Friday, December 31, 2010

On the Road: The Shaw Shuffle

As has been our tradition of late, we made the train trip down to DC for a few days after Christmas. Miraculously, we managed to avoid the huge snowstorm in New Jersey on the 26th to make it through virtually without incident.

As noted in an earlier post, I find myself at a point where I want to redefine my relationship with the city I grew up near. Our Girl is suddenly no longer interested in sightseeing, preferring to find adventures with Grandma around the Kalorama neighborhood. But Washington is a fascinating city and despite having grown up nearby, I don't feel I know the town as well as I should. And so, I intend to plan more purposeful explorations for future visits.

No matter what cable news would have you believe about the political scene, African-America is far and away the predominant cultural force in the nation's capital. And yet, just as in many other cities in the United States, Euro-Americans and Afro-Americans live, for the most part, in entirely separate communities. However, Shaw, the heart of DC's Afro-American community, is only a few blocks away from my parents' neighborhood. Duke Ellington was Shaw's most famous native son, born on T Street. On Wednesday, our last full day in Washington, I planned a "city hike" to Shaw, following the "Shaw Shuffle" walking tour set out in the Lonely Planet (3rd edition) guide to Washington. Despite their proximity, my parents had never explored Shaw either so it was a good opportunity for all of us to know the city better.

First stop was lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl, a DC institution. My father was the only one among us who had ever been before. I had the chili burger and a strawberry shake - both excellent. The walls are covered with photos of celebrities on site, ranging from Hillary Clinton to Bill Cosby. In all, we managed a hearty meal for five for just over $30 - not bad at all. We arrived before noon - a good choice. On the walk home, we tried to stop for a shake for Our Girl but the line already went out to the curb. (Don't feel too sad for her. She was perfectly happy with the ice cream and chocolate sauce she got back at my parents' place.) Ben's proved to be the highlight of the tour for me.

Unfortunately, we did not make it all the way through the tour. People, mainly Our Girl, had run out of steam by the time we got to Dunbar Theatre, stop #11 out of 15 on the Lonely Planet tour. We'll have to tackle the rest another time. We never were able to find the African American Civil War Museum which seems to have moved locations a couple of times. We'll make a separate trip for that one at some point, too.

The walk back to Kalorama proved fruitful as we discovered Hana Japanese Market at 17th and U Streets. I love Japanese grocery stores, as they tend to be the only places in the US which carry the sorts of products one can find at any corner convenience store in Japan: Pocky sticks and green tea ice cream as well as a much wider than normal range of sembe crackers and noodle products.

As long as I'm plugging restaurants and other local businesses, my parents took us to the wonderful Himalayan Heritage Restaurant for dinner our last night in town. It is one of their favorites, serving authentic Nepalese and Indian cuisine.

As for future city tours, I hope we'll do the rest of the Shaw tour sometime. Also, my father has offered to show me where the Spanish Steps are down near Embassy Row. They're definitely not where Lonely Planet says they are! Beyond that, I think further exploration of the area around Kalorama would be great. I'll see how much of the city I can explore without getting on the subway.

On the Coffee Table: Mark St. Amant

One of my Christmas presents from my mother-in-law was Committed: Confessions of a Fantasy Football Junkie by Mark St. Amant. The book is a funny and engaging read about the author's own quest to win his league's title. Predictably, the book has also inspired introspection of my own fantasy sports obsession and my place within the hobby.

I am pleased to say that in reading St. Amant's book, I have been assured that there is no shortage of people who take fantasy football a lot more seriously than I do. Furthermore, the two leagues of which I proudly call myself a member are pretty low-key despite occasional bravado. St. Amant writes of how fantasy football has brought more fans to the NFL itself and I can certainly say that is the case for me. As I wrote last year, I gradually lost interest in professional football after the first Joe Gibbs Era in Washington. The fantasy game brought me back last year and I'm quite confident that I've watched more football in the past two years than I had in the previous ten. My Wife isn't too happy about that but she is, in fact, the one who encouraged me to try it. More on that later.

In one sense, I can't help feeling St. Amant's disapproval in that I am definitely MORE a fan of the fantasy game than I am of real football. As I have written, I have discovered this season that I care more about my fantasy team winning than I do about the Redskins winning. I feel differently about baseball. I can watch an Orioles game and completely forget about all fantasy implications. That said, 25+ years from now, will I remember my fantasy baseball title this year with the same fondness as I have for the Skins first Super Bowl win? Not a chance. It's been a long time since my NFL team was any good. I might feel differently if they were. Then again, the Orioles have been bad for longer and that doesn't seem to be an issue. Hmm...

While I feel that in general, I am less obsessed with fantasy sports than St. Amant or others whom he describes in his book, I must confess to an anxiety dream that I had the other night. I was trying to draft a baseball team and could not for the life of me bring up my lists of middle infielders - very frustrating!

I do disagree with St. Amant on two points. He is not a fan of over-emphasis on defense in fantasy football whereas I feel that the inclusion of IDPs in the college league this year has only enhanced my enjoyment of both the fantasy game and the NFL. He also is very dismissive of Yahoo! leagues. While I'll admit that I have no basis for comparison, they've certainly worked for me. As I've written before, I don't think the hobby would have been nearly as much fun for me before it became primarily web-based.

Committed is at its best when St. Amant writes about fantasy football widows and his own long-suffering wife Celia in particular. My Wife hates football with an intense passion and, out of consideration for her, I do make an effort to limit my own game-watching. The fact that she tends to go to bed early makes for a nice compromise. There are plenty of night games in the NFL and more often than not, the fantasy results for the week come down to what happens on Sunday and Monday nights. So, I manage to get my fix without annoying her too much. Worse for her than the games, though, is the pregame shows, which I need to watch all too frequently for game-time injury reports. Perhaps I should sort out a better system for that next year.

My Football Fantasy: 2010 Season Review

It was another fun year in fantasy football for me, if not a particularly successful one. In fact, despite more extensive preparation, I did worse than last year. As I've said in previous posts, I should probably take a lesson from my baseball success. My strategy for baseball this past season was a very simple, self-devised one and it carried me to the championship. Depending on how it works for me this year, I might be willing to share it. The first step will be to see how it works out for the head-to-head format we have planned for this year in baseball. If that succeeds, I hope to be able to adapt it to football as well.

Season MVP

Player: Frank Gore
Position: Running Back
Team: San Francisco 49ers
Season Stats: 203 rushing attempts for 853 yards and 3 touchdowns, 46 receptions for 452 yards and 2 touchdowns and 2 lost fumbles

Image via

For the second year in a row, a 49er was my best player (tight end Vernon Davis in last year's campaign). Gore was my first draft pick in both leagues and he was a very dependable back until going down with a broken hip in Week 12. When he got hurt, he pretty much took my playoff hopes in the Vermont league with him, though I'm fairly confident his own disappointment exceeded mine. He was well on his way to another 1,000 yard rushing season with five more games to play. His numbers were still pretty darn good for an 11-game season.

League Comparison

The most significant differences between my two leagues are in the rosters:

1) The college league uses IDPs (Individual Defensive Players) whereas the Vermont league does not. I like having them for the very simple reason that they led me to watch defenses with far greater interest this year. One cool thing about IDPs is that the most dependable players are inside linebackers and safeties, not exactly the most glamorous positions on a defense. In both cases, their job is to finish plays, i.e. make loads of tackles. They don't get the sacks that other positions rack up, nor as many interceptions as the corner backs. They are the workhorses upon which every team depends and they deserve the attention that fantasy football brings to them.

One odd thing about having IDPs is that you typically root against their teams. After all, if the team's offense is on the field, it limits the points your IDPs can accumulate. With team defenses, the opposite is true, as points against play a more significant role in scoring.

2) The college league bench is very skimpy: 4 spots for 12 starters. The Vermont league had the Yahoo! default: 6 spots for 9 starters. Clearly, learning to manage the short bench will be key to future success against my fellow alums.

Commissioner Notes

There wasn't too much griping in the football league amongst the Vermonters - in fact, none. However, in my own opinion, the draft could use some improvement for next year. An unfortunate portion of our league auto-drafted this year. In hindsight, scheduling the draft for the first week of school in a league including several teachers may not have been the best plan. I think I'll schedule for the previous week next year, assuming they'll have me back. The draft, even if it's online, is the most important social event of the fantasy football season so it's worth getting it right.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Football Fantasy: Irrelevant Dominance

College League: Squid wins, 111.24-50.95 (11th place finish)
Vermont League: Squid wins, 138.52-62.68 (9th place)
My MVP: Josh Freeman (Quarterback, Buccaneers) with 21 completions for 237 yards, 5 passing touchdowns, 2 sacks and 4 rushing attempts for 23 yards

Oh sure, everything comes together for my team right when it matters the least. I was the Greatest Fantasy Victor in both leagues. Where was this kind of luck three weeks ago?!!! Big excitement looms in the college league. Husband (last year's commish) and wife (Wild Turkey) face off in the championship this weekend. Their current projected points are within one point of each other! I hope all tensions will have cooled by the time we see them over MLK weekend.

Freeman had a great game but in truth, he's been a pretty solid quarterback for me ever since I added him to my college league squad mid-season - not spectacular, but dependable. Will he ever be a superstar-level QB in the NFL? Maybe, maybe not. But he could be good enough for the Bucs to build up the team at other positions

Friday, December 24, 2010

Bowl Season: Looking at the Big Picture

If things continue as they have, Hawaii will be the first Vegas odds favorite to lose this bowl season (they're currently down by 20 in the 3rd quarter against Tulsa). I must admit I've had a poor first week. I've only picked two games correctly: Northern Illinois in the Humanitarian Bowl and Boise State in the MAACO Bowl. Hawaii was my pick in tonight's game. If the current result holds, I'll be firmly in last place.

However, I did learn last year that one must look at the big picture with the bowl season. The real number to watch is not points scored but possible points, based on what we've scored thus far plus what confident points are still available going forward. Looking at matters in that light, a Hawaii loss is not such a horrible thing for me. As they were a heavy favorite coming into the game, a few in my group staked much higher points on the game than I did. If Hawaii loses, I'll be in 6th place out of 10 in possible points. If they somehow come back and win, I'll be in 8th place. All else being equal, I'd rather be right about the pick but there is a silver lining.

Tulsa's still up 48-28 at the end of the 3rd.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My Football Fantasy: The Journeyman

College League: Squid loses, 81.18-66.18 (will play in the 11th place game next week)
Vermont League: Squid loses, 83.36-77.50 (will play in the 9th place game)
My MVP: Jon Kitna (Quarterback, Cowboys) with 305 yards passing and 2 touchdowns plus 11 yards rushing

Photo via Bleacher Reporter

Just one week to go for me in each league. I was within range in the Vermont league going into the Sunday night game. A bigger game from Danny Woodhead (running back, Patriots) would have done it for me but no such luck. In the Iowa league, it was already over for me after the Sunday games. My opponent had the lead with Julius Peppers (defensive end, Bears) still to go on Monday night.

Even though he had his great game at the expense of my team, the Redskins, it's hard not to love the Jon Kitna story. For starters, he is one of very few players in the league who is older than I am. The guy played at an NAIA college, went undrafted in 1996, played in Europe for a year and has since put together a 14-season NFL career. He's spent most of that time in the relative NFL backwaters of Seattle, Cincinnati and Detroit. Tony Romo goes down with an injury and here Kitna is playing lights-out football for the league's most glamorous franchise.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bowl Season: A Day for the Favorites

A new bowl season is upon us, and once again I am in a pick'em league. Our group is bigger this year: up to ten from six last year. I brought a couple of my own friends from outside the usual Mock & Cousins circle: one Tree Farm friend and one high school pal. Hopefully, I can improve on last year's last place finish.

Sadly, I'm off to a slow start: just one for three on the day, assuming Troy manages to hold on to its current 41-14 third quarter lead. It has not been a good day for upsets. All three games were/are heavily tilted towards the Vegas favorites. I was right about Northern Illinois but lost with UTEP and, thus far, Ohio. Fortunately, my confidence point risk has been low: just six points today out of a potential 630. So, there is plenty of room for growth.

48-14, Troy leads. 6:36 to go in the third.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Football Fantasy: Not Quite the Spoiler

College League: Squid wins, 74.98-72.23 (4-10 overall)
Vermont League: bye week
My MVP: Adrian Wilson (Safety) who had a great game (11 solo tackles and 1 pass defended) for my team defense, the Arizona Cardinals (13 points allowed, 3 interceptions and 3 fumble recoveries)

Photo via Cardinals Gab

My victory this week was not enough to pull me up out of the league cellar. I still finish the regular season in last place. And so, it's on to the consolation playoffs. I almost got to play spoiler to my opponent, Special Dinner, but he ended up scoring enough points to finish just ahead of Roppongi Moose, the seventh place team. SD makes the playoffs, RM is the top seed for the consolation bracket.

I feel for the Houston Texans this morning. Their Monday night game against the Ravens was almost a classic. Coming back from 21 points down to force overtime was impressive. The interception touchdown to end the game was a horrible let down. At the very least, they deserved a more dignified defeat.

Consolation semis in the Vermont league this week. I will face Mock's stepfather. Mock lost in the championship quarterfinals but The Breeders won.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Army-Navy 2010

Inspired by John Feinstein, I watched the Army-Navy football game today for the first time in ages. Unfortunately, it wasn't much of a game. Navy beat Army for the ninth time in a row. But on a day when a new chapter is added to the Cam Newton story, a tale that exemplifies everything that's wrong with college athletics, it's good to be reminded that the service academies embody everything that is right about them. It's been a great football year for the military academies, too. For the first time ever, Air Force, Army and Navy are all going to bowl games. As a Marylander, I am partial to Navy. Annapolis is one of my favorite towns in the whole world.

Image via World Latest News

Earlier this year, I read Feinstein's book The Last Amateurs, an account of basketball in the Patriot League, of which Army and Navy are both members. The schools in the league are all academics-first programs, highly unusual in Division I basketball, to say the least. They are the only two schools in the league which also play FBS-level football. Feinstein also wrote a book about the academies' football rivalry: A Civil War. I haven't read that one yet but it's on my to-read list.

Life at the military academies is brutal and unforgiving and the football players are spared exactly none of it. To be sure, these young men are of a different quality from those at other top-flight athletic programs. For starters, even athletes have to have good grades to gain admission. Then they must survive a system designed to drive away the timid. And, of course, there's the military commitment at the end, the trade off for the federal government footing the bill: not exactly the ideal arrangement for anyone with NFL aspirations.

In light of this, how can one help but admire these sensible people? Not only are they sacrificing the comforts they would enjoy as student-athletes elsewhere in order to serve the greater good. They have also chosen a path which will assure them of gainful employment at the end of four years, showing far more foresight than most college students, athletes or no.

Of course, the Army-Navy game is about a lot more than football. Just today, while out Christmas shopping, I overheard a conversation between two veterans about how people's attitudes towards the military have changed during their lifetimes. One, from the Vietnam era, spoke of how people used to spit on them when they came home. The other, a generation younger, spoke of how people near his base in Kentucky would pay for your gas if they knew you were in the service. I've certainly experienced that change in my own life.

Despite going to high school in Bethesda, Maryland, home to the Naval Hospital, I didn't know a lot of active military personnel growing up - certainly not many with combat experience. As it was the post-Vietnam era, there was still general mistrust of the military and in my youthful idealism, I certainly didn't give it much thought as a career path. There was one Marines recruiter who called several times during my senior year of high school. I finally had to tell him that as a scrawny, non-conforming pacifist, I probably wasn't his man.

But I did have one childhood friend who went to Annapolis. We'd had many political arguments over the years but the discussions left the realm of the abstract once he entered the academy. To say his college experience was different from mine is an absurd understatement. The philosophical conflicts came up within him, even writing to me once that he hoped he'd never actually have to kill anyone - sobering, to be sure. But he stuck it out, eventually becoming a helicopter pilot. While I was a carefree bachelor in Japan, he was flying humanitarian aid missions in Kosovo. From an actual e-mail to me at the time: "we're unarmed. I hope they know that!"

Now, as a teacher in a small town, I know quite a lot of students with parents in the military. Many have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and I can attest to the fact that stress on the families is very real. Tragically, some in the community have been killed in action. Needless to say, my own feelings about the military have changed quite a lot over the years as a result.

It's a good time of year to be thinking about those currently serving. As we all endure the stress of the holidays, we should keep in mind those who are far from home serving our country in circumstances few of us can fathom. I leave you with a song written during the Second World War for those serving abroad:

Sports Flicks: The Tenth Inning

Thank goodness for DVR! Through it's magic, I was able to finish Ken Burns's The Tenth Inning last night. The new documentary picks up approximately where his epic masterwork Baseball left off: the early 1990s.

Image via GetGlue

Burns did a reasonably good job of choosing material on which to focus but some of it is puzzling. First-ballot Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, for instance, barely warrants mention. The powerhouse Toronto Blue Jays of the early '90s are briefly glazed over in favor of the Braves and Yankees dynasties which followed.

At first, I was puzzled by the fact that a lengthy intro of Barry Bonds was followed immediately by a very brief feature on Ken Griffey, Jr. But over the rest of the documentary, I came to understand why. The story of Bonds is very much the story of the era and Burns does a nice job of exhibiting that, coming back to Bonds as the other themes of turn-of-the-century baseball unfold.

Photo via

I teared up again watching the Red Sox finally winning the World Series in '04. As previously discussed, while I live deep in the heart of Red Sox Nation, I've never been able to fully embrace the team. They do, after all, inhabit the same division as my Orioles. But I was very happy for them, and all of my friends and neighbors, when they finally won. Now that they've emerged as a power of the age, I can safely go back to detesting them.

I feel that Burns's treatment of the steroids issue is very fair. I have long felt that the steroids story has become merely a player witch hunt, mostly ignoring the fact that the commissioner, the union, the owners, management and, indeed, journalists themselves played a complicit role in the scandal. Burns does a nice job of holding everyone's feet to the fire.

Photo via Farther off the Wall

The new documentary deserves high praise for including a healthy dose of Costas. Among sportscasters, I believe that Bob Costas is in a class by himself. He is easily the most articulate commentator in the business. NBC could send him out to cover a craps game in the back alley and he would bring respect and dignity to the assignment. For all of the enthusiasm he brings to every sport, Costas is first and foremost a baseball man. When discussing his favorite game, his eyes light up and he becomes the proverbial kid in the candy store. Plus, Costas was right about steroids - long before anyone else was ready to make a story out of it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My Football Fantasy: Out of the Running

College League: Squid loses, 83.44-57.17 (3-10 overall)
Vermont League: Squid loses, 98.12-94.80 (6-7)
My MVP: LeSean McCoy (Running Back, Eagles) with 44 yards rushing, 1 rushing touchdown, 86 yards receiving and 1 receiving touchdown.

Photo via Bleed Green

The regular season is over for the Vermont league. I'm out of the playoffs but I will be the top seed for the consolation round. I suppose that's something. We have one more week to go before the playoffs in the college league. I am the cellar dweller and can only play to salvage pride at this point. Nowhere to go but up!

And so, rather than thinking about what I did differently between the two leagues, I should be thinking about how I approached the baseball season. For football this year, I did a lot of research on strategies and it got me nowhere. For baseball, I invented my own strategy and won the title. Perhaps I will see how I can adapt it to football next year.

McCoy has had an awesome year. Unfortunately, I haven't always reaped the benefit. If there's one thing I did right this season, it was drafting RBs in the Vermont league. I came out of the draft with Frank Gore (49ers), Pierre Thomas (Saints), McCoy, Felix Jones (Cowboys) and Darren McFadden (Raiders). I've had some trouble with injuries and some underwhelming results from Jones but ultimately, I was strong enough at the position that I was able to trade McFadden away without hurting myself. The downside, however, was that I haven't always been able to start McCoy and he's had some very big games this season. So it goes.

I get this week off in the Vermont league. I await the winner of a matchup between Mock's brother and their stepfather. Meanwhile, college bowls are right around the corner.

Monday, December 6, 2010

On the Coffee Table: Steve Brewer

I just finished End Run: A Drew Gavin Mystery by Steve Brewer. Mystery is not usually my genre but I really enjoyed this one. It definitely kept me guessing, too. I thought I had it figured out but was wrong. I realized the truth at the same point that the protagonist, Drew Gavin, did.

Image via PaperBack Swap

I picked this book up, along with Olympian by Peter L. Dixon, from a free book exchange shelf at the Tree Farm this past summer. While Olympian was underwhelming, End Run was good fun. Character development, in particular, was much stronger with this one. You don't learn too much, even about Drew, at once and you get glimpses of little quirks here and there: his love for '50s rock'n'roll, his disdain for baseball and so on. I really grew to care about the characters and how the story ended for each of them became important to me.

Gavin is a sportswriter by trade who inadvertently gets caught up in a murder case. He is himself a former college football player and the story centers around a plan to bring an NBA franchise to Albuquerque. The dangers of sports gambling are also integral to the narrative.

I was a big mystery fan as a kid. I liked Encyclopedia Brown a lot, but my favorite series was The Three Investigators. The genre hasn't held as much interest for me as an adult. I've dabbled: a little Agatha Christie here, a bit of Nero Wolfe there. But End Run has me thinking that perhaps I should read more. My Wife is a big mystery fan so we have plenty of them around the house. Sigh... Too many books, too little time.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Baseball Funnies: Who's on First?

Baseball has served as artistic inspiration in several media but has had perhaps its most significant impact on the world of comedy. Abbott & Costello's "Who's on First?" is arguably THE masterpiece of sketch comedy. We recently showed it to our daughter for the first time and, although I'm not sure how well she followed the whole joke, she genuinely enjoyed the basic wordplay at its heart. "I Don't Know - Third Base!" was a running gag at our house for a week afterward.

I can't tell you much about the routine's history beyond what you can learn from the Wikipedia entry. I love the fact that there was once a board game based on the sketch! I know I first learned about it from a friend in high school who went on to an acting career in New York.