger Federer d. Andy Murray in three sets
Mark Knowles is another favorite of mine, partly because he is a rare top international athlete from the Bahamas, partly because he may well be the best volleyer in the world but mostly because of what happened to him a few years ago in his breakup with longtime doubles partner Daniel Nester of Canada. Nestor decided that Knowles didn't have the serve to compete for majors anymore so he cut his pal loose and hooked up with the Serbian Zimonjic. After Knowles and Nestor made the announcement but before they actually parted ways, they won the French Open together. Suddenly, an already awkward situation became downright surreal. The two decided to finish the year together anyway and move on to their new partners afterwards.
I'm so happy that Fed beat Murray. I can hardly express how happy that makes me. Roger has now wrapped up the year-end #1 ranking.
All Part of My Fantasy: Stonehenge
My MVP: Vernon Davis (TE, San Francisco) with 6 receptions for 108 yards and a touchdown
Melodrama: My blockbuster trade with The Kicker. I traded Philip Rivers-Ryan Grant-Santonio Holmes for Drew Brees-Fred Jackson-Eddie Royal. For the current week, he got the better of it: 25.38 points from his new guys as opposed to 23.79 points from my new guys.
Spinal Tap was another friend I met through The Kicker. We were once all on an intramural basketball team together. Somewhere, there are some very funny "promotional photos" of us in our thrift shop team uniforms. I don't believe I've seen him since graduation.
So, I'm two games out of a playoff spot with two weeks to go. I've got a tough opponent this week so wish me luck.
Monday, November 23, 2009
ATP Tour Finale: Day 2
Max Mirnyi (Belarus)/Andy Ram (Israel) def. Bob Bryan/Mike Bryan (USA) in straight sets
Robin Soderling (Sweden) def. Rafael Nadal (Spain) in straight sets
Mirnyi has always been one of my favorites. He is one of few doubles stars who's also had success on the singles tour, rising as high as #18 in the world and winning one title. He's another one who has a body seemingly more suitable to another sport. His father was a top volleyball player. Nicknamed The Beast, Mirnyi is a nightmare at the net for opponents in singles or doubles.
I have to admit that the Bryan twins creep me out a little bit. They're almost robotic in their execution: The Stepford Doubles Team.
One of the most interesting differences between the singles and doubles players is their ages. The average age of the eight singles players this week is 24 years. For the 16 doubles players, it's 32. With two people to cover the court, you don't accumulate mileage on the legs so quickly. It also stands to reason that in a more tactical game, the wisdom of experience is more valuable. I'd love to see doubles become a career extender for the top singles players. Say, for instance, that rather than riding off into the sunset forever, Federer might spend a year on the doubles tour. He could play a bit longer and it would be fantastic publicity for the doubles discipline. I'd love to see him team up with Nadal. It's bad enough having to face one of them. How about both?
Soderling v. Nadal was, of course, a rematch of perhaps the most significant match of the entire year: Soderling's defeat of Nadal in the fourth round at the French Open. It was Nadal's first ever defeat at Roland Garros and ended his four-year reign as champion. Was it a great day for Soderling or a bad one for Nadal? Rafa, gentleman that he is, gave full credit to his opponent. Indeed, today's match served as further proof that he is vulnerable to Soderling's style of play. I think that if Rafa had won that match, the rest of the summer might have gone quite differently. I believe he would have claimed both the French and Wimbledon again. Of course, it was an injury that caused him to pull out of Wimbledon but I'm sure it's easier to play through pain when you're on a win streak.
Soderling only made it to the Tour Finals as an alternate when Andy Roddick pulled out. He will finish the year with his highest ranking ever and can take credit for changing the narrative in 2009.
Night Session -
Lukasv Kubot (Poland)/Oliver Marach (Austria) def. Lukas Dlouhy (Czech Republic)/Leander Paes (India) in straight sets
Novak Djokovic (Serbia) def. Nikolay Davydenko (Russia) in three sets
There are three Poles in the doubles draw this week making Poland the best-represented country for the event. Who would have thought? The Poles have done well so far, too. Kubot/Marach is the youngest doubles team here and tonight, they topped a legend. Leander Paes has quite the resume: 41 doubles titles overall, 6 men's doubles Slams, 4 in mixed doubles plus an Olympic bronze medal in singles. But that's nothing compared to the fact that he survived a parasitic brain infection - one that was initially thought to be a tumor.
Djokovic is the hot player on tour at the moment and has to be considered a threat to defend his title. I've always been fond of Davydenko, though, and nearly always root for him. The man has been camped out in the top 10 for years now and yet he goes virtually unnoticed. A few years ago, as Andy Murray was first getting attention, he had a fourth round match against Davydenko at the US Open. The match was essentially even when its completion was delayed until the following day. Murray, the little snot, couldn't stop himself from complaining to the press about having to get up early in the morning to prepare. Davydenko was not impressed and delivered an absolute pasting to finish him off, tatooing him 6-0 in the fourth set. It was a delightful, welcome-to-the-big-time-now-quit-your-whining moment.
This really is a wonderfully television-friendly event. In two days, we've seen all 24 players involved in the tournament and no one's been sent home yet.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
ATP Tour Finale: London at Last
This is one event that does right by doubles. Each session begins with a doubles under-card followed by the marquee singles match. Tennis Channel is airing all of the matches except for the singles final which will be on ESPN2.
The day session began with an upset as the eighth-seeded Polish team of Fyrstenberg and Matkowski took out the top-seeded Nestor (Canada) and Zimonjic (Serbia) in straight sets. Nestor and Zimonjic are also the defending champions so this is big. For me, the best part of doubles is the play at the net. Pessimists will say that doubles specialists are players who couldn't cut it on the singles tour. While that may be true for a lot of them, from what I see, the top doubles players are just better at certain skills than their singles counterparts. They approach the game more tactically and have a softer touch on their volleys, thus allowing better control. What's nice about this particular event is the opportunity to see the top teams playing each other. If doubles is included in the coverage of other tournaments, it's often in the early rounds with only one quality team involved. This is a lot more fun.
Andy Murray's three-set victory over Juan Martin del Potro followed. If you've read my US Open posts, you've no doubt already surmised that Murray is not exactly my favorite. He's got plenty of game, of course, but has yet to exhibit the fighting spirit he's going to need if he's ever going to pose a real threat to the Federer-Nadal axis. I also resent the fact that he seems to get a lot more attention than the already more accomplished Djokovic and del Potro.
Del Potro's game still seems unformed to me, despite his US Open triumph. On the one hand, his running, cross-court forehand is absolutely nuclear, a weapon far greater than any one shot either Murray or Djokovic has in the bag. On the other hand, I don't feel that he yet has as strong an all-around game as the other two. His shots down the line are strong but not nearly as ferocious. He attempted a few cross-court backhands of similar pace today but dumped them in the net. If the rest of his arsenal ever catches up to that one point-ending shot, he may have the top tier all to himself in a few years.
The night session's doubles match was not as dramatic, with Bhupati (India) and Knowles (Bahamas) taking out Cermak (Czech Republic) and Mertinak (Slovakia) in straight sets, much as expected. In the final match of the night, Federer beat Fernando Verdasco, yet another left-handed Spanish Adonis, in three sets. Fed looked sluggish in the first but, as usual, dug deep and delivered an authoritative 6-1 third set to leave no doubt. This, to my mind, is what del Potro needs in order to become king: tricks to fall back on when his usual overpowering stuff isn't enough.
For Murray and Djokovic, on the other hand, I think Nadal should be their model going forward. They've both got all of the shots but they lack Rafa's competitive ferocity. Needless to say, it should be an interesting week.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Checking in with the Capitals: Too Much of a Good Thing?
Caught a decent portion of the Caps' 2-1 shootout loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs this evening, including Ovechkin's goal. Washington has had a great start to the season, currently boasting the best record in the Eastern Conference. I wonder, however, if they are playing Ovechkin more than they should. I know he's the second coming and I'm sure he's delighted to get so much playing time. But I worry that letting him take such long shifts is an injury risk. Besides, I think they'll be a better team come playoff time if they build some trust in other players and other forward lines. Ovechkin recently missed six games due to injury and the Caps went a perfectly respectable 4-2 in his absence. Why not build on that?
It has been my experience that hockey fans feel a greater devotion to their game than do followers of other sports. Moreover, watching tonight's pregame festivities reaffirmed my belief that the Canadian love for hockey exceeds the love we Americans feel for any of our games. And yet, amazingly, no Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since 1993. Canadian teams claimed seven consecutive titles from 1984-1990 but only the one since. NHL lineups are still loaded with Canadian-born players but the local teams aren't what they used to be.
Perhaps even more astonishing is the fact that Toronto hasn't won the Cup since 1967 and doesn't appear likely to end the drought any time soon. The Maple Leafs hold the second most championships all time, trailing only mighty Montreal. But this proud franchise boasts only four wins thus far in the current season, against 17 losses (six in overtime).
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Checking in with the Hoyas: The Longest Minute in Sports
Before tennis took over, basketball was my game. I love watching and I love playing, though I haven't played in years. I would not say I was ever very good at playing but I can watch with the best of them. Just as I know the exact moment that I became a tennis fan, I also know the exact moment when college basketball became my sport of choice.
For Christmas one year, my father got us two tickets to the Georgetown-Syracuse basketball game at the old Capitol Center in Landover, Maryland. The game was sensational. The crowd was on its feet for the entire last minute - even my usually unimpressed father. The Georgetown Hoyas won it with a last-second bank shot and the electric surge that went through the crowd was unlike anything I'd ever felt before. I was hooked.
Georgetown was quite a team in the '80s. Led by their enormous head coach, John Thompson, Jr., and the only slightly taller Patrick Ewing at center, the team made the national finals three out of four years. They won the title one year. The two championship games they lost are considered two of the greatest games in NCAA history. The Hoyas never reached the Final Four again during Thompson's reign but he had plenty of exciting teams through the years. The team we saw that day was one that Thompson himself referred to as Reggie and the Miracles. The team's star was Reggie Williams, a silky smooth small forward who was a fantastic college player but he never quite found his way in the pros. 1986-87 was his senior year and he was supported by a rag-tag bunch of freshmen and sophomores. No player was over 6-8 so no true center. In truth, few of them even qualified as forwards. But they were relentless, particularly on defense. They had a three-freshman platoon at point guard assigned to harass the opposing point man for 40 minutes with 15 fouls to give. Exciting, comeback victories were the norm. They won the conference and the conference tournament but fell short of the Final Four, losing to Rick Pitino's Providence Friars in the regional final.
They have, for the most part, been my favorite team ever since. I had a crisis of faith earlier this decade as the University of Maryland rose to national prominence. I've always liked both teams but have rarely had to choose as they don't play each other very often. But they did play in the NCAA tournament in 2001 and I had to make the choice. I rooted for the Terps because I thought they had the better chance to make it to the Final Four, which they did. But all else being equal, if I had to choose between a championship for the Hoyas and one for the Terps, I'd pick the Hoyas.
The team is now coached by Big John's son, John Thompson III. He learned defense from his father and offense from the legendary Pete Carrill at Princeton. That's a potent combination for a college coach and as long as he sticks around, the Hoyas should be strong. They're off to a good start: 2-0 with tonight's win, ranked #19 in the nation.
I still haven't had my annual Hoosiers viewing yet. I've gotta get on that.
All Part of My Fantasy: I'm the Ugly Stepsister
My MVP: Kellen Winslow (TE, Tampa Bay) with 7 receptions for 102 yards
Cinderella Story is the one league member who did not go to college with the rest of us, much to her credit, I'm sure. She is the wife of The Kicker who talked her into joining at the last minute so we would have an even number of teams. To say that she has held her own in her rookie season is putting it mildly. Every week, Yahoo! Sports posts the Blowout of the Week and CS was on the winning end for three weeks in a row. She took out her own husband along the way.
We have only met CS a few times but my wife and I enjoy her immensely. She is facebook friends with both of us and we have gotten to know her better online. I have to say that I was expecting a bit more along the smack talk front but she's been busy at home. She certainly had the last laugh.
I am now 3-7, thus assured of a losing record for the season. While I'm not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs yet, I'm 3 games out with 3 to play. The writing's on the wall. The Kicker and I have a blockbuster trade in the works but it's probably too late for me to do much more than salvage some pride.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Paris Masters: Djoker on a Roll
This makes two straight titles for Djokovic who took out Federer in his hometown tournament in Basel just last week. It does speak well of a player if he wins on enemy turf. He's the defending champ for the year-end gala so he'll face some added pressure going into London. But he's certainly in good form.
This is sort of a quiet time of year as the tennis calendar goes. The top players are usually staggering to the finish line as their bodies repay them for the abuse they've taken during the summer slog. The Paris tournament, in particular, is one that usually suffers from lackluster performances by the stars. Thus, it becomes an opportunity for those lower down the ladder to pick up some cash and shore up their rankings. Djokovic, despite not picking up any big titles before this one, has had a consistently strong year. He is hitting peak form as others in the top tier are dragging. I don't mean to take anything away from him. Get while the gettin's good - more power to him.
The length of the tennis season is rough on the players but I think it's great as a fan. Most of the players get about a month-and-a-half off at this point. The last two meaningful events - the year-end championship and the Davis Cup final - involve just an elite few. Back when I would have considered college basketball to be my favorite sport, I had months to yearn between seasons. With tennis, I'm usually too busy in the holiday season to give it much thought.
There is legitimate criticism about the calendar but I feel the congested summer season is more to blame for banged up bodies than is the fall swing.
On to London.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Paris Masters: A Battle of Dangerous Floaters
I was out getting my hair cut as Djokovic dispatched of Nadal in straight sets but I caught a decent portion of Stepanek v. Monfils. At this point in their careers, both players are best described in tennis parlance as dangerous floaters: strong players who usually don't pose much of a threat to win titles in the big tournaments but nobody wants to have to play them. Radek Stepanek is a warrior: prepared to battle for every point and concedes nothing to anyone. He holds two career victories over Federer - no small accomplishment.
Gael Monfils has to be considered one of the best pure athletes on the tennis tour. I've often thought of him as a great player in the wrong sport. For all of his gifts, his gangly frame and movement style seem to me better suited to a basketball court. He was overpowering as a junior player but has yet to find a foothold in the top echelon of the senior tour. Perhaps this tournament can help propel him forward.
He is a very exciting player to watch. Today, he attempted a flying, run-around, cross-court forehand which few tennis players possess the body control to even imagine. Unfortunately for the highlight reel editors, the shot went long - but not by much.
Monfils's victory today means that for the second year in a row, there is a Frenchman in the final. Jo-Wilfred Tsonga was last year's champion. Monfils has some history with Djokovic. The two played a memorable match at the US Open in 2005. Djokovic won the match with some perceived gamesmanship, an unfortunate knock against him throughout his still young career. Monfils has never beaten him in an ATP-level match. Surely, it would be sweet to beat him for the first time in front of the home crowd.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Any Given Year, Any Given Team
I feel the NFL's Any Given Sunday philosophy is a beautiful thing. The league certainly has its fair share of problems but I fully support all of its efforts to promote parity. Dynasties do exist but they don't last nearly as long as they have in other leagues. The 49ers, Steelers and Cowboys have all had strong runs in the Super Bowl era but nothing to compare with the Yankees in baseball, the Canadiens in hockey or the Celtics and Lakers in basketball.
On the other hand, maybe the European soccer leagues have the right idea. Drop all pretense of the weak teams posing any real threat to the perennial powers. If a team can't cut it in the top league, the whole club is relegated to the minors. In a given year, it means that every team has something substantive to play for late in the season: league title, qualification for the next year's European tournaments or mere survival.
And of course, there is the small matter of anti-trust law hanging over all of this. Professional sports leagues have long been seen as exempt from anti-trust obligations. I will admit there is some sense in this as the product they are selling is competition itself. So, to a point, I support any measures taken to preserve an equal playing field. It still doesn't sit well with me. I realize that collusion among NFL franchise owners doesn't present the same dangers as similar practices in the energy industry would but my democratic heart (small d) can't help feeling that any industry being allowed to thumb its nose at anti-trust sets a dangerous precedent. But then professional sports as anything beyond an exhibition doesn't work at all, does it? I can't win.
For baseball, I'd say a meaningful salary cap is a must. But before discussions of contraction ever come up again, I think they might consider a European style promotion/relegation system. Would the lesser teams take a hit? Most definitely. But in the long run, it might make for more meaningful seasons in the smaller markets. It will never happen, of course, but I'd certainly prefer it to seeing teams disappear entirely.
Monday, November 9, 2009
All Part of My Fantasy: Week 9
My MVP: Matt Hasselbeck (QB, Seattle) with 39 completions for 329 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception and 1 sack plus 5 yards rushing
Melodrama: The strangeness of rooting for both teams in the same game as I did for the Monday night game. I wanted Santonio Holmes, the Steelers' receiver to do well but their defense to do poorly. 1 out of 2 was enough to win for the week.
I met Boston Bean at the beginning of my sophomore year. He came in as a transfer and I was the student adviser (called RAs at other schools) on his floor. The Commish and The Kicker were under my jurisdiction as well. I was the most unnecessary student adviser in world history on that mostly senior floor. On the floor were three Phi Beta Kappas, two team captains and the editor of the student newspaper. In all honesty, I felt more like a mascot. They did enjoy being fed, though, so they'd show up for study breaks if I provided food.
This next week, I take on the Kicker's wife. She has complained about the lameness of our league's trash talk. I shall endeavor to fix that.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
November Baseball: Team of the Decade?
The question, of course, is if anyone can unseat them in the coming years. In the coming decade, it would have to be a team that can compete with them financially. The crosstown Mets seem the most likely. In the American League, their arch-rival Red Sox are the best candidate. We shall see.
Just wait until next year!
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
November Baseball: Life Behind the Plate
All Part of My Fantasy: Luck, Be a Lady Tonight
My MVP: Mike Thomas (WR, Jacksonville) 146 return yards, 4 receptions for 55 yards and 7 rushing yards
Melodrama: Hoping for a big game from my kicker. I had Jason Elam (K, Atlanta) going into Monday night's game. If he'd had 6 field goals of 50+ yards each, I'd have won. Amazingly, that didn't happen.
Sand Dolls was another football player I met through The Kicker. I haven't seen him in a few years now. I think the last time was a Super Bowl party at his old apartment in lower Manhattan. Rams over Titans. That was nine years ago. Maybe a wedding since then?
If I win the rest of my games, I'll have a winning record for the season. Is that really too much to ask?
Sunday, November 1, 2009
November Baseball: Mark Grace's Best Assets
November baseball officially began this evening thanks to the rain delay. As previously stated, I am pulling for the Phillies in the Series. It's a no-brainer, really. Apart from being an Orioles fan and therefore obligated to hate the Yankees, I believe in spreading the wealth. The Yanks have had far more than their fair share of championships. There are those who say it's good for a sport to have a team like the Yankees - easy to love, easy to hate, helps to drive the narrative. But I don't buy it. I think it's good when every city has a chance to feel that kind of joy from time to time.
And yet, I find that a rooting interest is a tenuous thing in baseball. Over the course of a game, I often find myself pulling for an individual player from the opposing team. For instance, I find it difficult not to hope that a middle reliever does well even if he's pitching for the bad guys. Ditto for pinch hitters and runners and certainly defensive subs. They're not superstars. They're just athletes trying to make a living - admittedly, a lucrative one.
With the Yankees, it's particularly complicated. Yes, I hate the team. But I can't honestly say that I despise all of the players. How can one not be impressed by Mariano Rivera with the career he has put together? I feel similarly toward Jeter, Matsui and Posada. They're not ostentatious braggarts. They are dignified sportsmen who love their game and play hard for their team every night. It's hard not to respect that.
A-Rod, on the other hand? Bum. The Yankees fell hard in my estimation when they let Joe Torre go. Four World Series titles still not good enough for the boss? Despite what I might feel about some of the individuals involved, it is always poetic justice when the Bombers fall.
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Checking in with Arsenal: With Thanks to Nick Hornby and ESPN
Arsenal's looking well so far this year. They've slid a bit in the past few years but seem eager to threaten the top of the table this time around. They're at the top of their group in the Champions League as well. The diagnosis to this point is strong in the front, questionable in the back. Today's result should be encouraging. Can't wait until the next game. Thanks again, ESPN!
Monday, October 26, 2009
All Part of My Fantasy: Fear the Turtle
My MVP: Vernon Davis (TE, San Francisco) with 7 receptions for 93 yards and 3 touchdowns
Melodrama: Eight of my nine starters played in the 1 p.m. games and just one in the 4:15. SD had three in the Sunday night game. So, despite the fact that I built up a big lead in those early games, I still had to wait to see if he'd catch up. Stranger things have happened. Fortunately for me, not this week.
I had a lot of friends on the swim team in college and I knew Special Dinner through that crowd. He and a group of friends, including Roppongi Moose, had a fantastic food column in the campus newspaper. They reviewed dining hall meals as well as local restaurant fare. He also was lead singer in a punk band. A colorful guy!
Davis has been an aggravating player for me. Up to this point in the season, he has had his best games when I had him on the bench. But today's was a career-best performance for the former Maryland Terrapin. I also had big weeks from Philip Rivers (QB, San Diego), Ryan Grant (RB, Green Bay) and the Colts' defense. I am now 2-5 and gradually clawing my way up the standings.
So, the I-5 World Series didn't work out. We get the I-95 Series instead. My rooting interest is the kiss of death this year so my apologies to Phillies fans but I'm not sure I could ever pull for the Bronx Bombers. The problem with always pulling for the underdog is that they usually lose. If at the beginning of the season, you'd asked me for the last World Series matchup I'd want to see, it would have been this: defending champions vs. all-time championships leader. Boring!
That said, I'm sure the series on the field will be great.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Checking in with the Capitals: Canada Is the Answer
So, what will be DirecTV's next move once the free trial of Center Ice ends after Saturday? I sure hope they sort things out with Versus in time for the playoffs. In the meantime, perhaps they'll do a free trial of their sports package, too.
What they really need to do, and I can't imagine it wouldn't be loads cheaper, is to cut a deal to get the Canadian Broadcast Company. No one would miss Versus if they could have Hockey Night in Canada instead. And if they get the French channel, too, my daughter can grow up watching soccer in Spanish and hockey in French. Who wouldn't want that? Canada's got plenty of great shows. Is This Hour Has 22 Minutes still on the air?
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
All Part of My Fantasy: Don't Over-Think
My MVP: Derrick Mason (WR, Baltimore) with 7 receptions for 97 yards and a touchdown
Melodrama: Going with Hasselbeck over Rivers at quarterback. Huge mistake.
So, The Kicker got his sweet revenge and then some. The lesson for me this week is don't trust what you read. Everything I read going into the week said that Hasselbeck was a great play as he was going against the weak Cardinals. Rivers, on the other hand, was facing the as yet undefeated Broncos. Hasselbeck was coming off a huge game last Sunday but was absolutely abysmal this time: 10 completions, 110 yards passing, 2 yards rushing, 1 interception, 5 sacks and a lost fumble. Rivers hardly had the game of his life but was still good for 20 completions, 274 yards, 1 touchdown, 5 sacks and a lost fumble. 7.28 fantasy points as opposed to 0.09. I still wouldn't have survived the "Biggest Fantasy Blowout" of the week but it still would have been the better play.
I am a novice at this game and I'm sure I will gain a better understanding of the ins and outs with time but it's easy to see the dangers of over-thinking. This week in particular, conventional wisdom wasn't worth much.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Checking in with the Capitals: Fifth Graders Think They Know Everything
For those who don't already know, I'm an elementary school music teacher by day. I teach in a small town in Vermont - what I thought would have been serious hockey country before we moved here. It has been my experience, however, that baseball reigns supreme in this part of the world. Little League? Huge. Red Sox? Revered as gods. But there certainly is a hockey element. Plenty of my students play, though NHL allegiances are all over the map. There's a trio of hockey players in one of my fifth grade classes. One is a Montreal fan. Another likes Pittsburgh. The third ran off a laundry list of the teams he likes. I noted a glaring absence:
"I didn't hear the Caps in that list. I think we may have problems here."
"We don't like Ovechkin," they all agreed.
"What's not to like?"
"He's a show off!"
"Oh, and Crosby isn't?"
"He's not as bad."
The legendary Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell once wrote that he's never known more about sports than he did in the seventh grade. Maybe they know better than I do. Is Ovechkin the player whom fans of other teams love to hate?
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
All Part of My Fantasy: Victory at Last
My MVP: Matt Hasselbeck (QB, Seattle) with 18 completions for 241 yards, 4 touchdowns, 23 yards rushing and 1 sack in his first week back from injury
Melodrama: Watching the minutes tick away in tonight's game. For once, I actually got what I needed on Monday night. The Kicker had the Miami defense and Dustin Keller, one of the Jets' tight ends. I needed a poor game for both and that's exactly what happened. I just needed the clock to run out to win.
Through some mysterious quirk of Yahoo! Sports's scheduling system, I am forced to go up against The Kicker two weeks in a row. We're not even in the same division so I'm not sure how it happened. I would consider The Kicker to have been one of my closer friends in college. We met early. We lived in neighboring dorms freshman year. We were on intramural basketball teams together and would also sit through varsity games together. The Kicker is a world-class, though never vulgar, heckler. He was, in fact, the one who encouraged me to go after the PA announcer job. He and I kind of look alike (poor guy). Our own wives think so. I've even had to look at some photos twice to be sure which one of us it was.
I haven't seen The Kicker for quite a few years now. I think the last time was our wedding eight years ago. Between us, we've fathered four daughters since then. There is talk of getting together sometime this winter. It's definitely time.
It does feel good to finally win.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Checking in with the Capitals: Green Opens His Account
Defenseman Mike Green scored his first goal of the season tonight. Green may be the key to the Caps' season. Today's also his 24th birthday. At a very young age, Green is already one of the best offensive defensemen in the league. He was an all-star last year but was a bust in the playoffs. A better performance from him could mean a deeper run this year. Maybe the Olympics can provide some inspiration. Green is also likely to be a key player for Team Canada.
Rockies are out of the playoffs so I need a new pony. Go, Angels! In fact, I'm pulling for an I-5 World Series now so go, Dodgers, too!
Saturday, October 10, 2009
Checking in with the Capitals: Franchise Envy
Last year, while watching the Western Conference finals between Detroit and Chicago, I was pondering what the Blackhawks would need to do to beat the Red Wings. I suddenly realized that I was asking the wrong question. The more appropriate query is what Chicago, or any other team for that matter, needs to do to become the Red Wings.
I would go so far as to say that the Red Wings are the model franchise in North American sports. And I say this as someone who nearly always roots against them. It's about more than just winning, although there has been plenty of that. Over the past 15 years, they have won four Stanley Cups and six President's Trophies. Far more important is how they have managed to do it. If you are a hockey player who cares about winning championships more than you do about money or fame, playing in Detroit is at the top of your wish list. Hall of Fame-caliber players Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom have happily spent their entire NHL careers there. Others such as Chris Chelios and Dominik Hasek have delayed retirement in order to be a part of the franchise. Top players within the league engineer trades to get themselves there. Players on the team accept restructured contracts to free up money for other good players. All of this while playing for a city that absolutely adores them.
There are other teams who have managed to make it work. In the NFL, the Patriots fit the bill these days. What would be the baseball equivalent? The Angels, perhaps? (A generation ago, it was the Orioles. Sigh...) But I still place the Wings a cut above.
The Caps have an awfully good starting point to build on at the moment (for that matter, so do the Blackhawks). The young talent within the organization is an embarrassment of riches. Long-term, sustained success is a reasonable goal. The Caps have plenty of devoted fans and their numbers will increase if they keep winning as they have been. Can they become the NHL's Shangri-la? That depends on the people writing the checks and decisions made far from the ice. The model exists. Tonight, the Caps got a firsthand look.
My Annual Ritual: Final Four Predictions in October
Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia
Kansas over Kentucky in the final
I have picked the champion two out of the past three years. Now, neither North Carolina last year nor Florida three years ago was a particularly daring pick. But there have been plenty of "sure things" over the years that didn't pan out. Admittedly, I didn't pick Syracuse to win when they did but neither did anyone else.
The magazine used to be called Street & Smith's College Basketball Preview. The S&S line existed entirely for sports annuals but it was bought out a couple of years ago by The Sporting News, who now publish essentially the same magazine under their own name. I'm not entirely sure why I picked that one in particular off of the rack but I've always been able to find it - even for two years in Japan. It has served my purposes quite well.
I have other basketball rituals. I watch Hoosiers once a year. My parents, certainly not fans themselves but well aware of my quirks, sent me a VHS copy while I was abroad so I wouldn't miss out. I cannot claim to be unloved!
Before men's tennis took up residence at the forefront of my sports interests, I'd have considered myself a college basketball fan. Even now, I would say that basketball is the most spectator-friendly sport in the world: big people, big ball, relatively small playing area with play generally concentrated on a small portion of it, fast pace, high scores and breath-taking athletic feats. The electricity which envelops a crowd during a close game is without compare in my experience. The greatest job I've ever had in my life was public address announcer for men's and women's basketball games in college. I had the best seat in the house with a microphone on the table in front of me. I'd have done the job for nothing and yet they paid me.
I have no interest in the NBA (Not Basketball, Actually) and will not write about it in this space unless I absolutely must. But anything at the college level or lower is wonderful. Games tip off next month. Can't wait.
In case you were wondering (and I know you were), Andy Roddick is my pick to win the Shanghai title next week.
Friday, October 9, 2009
Checking in with the Cornhuskers: My Father's Guilty Pleasure
Why does a kid from Maryland care in the slightest about Nebraska football?
It's a perfectly reasonable question. It's all about family, you see. My father is from Nebraska. The University of Nebraska's Cornhusker football team has what is best described as a religious following within the state. I have relatives who are absolutely bonkers for the Huskers. My grandfather was a season ticket holder.
There weren't a lot of Nebraska games carried on the east coast in those days but the annual showdown with Oklahoma was a given. It was, in fact, expected for the two teams to meet late in the season, both undefeated with a conference title and a trip to the Orange Bowl on the line. Their games were just about the best sports theater around.
For decades, Nebraska played a wonderfully entertaining version of option football. Quarterback magicians like Turner Gill, Steve Taylor and Tommie Frazier drove opposing defenses crazy just trying to keep track of the ball. In the mid-90s, they were the dominant team in the country with three national titles in four years. Unfortunately, the team's legendary coach Tom Osborne retired after the last of the three and the team has never been quite the same since. There was a national title run in '01 but Nebraska was stomped hard by Miami in the championship game.
Then, in 2004, a horrible mistake was made. Bill Callahan, the recently fired head coach of the Oakland Raiders, was hired to lead the Huskers. Callahan brought with him the West Coast Offense: a more conventional, NFL style passing offense. The option game was history. The subsequent downturn might have happened anyway but the change in offense led to the Huskers' first losing season in 40 years. Things didn't get much better after that and Callahan was fired in 2007.
Bo Pelini is the current head coach, hired rather than esteemed alum and accomplished coach Turner Gill supposedly because of a greater need on the defensive side of the ball. I must say, the Huskers' defense looked formidable last night, while the offense looked uncertain - quite the opposite of the way things used to be. If it means more wins, I suppose that's a good thing.
I don't watch a lot of college football anymore. I used to be a huge fan but my interest has waned. In large part, it is because my wife truly hates the sport above all others and can barely stand to have it on. While she was the one who encouraged me to join the fantasy league this year and has tolerated the NFL on Sundays, I don't want to push my luck with college games on Saturdays. However, I figure anything that's on after she goes to bed is fair game so last night's game was ideal.
Checking in with the Capitals: Score One for DirecTV
By far the best professional team in Washington these days is its ice hockey team. The Capitals have enjoyed intermittent periods of great success over the years. After a rocky start in the '70s, the Caps were among the stronger teams in the league by the mid-'80s. Unfortunately, their pattern was a great regular season followed by a first- or second round playoff exit. They did finally make it to the Stanley Cup Finals in '98 only to be steamrolled by the mighty Red Wings, the juggernaut of the era. Throughout, my following of the sport has been sporadic. I had a friend in high school who often had tickets to share and we'd watch together on TV, too. I would generally agree with those who feel the sport is great to watch live but loses something on the small screen. I find it's a sport best watched when there is a sense of urgency in the air. Thus, Olympic hockey and the NHL playoffs are my favorites. Regular season games are still fun but not quite as captivating.
The Caps' first forward line is downright scary. Center Nicklas Backstrom plus wingers Ovechkin and Alexander Semin average 23 years of age and heading into last night's game, they were the top 3 in the league for points. That's not much to go on 3 games into the season but it does reflect a potency that few teams can match. I was disappointed to see Jose Theodore in goal rather than Simeon Varlamov, last year's playoff hero. But it's a long season and having two high quality netminders is a great luxury. Last year's team, for all of its talent, was criticized for a lack of grit in the playoffs. Maybe the disappointment of failing to advance further will fuel the competitive fires this time around.
Again, thank you, DirecTV. I intend to enjoy October while it lasts. Now, about losing all of our DVR stuff with today's installation...
Monday, October 5, 2009
All Part of My Fantasy: A Diplobrat Throwdown
Score for the week: Roppongi Moose 81.53, Squid 66.77
My MVP: Philip Rivers (QB, San Diego) with 21 completions, 254 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 yard rushing, 3 sacks and 1 lost fumble
Melodrama: Plenty of it this week. I'll pick watching Derrick Mason (WR, Baltimore) take a couple of hard hits during his otherwise outstanding game. One was on his touchdown catch. He didn't get up for a little while and I had visions of McNabb's broken ribs from Week 1. After another hit later in the game, he got up limping. I've had ridiculous injury problems to this point. I'm thinking of changing my team name to The Walking Wounded. Luckily, Mason lived to fight another day.
This one was a tough loss to take. My point total was the third highest in the league for the week and I still lost. I suppose the good news is that my team is really pretty good and should win one of these days. The bad news is that I'm 0-4, the only team in the league without a win.
Fantasy football throws my rooting interests completely out of whack. It was informative to watch the Patriots/Ravens game on Sunday. The Pats are my AFC team so, ideally, I wanted them to win. But I wanted the Ravens to score lots of passing touchdowns as I have both of their starting receivers on my team. For once, I actually got what I wanted. Pats won 27-21 and my guys had pretty good games. I have to admit, though, I was more disappointed that my receivers didn't do better than I was relieved that the Patriots won. It appears I am more emotionally attached to my fantasy team than I am to an actual NFL team which I generally favor. I have yet to see if fantasy football could lead me to root against the Redskins, the team I grew up watching. That would be the true test.
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
The Home Stretch: In Search of a New Rooting Interest
Of course, the big question for the Cubs is what new ownership will bring. The Cubs are a strong brand in baseball. Unfortunately, the caretakers of the past have been more than happy to market the team on the lovable loser label. It has been a profitable approach for a long time. Hopefully the new folks will take more interest in actually winning. Championships can be great for the bottom line, too. Given the chance, there's no reason why the Cubs couldn't become the new Yankees.
With the Cubs eliminated, I lack an obvious rooting interest for the playoffs. Here I am deep in the heart of Red Sox Nation and I just can't bring myself to become a Boston fan. I've tried. I always root for them to beat the Yankees (lesser of two evils). I was delighted when they finally won the World Series and I rooted for them against the Rockies for the second one. But when they took on the Rays last year, I just couldn't do it. The Cinderella story was too good. A rooting interest is a complex emotional reaction. Sometimes, it's best not to question it.
If the current standings hold, I think I'll go with the Rockies to start. I like it when teams who've never won finally do.
Monday, September 28, 2009
All Part of My Fantasy: Mork Calling Orson
My MVP: Derrick Mason (WR, Baltimore) with 5 receptions, 118 yards and 1 touchdown
Melodrama: Vernon Davis (TE, San Francisco) had a monster game with 7 receptions, 96 yards and 2 touchdowns. Why is this melodramatic? Because I had him sitting on the bench. That's 15.84 points in our league and I couldn't use them.
I cooked up a trade with the Commish to resolve my quarterback fiasco. I gave up more than I wanted but in the end, I had Philip Rivers - not too bad. Unfortunately, I'm now looking at an 0-3 record. What burns me is that I've racked up more points than some of the teams who are enjoying 2-1 records. I would have beaten two of the teams who won this week with the points I had. The schedule has not been my friend.
Can't help wondering what a fantasy league might look like in a completely different arena: Fantasy Symphony, for instance.
"I've got problems, man. My 2nd chair french horn (Vienna) is out with the flu and I don't think I can make up the points with my weak viola section. I guess I could pick up that bassoonist on waivers who's playing at Carnegie on Saturday."
Or Fantasy Congress (one that passes good laws in a timely manner - yuk, yuk):
3 points for voting YES on a bill that passes
5 points for writing the bill
2 points for appearing on Meet the Press
4 for appearing on Colbert
-10 for an indictment
and so on...
Sunday, September 27, 2009
The Home Stretch: My Wife and Her Cubbies
For me, the Cubs have always seemed my best shot at drawing my wife into my sports interests. She calls herself a Cubs fan. She's certainly a fan of the brand: a sticker on her car and a plastic beer mug. She even gave me a t-shirt. But in reality, I think she mostly likes the Cubs because they remind her of Chicago. She used to live near Wrigley. She doesn't actually like to watch the games, you see. She thinks of them as a great opportunity to take a nap, even believing that if she watches, they're sure to lose. That's the funny part to me. She wants them to win. She just doesn't want to have to watch.
Nonetheless, I think I have a shot if they ever make it back to the World Series. Even today, she looked up from War and Peace a couple of times to cheer an extra-base hit by the Cubs or boo a single by the Giants. Will she ever be a summer-long fan? I am quite sure the answer is no. But someday, I hold out hope that we'll find ourselves watching a game together in late October and she'll have more than a passing interest.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
All Part of My Fantasy: My First Foray
There are 18 teams in the league: gargantuan by fantasy standards. 16 men and 2 women. All but one attended a small, quirky liberal arts college in the midwest in the early '90s. There is quite a range in how well I know them. A few, I would consider close friends. Others, I barely remember. Some, not at all.
It has been a great addition to my life in that it provides a means by which to be in touch with all of them again. For that reason alone, I regret not having done it sooner. I am a little freaked out, however, by how easy it is to take all of this way too seriously.
My first week opponent was the Commish himself. I first remember meeting him in the dining hall freshman year. I was friends with the kicker for the football team (also in the fantasy league) and he introduced us. Commish and his lovely future wife (fellow alum and league member) were very hospitable to me when I moved to New York at 25 and, more importantly, introduced me to my own bride.
Score for the week: Commish 69.16, Squid 59.24
My MVP: Santonio Holmes (WR, Pittsburgh) with 9 receptions, 131 yards, 1 touchdown
Melodrama: Donovan McNabb, my starting QB, goes out with a broken rib.
Fantasy football makes you wish for weird things. I had the lead going into the Monday night games but he had three players left to play whereas I had none. I was hoping for alien abductions before kickoff but that plan fell through.
My second week opponent was someone I've not seen since graduation. Good guy, though, and we share a love for Japan. He was there for all of his junior year. I spent two years there after college.
Score for the week: Waseda Alum 52.24, Squid 51.16
My MVP: Kellen Winslow (TE, Tampa Bay) with 7 receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown
Melodrama: Matt Hasselbeck, my backup QB, starting for the week, goes out with a broken rib. I have no third QB. Commish tells me he's never seen anything like it before. The mad scramble begins.
This one was quite exciting - suspenseful until the very last play on Monday night. I had a hefty lead going into the game. I had the Indianapolis defense. Waseda had Miami RB Ronnie Brown. Unfortunately for me, Brown had a phenomenal game: 24 carries, 136 yards, 2 touchdowns. The Colts had an interception on the last play of the game which won me a point but it wasn't enough.
Now I have the QB problem. I think I've worked out a deal to solve it but nothing's definite yet.