Friday, April 30, 2010

Rome: Night Tennis on Clay

If I were to make one suggestion to the French Open organizers as to how to improve their event, it would be night tennis. Why not? It would ease scheduling problems tremendously. And, it looks cool!

So, Ernests Gulbis crashed the all-Spaniard party in the semifinals. The big Latvian was due for a breakout tournament. We saw him play in Montreal once. We were on an outside court and thus I have firsthand knowledge of what it's like to have one of his serves coming right at you. With the nature of his game, it's actually a little surprising that his break through has come on clay.

I've done reasonably well with my picks so far. Both of my finalists, Nadal and Ferrer, are still alive. I might have a chance at a decent finish this time!

On the Road: Washington, D.C.

Our Girl and I took the Vermonter down to Washington this week to visit my parents. My folks live in the city now. When I first left home for college and people would ask me where I was from, I'd say the DC area, figuring that was an easier reference point for people than telling them I grew up in Maryland. But when my parents moved, that all changed. Part of it may have been a sense of loyalty to our old house but it's more a matter of realizing that the world where they live now is completely different from the world where I grew up. Since their move, I've always referred to myself as a Marylander.

My daughter loves DC. She's a huge fan of the Capitol Building, in particular, and also enjoys the Smithsonian and the National Zoo. But increasingly for her, DC time is all about time with Grandma. They've grown quite close over the past couple years and often seem to have little projects going when we're all together: making jewelry, learning about Japanese characters or just running errands around the neighborhood. This trip, in particular, confirmed this new reality in regards to our DC visits. Our Girl didn't do any sightseeing this trip. We never even made it south of Dupont Circle except to go to the train station.

Day One

The new exciting thing in my mother's life is the recently opened Wilson Aquatic Center, adjacent to Wilson High School in Tenleytown. She goes several times a week and has even joined a swim team. She was very eager to bring Our Girl along as they have a very nice kids' pool. Historically, Our Girl has been nervous around water but, as ever, was delighted to tag along with Grandma.

It was my intention to join them the first day but my mother had advised that I leave my wallet behind at the apartment as she did not have a lock for me to use. As it turns out, non-DC residents must have a photo ID to use the pool so I was out of luck. My mother initially offered to drive back to the apartment for it but as I was losing patience with the situation and sliding into a worsening mood, I suggested that they go without me. I would find other entertainment in the neighborhood. Feeling guilty, she gave me $20 to amuse myself in the interval. So, the ladies went swimming and I went for a walk.

In theory, Washington is the city I know best in the world. But without a map in a neighborhood unfamiliar to me, I decided to stay on Wisconsin Avenue and not stray too far down the side streets. I headed northwest towards Friendship Heights, a part of town I know far better from my teenage years.

DC is not the most accommodating city for pedestrians but it's good to explore it on foot from time to time. You miss things in a car: hole-in-the-wall shops and restaurants easily overlooked at high speeds. Who knew there was a traditional Arab dance studio?

Unfortunately, the walk I took is one from a reasonably colorful part of town to a ritzier but far more boring part. Back in the '80s and '90s, Friendship Heights was already well on its way to becoming the upscale shopping district in DC and there are plenty of new Gucci-esque stores in the area now. I made it all the way to the Maryland/DC line before heading back. I had half a mind to see if I could make it all the way to my old high school in downtown Bethesda and probably could have if I'd started at a faster clip from the beginning.

One wonderful change since my childhood: people wearing baseball caps for a Washington team. The Nationals aren't the greatest but they're here.

Meanwhile, Our Girl had a blast at the pool. Grandma reported that she grew increasingly brave the longer they stayed, particular when other kids were around to play with her. Our Girl said she wanted to come back to the pool everyday. I was also in a far better mood after my constitutional.

Back at the ranch, Our Girl settled in for a snack and some quiet play time so I headed out for some bookstore exploration. My parents live in Kalorama, allowing easy access to both the Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle neighborhoods so there's no shortage of independent shops around. I had two goals: a used copy of Prince Caspian, since we had nearly finished The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on the train ride down, and a book on teaching kids how to play checkers. I hit Idle Time Books, Kramerbooks and Second Story Books. I never did find a checkers book (does anyone have one to recommend?) but I did find a decent copy of Caspian.

Day Two

My father found a couple of extra padlocks so we all went to the pool the second day. It really is a very nice facility and extremely kid friendly with family changing rooms and, indeed, a very cool kids' pool. It's a bit like the ocean, starting at puddle depth and very gradually descending to 3 feet, allowing someone like my daughter to test deeper waters as her confidence grows. There is also an NCAA-regulation lap pool and a hot tub for adults. Plus, it's all free for DC residents.

Our Girl was a joy to watch in the water. She and I took a swim class a couple of years ago together and her greatest accomplishment was not screaming on the last day of class. She's like a different kid now, even brave enough to put her face under the water. We're planning to do a Red Cross level 1 class for her this summer and this seemed to bode well.

I am not much of a swimmer myself. I can get from point A to point B but the two strokes I use - crawl and breaststroke - are, I am certain, highly flawed. Plus, I'm horribly out of shape. In my more adventurous mid-20s, I took a scuba course in the Philippines and part of the certification was to swim unaided for, I think, 200 meters. It was a pathetic struggle but I did it. I vowed to get in better swimming shape after that but that was - gasp! - 12 years ago. One of my goals for this summer is to work exercise into my daily routine. Perhaps swimming can be a part of it. I did four lengths in the 20 yard pool at Wilson.

In the afternoon, Our Girl and Grandma went to run some errands so I headed out for another walk, this time taking the Embassy Row walking tour outlined in the Lonely Planet guide. It had been a while since I've explored that part of town and it has actually changed a bit in the past few years. A lot of the embassies have raised stakes and moved off of Massachusetts Ave. to a new compound near Tenley Circle, including the Pakistani Embassy as listed in the guidebook. There is another error in the 3rd edition: no Spanish Steps at 23rd and Decatur.

Embassy Row is really quite a lovely neighborhood as many of the embassies are housed in beautiful turn-of-the-20th-century mansions. A couple of my favorite buildings in Washington are on the route: the Islamic Center and the French Ambassador's residence. The Islamic Center is unique in Washington and is probably best viewed from Rock Creek Park as one sees the minarets rising above the trees. The mosque is there to serve the diplomatic community though it is evidently a bit snobby, as embassy service staff is generally turned away. The ambassador's residence may be the most impressive looking house in town, White House included. The one embassy that has personal meaning for me is the Japanese at 2516 Mass Ave. It is where my own Japan adventure began.

The diplomatic community is a strange one in Washington: in the city but not exactly of the city. I am reminded in wandering around, however, that it's not too far removed from the life my own family lived until I was 3. If my father had made different choices in his career, I could have lived more of my childhood in such isolated neighborhoods in foreign capitals. Rome would have been his next assignment. He turned it down in favor of a career in the domestic service branch of his agency. As such, I got to spend 15 years of my childhood in one house. For that, I am grateful.

Day Three

Back to the pool. I got a bit braver myself, swimming a single length of the 50 meter pool. I will admit to getting a bit freaked out in the deep end with 13 feet of water under me. I started to worry about my wedding ring, which has flown off in class a couple of times in my more exuberant teaching moments. What a pain that would have been to retrieve! Note to self: leave it in the locker room next time. If I were to get more serious about swimming, I'd want to take a lesson or two to clean up my strokes.

In the evening, I made the highly disappointing discovery that my parents don't get the sports channels in their TV package. Not even ESPN! There is, of course, no reason why they should as I'm the only person in the family who would ever watch but it was very frustrating in my effort to catch a glimpse of Game 7 of the Capitals/Canadiens series. In the end, I had to settle for the live box score on

Even without television, it's a very different experience to follow a team when you're in the hometown. For starters, no publication is as brutal towards a team as is the local newspaper. Some of the best sports writing I've ever read was in Washington Post columns about the Capitals' disastrously poor history in the playoffs. The Post staff was in rare form this week as yet another season unraveled before our eyes.

I can't believe the Caps blew it yet again. All of the criticism being leveled at the team, the coach and even Captain Ovechkin is richly deserved. It has become clear. Of the Big Four, Ovechkin and Backstrom are the keepers while Semin and Green just don't have the guts to be leaders in the playoffs. In the off-season, a trade for a top-notch goaltender is a must and digging up a few battle-tested defensemen would be good, too. The blue liners don't need to be superstars. They just need to be willing to do the little things it takes to beat the league's best when it matters most. Mike Green, for all of his talent, just isn't that guy. There's simply no excuse for playing so well in the regular season only to implode in Round 1 of the playoffs. It's embarrassing. Just wait until next year? I'll believe it when I see it.

But back to our trip...

I think it's wonderful that Our Girl has bonded so completely with her grandmother. In truth, people are far more important than places and I'm glad she has found this meaningful relationship in her life. For me, however, I still feel as if I've barely scratched the surface in DC. There are parts of the city which I don't know at all and it would be a shame not to explore them, if only on my own. But perhaps I should take a hint from my daughter and invest in relationships at the same time. I'm sure I could convince my father to come along for some of my explorations. A new Lonely Planet guide has just come out, perhaps a good occasion to begin a new relationship with the city.

Monday, April 26, 2010

All Part of My Fantasy: Rome Picks

Semis: Federer vs. Nadal, Ferrer vs. Djokovic
Final: Nadal def. Ferrer

How great it would be to have a Federer-Nadal match after 11 months without! How strange that it would be a semifinal rather than a final. We shall see.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

All Part of My Fantasy: A Find at Second

Week: April 18-24
Current standing in league: 2nd out of 12
My Player of the Week: Rickie Weeks (2B, Brewers) with 1 home run, 8 runs, 5 RBI and a .370 batting average
Melodrama: Trade traffic is high.

There are many differences in league personality between this group of guys and the group of college friends with whom I played fantasy football last fall. The biggest difference I've seen is that these guys love to trade. I expect for them, it's more than half the fun of playing. In our football league, I think there were about five total trades all season, two of them mine. For that group, the art is in playing the waiver wire.

Weeks has, to this point, been a real find at second base. It's one of the most difficult positions for finding offensive production, both in fantasy baseball and in real baseball. It is one of four everyday positions where you absolutely must have a player who can handle the defensive responsibilities, the others being catcher, shortstop and center field. You can hide a bat on the sides, but not going up the middle. You could try putting a Manny Ramirez at second but you'd lose every single game, no matter how well he hit. It's no great mystery why Alfonso Soriano hasn't played second in years.

All the more reason for me to appreciate Weeks. He's 27 years old and the former #2 overall draft pick is surely ready for a breakout season. He missed most of last year due to injury. He's been making up for lost time so far in April.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Checking in with the Capitals: The Burden of High Expectations

The playoffs perfectly exemplify why I prefer the NHL to the NBA, even though I would generally consider myself to be far more a basketball fan than a hockey fan. The NBA has a few upsets from time to time but for the most part, the league always gets the match up it wants in the final series and the champion is always the highly marketable team everyone expects.

In the NHL, on the other hand, it's genuinely a whole new season once the playoffs begin. 1- and 2-seeds losing in the first round? It seems to happen every year. A 4-seed winning the whole thing? Why not? Usually, I would consider this situation to be marvelous. But when my own team is top dog, it makes me more than a little bit nervous.

Anyone who follows hockey at all surely knows that the Washington Capitals cruised through the regular season this year. They easily set a franchise record with their point total and claimed their first President's Trophy. Unfortunately, history still isn't on their side. Never mind the fact that the team's playoff history is peppered with crushing disappointments, the overpowering Caps have a glaring weakness: goal tending. A top-notch netminder is the one absolute essential for a Cup run and while Jose Theodore and Simeon Varlamov are both very talented, neither has been especially consistent. One must remember, too, that historically, the President's Trophy winner usually does NOT win the Stanley Cup. Only seven times has a team won both in the same year. As great as the Caps have been all season, it's only too easy for the devotees to imagine the dream slipping away for yet another year.

It's not panic time yet, of course. Even with tonight's loss, the Caps still hold a 3-2 edge in their series with Montreal. Should they win the series, their next opponent is already known: the Flyers, their arch-rivals back in the '80s.

I would be remiss if I did not mention how nice it is to see that Versus and DirecTV worked everything out in time for the playoffs.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Monte-Carlo: Egg and Bacon

Rafael Nadal wins Monte-Carlo. The sun rises in the east.

Rafa sure made it look easy today. Verdasco's no chump, either: #12 in the world and certainly better than that on clay. For crying out loud, he's one of Rafa's friends which clearly gained him no mercy today. It's not even as if he played that badly. Rafa was just in the zone. I admire Verdasco for his efforts to make a match of it but at times, he definitely had that do-I-really-need-to-be-here-for-this? look about him.

Obviously, Rafa winning the French is no longer a foregone conclusion but today's pounding was a clear warning to all would-be Robin Soderlings in the men's field. On clay, Rafa is still the man to beat.

All Part of My Fantasy

Picking Rafa to win was the easy choice and so the fact that he did gained me little boost in the standings. I finished in the top 69% and now stand in the top 33% in the overall standings. Next comes Rome, set to kick off one week from today.

All Part of My Fantasy: It's Quiet, Too Quiet...

Week: April 11-17
Current standing in league: 1st out of 12
My Player of the Week: Matt Kemp (CF, Dodgers) with 4 home runs, 8 RBI, 9 runs, 1 stolen base and a .348 batting average

Matt Kemp had his four homers over four consecutive games. He was my first draft pick and demonstrated this week exactly why he was worth it.

It's been a quiet week in the league - not a lot of chatter. I suppose I can't expect the action of the first week to sustain over the length of the season. The baseball schedule is, after all, a marathon. We must pace ourselves.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Monte-Carlo: Nadal Going for a Half-Dozen

For the second Masters 1000 tournament in a row, I have successfully picked three of the four semifinalists. And Nadal, my champion, is still alive so I can still rack up a few more points before it's over. If Nadal wins, it will be his sixth consecutive year winning the event. King of Clay? No doubt about it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sunday Wrap-Up: Clay, Ice and Vernon Davis

All Part of My Fantasy: Monte Carlo

My picks for the first big clay court tournament of the year...

Semis: Djokovic vs. Andreev, Ferrer vs. Nadal
Final: Nadal def. Djokovic

Picking against Nadal on clay is just silly, even in a down year for him. He is the five-time defending champion at this event.

Rock Stars

Medalists at the World Men's Curling Championship:

Gold: Canada
Silver: Norway
Bronze: Scotland

The USA finished fourth, a huge improvement on their last place finish in Vancouver.

Vernon Davis Is Way Cool

Vernon Davis, MVP of my fantasy football team, honorary captain of the USA curling team and the most Web-savvy athlete I have encountered, has further endeared himself to this blogger by partnering in doubles with Serena Williams at the First Annual Williams Invitational at Beach Gardens Tennis Center.

All Part of My Fantasy: Play Ball!

Week: April 4-10
Current standing in league: 5th out of 12
My Player of the Week: Garrett Jones (RF/1B, Pittsburgh) with 3 home runs, 6 RBI, 4 runs, 1 stolen base and a .263 batting average
Melodrama: conflict over the league veto over trades

I am in a fantasy baseball league this year with Mock and company and, somewhat foolishly as it turns out, took on the role of commissioner. I just chose the default settings when setting up the league and have already run into problems as a result. Yahoo's default allows league members to vote against any trade made by league members. If a third of the league votes against within two days, the trade doesn't go through. After much gnashing of teeth and a majority vote to make the change, that rule has been eliminated for the time being. Now only the two trade parties involved have a say. We may revisit the matter later in the season so that managers who fall out of the running don't start siphoning good players to their friends.

Apparently, they have run into this problem in previous years and made similar changes. Now, as of this moment, there is a written record. We shall get it right to begin with next time!

On a much brighter note, Garrett Jones, my 20th round draft pick, has had the week of his life and was a huge reason why I was in first place for three days this week. He is the first player in the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise to hit three home runs in the first two games of the season. Thank you, Mr. Jones, for making me look like a genius.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Final Two: What a Game!

Duke is certainly a deserving champion. A strong case can be made for Tom Izzo but I still believe that Coach K is the best in the sport. His teams always play so hard and so well.

What more can you say about Butler? That is one fantastic team. In truth, they play a lot like Duke: tough, disciplined and coordinated. I think what I admire most about Butler is their teamwork. Someone was always ready to step up when players got in foul trouble or went cold or whatever. I agree with Coach K, this is no Cinderella. Butler's a very good team and with only one senior starter, they could well be back next year. The only question: will Heyward stick around? Heyward's Indiana legend was already secure as a high school hoops star. He has now broadened it considerably.

Just imagine if that last desparate heave had gone in!

Butler coach Brad Stevens can now pretty much write his own ticket if he should decide to move up in the coaching ranks. He took the best coach in the country to the wire and I would bet that Coach K himself would write him a glowing recommendation. Stevens is only 33 years old and it would seem that the future is very bright indeed. Should he stay at Butler, I'd say they're likely to contend for many years to come.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Follow Up: Miami and Cortina

All Part of My Fantasy: Miami

I did much better with my Miami bracket than I did with Indian Wells. I picked 3 out of 4 semifinalists, though Nadal lost to Roddick so that was the end for me. I finished in the top 22% in the ATP Draw Challenge, far better than my top 94% showing for IW. For the circuit thus far, I'm in the top 39%. Next up in the Masters 1000 Series is Monte Carlo which kicks off next weekend.

Rock Stars

The USA is 1-2 in a tie for 8th place at the Capital One World Men's Curling Championship.

On the Coffee Table: Pat Conroy

I have just finished My Losing Season by Pat Conroy, a book lent to me by one of the PE teachers at school. The book is the novelist's account of his experiences playing basketball, focusing particularly on his senior year at The Citadel. Conroy was a point guard, a position with responsibilities which he took very seriously.

I see the sports world as a great confluence of stories. Every game is a story. Every player has a story. Every team, every season, every coach, etc. Indeed, every fan has a story as well and that is the overarching theme of my blog. Most of the stories are lost over time. Games are reduced to box scores. An entire era is reduced to a year-by-year list of champions. A book like My Losing Season reaffirms my belief that even a point guard on a losing team in a minor Division I conference has a story to tell, even if he does not possess Conroy's narrative capacities.

Pat Conroy has, in his life, been two things which I would dearly love to have been: a college basketball player and a successful novelist. And yet, I don't think I would trade my life for his if given the chance. I have never read any of his novels but the film Prince of Tides clearly displayed the themes which I know run through his work. I'm sure I carry issues from my own childhood but they pale in comparison with Conroy's burdens. I encountered Prince of Tides at a time in my life when I was already beginning to tire of stories in which the protagonist blamed all of his problems on his parents. But the more one learns of Conroy's own relationship with his violently abusive father, the more one understands the need to exorcise demons by whatever means necessary.

I find it interesting that the last two sports books I have read both deal in depth with complicated father relationships. However, while Andre Agassi came to see tennis as a burden, basketball was Conroy's salvation. His love for the sport is clear throughout the book. His detailed recollection of games going back to high school is remarkable. He does a very good job of bringing the reader into the heated emotional moments of a basketball game. True to form, he spares no detail in outlining the darker aspects of his life growing up. But he never dwells for too long. The joy of the game becomes an escape for the reader as well.

I also find it interesting that such troubled young men as Conroy and Agassi survived the demons of their childhoods by seeking out and finding positive male role models outside of their homes. For Agassi, it was his trainer, Gil Reyes. Conroy found many teachers and professors on his journey who nurtured his spirit and talent. As a teacher, I see a lot of kids whose lives could be improved tremendously by having a better relationship with a father figure. I feel blessed that a few have sought to find that relationship in me and I hope that I have done well by them. I know from experience that, in particular, the boys who seek out such role models stand a far better chance of success in life than those who don't. That certainly has been the case for Conroy and Agassi, and probably numerous other athletes.

On page 323, Conroy writes "My life is chock-full of madelines that send me reeling back on tides of pure consciousness to moments in my life lit up with consequence." I have My Wife to thank for my appreciation of the literary allusion. Madelines are a reference to the first chapter of Marcel Proust's The Search for Lost Time, not the sort of thing a lightweight reader such as myself would normally pick up. My Wife, however, devours books. She tackles writers such as Proust, Tolstoy and Herodotus with gusto. She "made me" read Swann's Way, book one of Proust's epic and as such, I know what madelines and Proustian memories are all about. This, my friends, is a perfect example of why it's important to marry someone with interests different from your own.

And so, I do recommend the book, but only if you have the stomach to read about domestic violence and military college brutality.

Final Four: Hoosier Takes an Interest

It was one of those rare days when My Wife actually took a genuine interest in a game I was watching. My Wife is from Indiana and generally roots for Indiana teams when they play (except for Purdue). She went to IU in Bloomington but has gotten caught up in the Butler saga this year. Despite her general disdain for the sport, she knows more about basketball then she lets on, making well-informed complaints about the fact that no Bulldogs were under the basket as they were launching 3s. What a great story this Butler team has become - the best thing to happen to basketball in years.

I didn't watch too much of the second game and it's just as well. Yes, I've read everything about how Duke is actually a likeable team this year. I still can't stand to see them win - ever. I usually root for them against the Tar Heels but that's it.

The stage is set for a great final. The NCAA men's final became my favorite annual sporting event in the mid-to-late '80s when the game was dependably thrilling. While the Super Bowl was always a blowout, college basketball delivered up five consecutive classics: Villanova-Georgetown, Louisville-Duke, Indiana-Syracuse, Kansas-Oklahoma and Michigan-Seton Hall.

The '85 Villanova win is considered by many to be the greatest college basketball game ever played and it was magnificent - though heartbreaking from a Hoya fan perspective. I watched it under very unusual circumstances. I was in the sixth grade and our class was at Outdoor Ed, an annual retreat to the Maryland woodlands. A few of the obliging (and, in hindsight, misguided) male teachers let some of the boys sneak out of bed to watch the game with them. I recently asked a few old friends if they remembered that night and one of them said, "No, I don't remember that. I was too busy thinking about girls." I'm glad to see at least one of us had his priorities in order.

Rock Stars

The Capital One World Men's Curling Championship is underway in Italy. Here is the official site for those who wish to follow along. USA lost its opening game to Canada, 6-3.