Baller status

My oldest son wrapped up his football career this past weekend, on Senior Day at his high school.

He had never played organized football before his sophomore year. His school is small to begin with, and the number of players trying out for football keeps shrinking (the specter of CTE looms large, plus lacrosse and club soccer are gaining in popularity), so during his sophomore year they couldn’t field a JV team. That meant he spent his entire first season busting his butt in practice with zero chance of ever being on the field. In his junior year, he played for the JV squad. It would be easy to get discouraged when you’re older than most of your teammates, but he kept working. Off-season lifting. Two-a-days. Practice virtually the entire year… in addition to holding down two jobs this summer.

This past season, he started at right tackle for the varsity, played every offensive snap, and wound up making 2nd team all-conference. I’ve always been a bit anti-football as a parent… I DO worry about concussions and other injuries. But I have to admit that his football experience will serve him well in the game of life… you have to be patient, you have put in the hard work before you can reap the rewards, and there will be setbacks along the way… the ol’ “nothing good comes easy” adage. And I’m sure some of the friendships he formed on the gridiron will last a lifetime.

I’m super-duper proud of him (but not proud of the fact that I just used “super-duper” in a sentence). And I look forward to seeing what the future holds for the kid who was #76 in the program, but #1 in our hearts.

Win or go home… actually more like win AND go home

Sorry to have back to back blog posts about baseball (you’re getting very sleepy….), but the recent spate of manager firings seems preposterous.

Dusty Baker – you finished first in your division in both years as manager of the Washington Nationals.  Congratulations! Oh, and one other thing:

John Farrell – you made the playoffs 3 of the 5 years that you managed the Red Sox  – including this year (and one of the other years you were out with lymphoma) – and won a World Series. Great job. P.S.:

P.P.S. We’re replacing you with someone who has zero managerial experience. Here’s some salt for your wound.

Joe Girardi – your Yankees made the playoffs in 6 of your 10 years at the helm, you won a World Series, and you lost in 7 games to the AL champion Astros this year. Fantastic. Here’s a gift for you:

Seems like anything short of winning the World Series is grounds for dismissal these days. That’s absurd. You can do a masterful job managing 25 millionaires over a 162-game season, but if your team is edged out in a 5- or 7-game playoff series by another squad that’s slightly better, slightly luckier, slightly hotter or all of the above, you get the axe?

I hope the Yanks, Red Sox and Nats all stink next year… that would be karma.

 

Wake me when it’s over

“One of the craziest games you will ever see” said the TV announcer

“Wasn’t that the best game ever!?” said the Astros’ third baseman.

“It was an emotional rollercoaster” said the Dodgers’ manager.

“This is an instant classic and to be part of it is pretty special” said the Astros’ starting pitcher.

“The craziest game that I’ve ever played in” said the Astro who hit the game-winning two-run homer in the 11th inning.

8 home runs – a World Series record – including three by the Astros in extra innings, also a postseason record for any team. A game-tying home run on an 0-2 pitch in the top of the 9th against a closer who was previously untouchable.

And I didn’t see a lick of it.

My dad was a huge Dodgers fan, so I’m happy they’re in the World Series. I spent several summers in Houston and have relatives there – even went to one of my first MLB games at the Astrodome waaay back when – so I’m happy they’re in too. But the games start past 8 p.m. and typically go until midnight (or later when it’s extra innings). I know I won’t be able to see the ending, so why bother with the early innings? It’s like walking out on Star Wars before Luke flies toward the Death Star.

I know TV ratings (and revenue) rule the roost, but if MLB wants to capture the attention and hearts of the next generation of fans, they need to figure out a way to start the at least a couple of the World Series games earlier, or else it’s just the sound of one hand clapping.

 

Cheaters never prosper… except at the University of North Carolina

Tonight the University of North Carolina will take on Gonzaga for the NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship. The Tarheels are favored to win. And speaking of favoritism, there’s been very little press about the UNC decades-long cheating scandal where hundreds of athletes (especially in the revenue-generating sports of basketball and football) took sham/non-existent classes to boost their GPAs and maintain their eligibility.

News of the scandal broke way back in 2011, thanks to Raleigh’s News & Observer newspaper, which reported that an incoming freshman football player had been enrolled in an upper-level African studies class and received a high grade. That transcript ultimately exposed 18 years of fake classes, most of them created by Deborah Crowder, a clerical employee in the African and Afro-American Studies Department. UNC’s internal investigation blamed Crowder and a “rogue professor,” Julius Nyang’oro, and claimed that no one on the athletic side (AD, coaches, tutors, athletic advisors, et al.) knew anything about it. Which just ain’t so. The latest NCAA allegations (which came out in December of last year) say UNC and the athletics department “leveraged the relationship with Crowder and Nyang’oro to obtain special arrangements for student-athletes in violation of extra-benefit legislation.”

“Many at-risk student-athletes, particularly in the sports of football and men’s basketball, used these courses for purposes of ensuring their continuing NCAA academic eligibility,” the notice said.

But the only current article I can find about it is from the New York Times – it’s a great read. You’d think there’d be more talk of it, especially in light of the fact that UNC won two national championships during the years in question. This year’s group of athletes wasn’t part of the scandal, but you could rightly argue that if the NCAA had handed down any sanctions (postseason bans, scholarship reductions, etc.), this year’s team might not even be playing.
Funny how the NCAA is so quick to slap penalties on players and programs for the most minor of infractions, but in this case, with widespread, systemic cheating, it’s been radio silence. “Too big to fail”?
 

 

 

X Marches On!

My beloved Xavier Musketeers pulled off another upset last night (actually one a.m. this morning for most of us), rallying from 8 down in the second half to knock off #2 seed Arizona, 73-71.

Speaking of Bill Murray, his son Luke is an assistant coach for XU, and Bill has attended every tourney game, cheering on the Muskies. After they won last night, Bill celebrated by giving a good-natured “noogie” to the elderly woman in front of him…

That woman happens to be a nun – Sister Rose Ann Fleming, who as the longtime academic advisor to Xavier athletes, has as much to do with their success in the classroom as the coaches have to do with their success on the court.

Xavier has graduated every senior men’s b-ball player since 1986. (That’s the year I graduated… concidence? I think not!)

After the game, Bill Murray summed up how the game played out very well.

Beating Arizona in the Sweet 16 was pretty sweet too. Their coach, Sean Miller, left Xavier for Arizona several seasons ago. He was, and still is, a fantastic coach, and I have a ton of respect for him. Xavier coach Chris Mack was an assistant under Miller and they are great friends. Mack was less than thrilled about having to face his mentor for the 2nd time in 3 years:

But there’s one comment Sean Miller made that sticks in the craw of many XU fans. After he left Xavier for Arizona, he told a recruit it was like going from a Buick to a Lexus. Grandma has a message for him:

Now Xavier plays Gonzaga in the Elite 8. Two small Jesuit schools that have had great basketball programs for the past couple of decades… and one of them will finally reach the Final Four for the first time. So either way, I’ll be happy, but I’ll be happier if X marks the spot.

 

How Sweet 16 it is

Xavier pulled off another upset in the NCAA tourney last night, trouncing #3 seed Florida State 91-66 to punch their ticket to the Sweet 16. It’s been a rough season for the X-men. Senior guard Myles Davis started the season with an indefinite suspension, missed the first 15 games, returned for 3 and then left the program for good. Their super soph point guard Edmond Sumner blew out his ACL halfway through the year, and leading scorer Trevon Bluiett hurt his ankle and missed a couple of games and was ineffective in a few more after returning. Not surprisingly, those injuries led to a six-game losing streak toward the end of the regular season in the brutal Big East.

However, the Musketeers showed signs of life in the conference tournament and squeaked into the NCAAs as a #11 seed. They upset #6 Maryland in the first round, and yesterday they played what was easily their best game of the season.

 

It’s so true that in college basketball, “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.” Now Xavier will take on Arizona, coached by Sean Miller… who left XU for ‘zona about 8 years ago. The odds are against them once again, but I don’t care, because they’re playing with house money now.

I don’t know why they call it “March Madness”

Taking two days off work and setting up 4 TVs (and a laptop) in your living room to binge watch college basketball games for 12 hours straight each day sounds perfectly sane to me.

Just remember to root for the team favored by award-winning actors everywhere:

So far, so good…

 

 

Dat Dude BP

The Cincinnati Reds traded second baseman Brandon Phillips to the Atlanta Braves a few weeks ago, in a youth movement/salary dump move (even though the Reds are still paying almost all of his salary). I’ve never seen a better defensive second baseman… he made amazing plays on a daily basis. Barehanded. Leaping. Diving. Over-the-shoulder. Behind the back. Between the legs. A true magician with the glove.

 

He even tagged a guy out behind his back and between his legs once – it’s one of the photos I use for my blog header.

 

More importantly, he never lost his youthful enthusiasm, love of the game and respect for the fans. In an era of prima donna players, “Dat Dude BP” was easily the lovable and most accessible Reds player. I took my sons to dozens of Reds games when they were younger, and we’d go down behind the Reds dugout prior to the game in hopes of getting an autograph or three. Most players would completely ignore the kids yelling their names, or half-heartedly and hastily sign two or three autographs before retreating to their dugout cocoon. But BP would greet the fans before every game, and sign autographs for as many kids as he could, flashing his megawatt smile the entire time.

“The thing about Phillips is that there is obvious joy in his game,” says Will Leitch, senior writer for Sports on Earth and New York’s go-to sports scribe. “He’s always having a good time. That’s extremely appealing.”

“This ain’t a career. This ain’t a job. This is fun,” Phillips recites, mantra-like, over a glass of ice water in the Art Deco confines of the bar at the Netherland. “I wanna smile out there. Some people like the old-school way. Nah, you gotta show some emotion.  The fans feed off that.”

(From a Cincinnati Magazine article in August of 2013)

Heck, BP even showed up at a Little League game once thanks to a Twitter request. And had some fun with hecklers in Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty wrote a nice column about BP after the trade. Here’s an excerpt:

And yet it’s impossible, if you are a Reds fan, to say you won’t miss him. Phillips was a fixture along the railing before games, signing autographs. He was a mainstay in the community. When most of his well-known teammates were enjoying a full winter break, Phillips was boarding a bus for places like Parkersburg, West Virginia, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, as a member of the Reds Caravan.

Brandon Phillips Field was the first baseball field built under the auspices of the Reds Community Fund. Phillips, along with Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, was also a prime financial supporter of the team’s Urban Youth Academy.

“In this day and age, he’s a rarity,’’ said Charley Frank, the community fund’s executive director. Even in recent years, when Phillips’ contract didn’t mesh with the team’s reboot, “He was still out there making fans feel wanted,’’ said Frank. 

Phillips hit anywhere he was needed in the lineup. As a cleanup man, he hit 30 home runs. As a leadoff guy, he stole 30 bases. Phillips played hurt frequently and never made a big issue of it. He played at least 141 games in 10 of his 11 seasons here.

He approached baseball with a child’s heart. Some didn’t understand that. Some found it bogus, some thought it was a self-serving act. Old Schoolers didn’t care for Phillips’ flair, though the truth is, baseball needs all the flair it can get.

Even after he was traded, he still showed some love for Reds fans.

I understand the economics of baseball for a small-market team like the Reds. But our whole family — and all Reds fans — will miss Brandon a bunch.

 

 

 

Super-conflicted

I’m torn about which team to root for in today’s Super Bowl, sponsored by JET LI.

(Wait, I’ve just been told that the “LI” in “Super Bowl LI” is actually Roman numerals… my bad. Better luck next year, Jet. And Jets.)

Normally it’d be a no-brainer because I can’t stand the New England Patriots. It starts with their GQ pretty-boy quarterback Tom Brady, who just happens to have a supermodel wife, and already has so many Super Bowl rings that he probably uses half of them as door pulls on his kitchen cabinets. And then there’s the evil Darth Vader  head coach, Bill Belichick, who is a genius with Xs and Os and player moves, but a complete jerkwad outside the lines, especially to the media. Throw in a “Gronk” (yeah, I know he’s hurt but his frat-boy specter still looms large over the entire franchise), a complete pest like Julian “Short Man’s Disease” Edelman, and a bunch of no names that come up big when it counts (looking at you, Malcolm Butler) and it’s very easy to hate the Pats, especially if you live outside of New England and like to root for the underdog. Oh yes, and as a Raiders fan I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the infamous “Tuck Rule” playoff game.

 

But I’m super-conflicted this year because one of the New England Patriots cheerleaders is the daughter of my first cousin. (Does that make her my second cousin? First cousin once removed? Cousin to the nth degree?)

   

Jamie is super-nice and very funny. She grew up in New Hampshire, she now works in Boston and she’s loved to dance since the time she could walk. So it totally makes sense that she would be a Pats cheerleader. But c’mon, this is the Evil Empire we’re talking about.

  

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady chats with Donald Trump (Photo by Donna Connor/WireImage)

I guess I’ll have to split my allegiance… I hope the Patriot cheerleaders have a flawless game, and I hope the Falcons beat the football Patsies by a gazillion points. (Even though I know that odds are the Brady mansion kitchen cabinets will have a little extra bling very soon.)

 

Walk-a-thon

Here’s the definition of traveling from the NBA Rule Book:

Section XIV-Traveling
a. A player who receives the ball while standing still may pivot, using either foot as the pivot foot.
b. A player who receives the ball while he is progressing or upon completion of a dribble, may use a two-count rhythm in coming to a stop, passing or shooting the ball.

But NBA officials rarely call traveling, especially on superstar players. Watch this clip below where Russell Westbrook takes about 5 steps before dribbling. What’s funny to me is how long it takes the ref to call it… seems like he only does it because the opposing team (and coach) are screaming for it… and how Westbrook gives the ref some side-eye after the call, like it was a bad call, when clearly he walked halfway across California.