Thursday, August 28, 2014

Speaking of Sports: Giants Pitching, Kobe's Satori

After the pitching debacle Sunday, the San Francisco Giants have had an unexpectedly stellar week of starting pitching.  Madison Bumgarner came within one batter of a perfect game.  Tim Hudson came within one batter of a no-hitter.  Then in a start replacing the erratic Tim Lincecum,  Yusmiero Petit set a major league record by retiring 46 consecutive batters (though he did so mostly as a reliever over many games) and gave up only a single run.  The Giants won these three games against a club they should beat that was nevertheless a nemesis this year, the Colorado Rockies.  It took a walk-off homer to win one of them, after again losing the lead in the late innings.

Update: And the incredible starting pitching continued.  A day after Ryan Vogelsong pitched 7 strong innings in a 13-2 laugher, Jake Peavy took a no-hitter into the eighth inning, and wound up with a 1 hitter and the victory--both of these games against the NL Central leading Milwaukee Brewers.

Position players were at last getting some timely hits. If nothing else, this year's adversity has given some rookies a chance, and so the Giants have some young players proving themselves in what had been an aging lineup.  One of the Giants' announcers made a good point after their 13-2 victory: with rookie Joe Panik hitting second after a reasonably healthy Angel Pagan, the Giants have a pretty solid lineup (even absent Brandon Belt.)

Meanwhile, the Pirates took 2 of 3 from St. Louis, so winning the second series in a row against the two teams ahead of them in their division.  Then two straight over the Reds.

In my tape review of the 2004 Lakers playoffs, I'm now on the 5th game of the second round, with San Antonio.  After defeats in the first two games, the Lakers blew out the Spurs in the third, and in the fourth they eventually won handily propelled by a remarkable game by Kobe Bryant, scoring 40 points and dominating the action.  They won the 5th on the miracle shot of all miracle shots--Derek Fisher's swish as the ball was inbounded with .4 seconds on the clock.

 Once again, the tragic dimensions hover.  Not just that again Karl Malone is identified as the key player, or that the rumbles of discontent among the Lakers threaten to intrude.  Kobe played this game hours after flying back from Colorado where he entered a not guilty plea on the charge of sexual assault.  After the game he talked about playing basketball since he was three, and how great it feels to be on the basketball court.  He said the key to the Lakers success was playing every possession as if it might be their last.  Clearly he was talking about himself.  He was facing the possibility of jail, and the end of his basketball career.  Every moment on the court was probably heightened, and precious.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Speaking of Sports: late August

Because I follow the fortunes of the SF Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates, I've noticed what seems an inordinate number of times that they've won or lost on the same day, even by identical scores.  It's probably an illusion, but still...On Monday they both lost home games by the score of 3-2, and both had the tying run on base in the bottom of the ninth.

If it means anything it may be that these are two teams going nowhere this year, both about 5 games out of first and both looking for the same second Wild Card.  I've written before that the Pirates are more likely to be in it than the Giants, and I'll stick with that.  The Pirates are at least nearer full strength, and their valiant two wins against the division leading Brewers in Milwaukee suggest they can't be counted out.  I suspect they're the more exciting team to watch, with at least a little objectivity.

The Giants however appear to be falling apart.  Their tired bullpen got blown out on Sunday, they committed multiple errors in losing to Colorado at home--again--on Monday.  Tim Lincecum has been such a misadventure on the mound since the All Star break that he's been demoted, losing his spot in the starting rotation to a pitcher who has had much more success as a reliever than a starter.  They've definitely lost Scutaro for the season (he may well retire) which thanks to Joe Panik taking over at second hasn't been fatal, but Brandon Belt is still at least a couple of weeks away from returning, and their lineup misses his bat badly for timely hits (though they have been hitting better lately.)

  I've even begun to wonder whether Bruce Bochy is managing too much by the analytics and not enough by who is playing or pitching well on the day.  Lefty/righty percentages work out in the long run, not necessarily in a given game.  Monday in the ninth he pinch hit for a batter who'd hit a home run earlier in the game, and got nothing.

Meanwhile, I've been watching my tapes from the 2003-04 LA Lakers season.  My memory was colored by how it ended--I had forgotten what an amazing team they were at times, when everyone was healthy, including Carl Malone.  Even Gary Peyton, who I never liked, was a major asset in how he pushed the ball and gave the team speed and excitement.  Early in the year and then at the end of the season when everybody was at least back (if not fully healed) they just demolished the best teams in the league.

But knowing how they fell apart in the finals, a lot of this is like watching some NBA version of a Greek tragedy.  Announcers like Bill Walton confidently predicted this team would rule for several seasons to come.  They noted how important Carl Malone was to them, and how Shaq and Kobie adjusted to new roles, and how for all the talk of rivalry, the player who got the most assists for passing to Shaq when he scored was Kobie.

But the season played out with Kobie's legal and personal drama as an ongoing feature.  He seemed superhuman in flying back from court in Colorado to the game and playing extremely well.  But how long could that last without emotions showing up elsewhere?  Then just before the finals started, Malone got hurt again and didn't play.  I'm just getting into the second round of the playoffs, as the Lakers annihilate San Antonio, but I know what's coming.  Which was ignominious and acrimonious losses in the finals, and the subsequent dismantling of the team, losing Shaq,  Peyton, Malone (who retired without playing again), Rick Fox and (for awhile) Derek Fisher and coach Phil Jackson.

Finally, congratulations to Chicago's Jackie Robinson West, the Illinois/Great Lakes Region team, now the US Little League World Series champs. They lost the world title to South Korea. It's been fun and inspiring to watch some of this year's Little League WS. This all-black team of inner city Chicago kids that has their city rooting them on in watch parties across Chicago, as well as the Girl of Summer, Mo'ne Davis, are the prominent stories. But for all the attention (and the incredible mental and well as physical baseball skills of Davis, for instance) this is still Little League. Kids get scared and upset when they screw up, they cry when they lose. Their emotions are part of the game. But it does seem that coaches and officials take a lot of care to recognize they are kids and respond to their needs.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Sporting the Zeitgeist

"But this suggests that there is some future in which the sport can return to its earlier cultural dominance—some series of decisions that will rewire the contemporary American fan’s brain to prefer its intermittent grace to football’s dynamic cruelty."  So writes Ian Crouch in the New Yorker, as MLB gets a new commissioner.  Good piece, but that sentence in particular (and I'm even more a fan of sentences than of baseball) really describes the difference : baseball's "intermittent grace" versus football's "dynamic cruelty," at least as it is played today.  This popular preference in turns says a lot about the American Zeitgeist.

Which reminds me, may as well add to this blog a link to the best basketball piece I've read in awhile, by Bill Simmons on the occasion of LeBron James returning to Cleveland, but it's about basketball genius, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird etc. as well as James.  Haven't read a better piece about basketball since one I flagged here several years ago, about Phil Jackson.  It's also by Bill Simmons.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Speaking of Sports: The Injuries of August

Well, hello again.  I'm back here to post for two reasons.  First, I want to keep this blog active because of its back list--there are some post of real interest from the Bush years here.  I don't want them to disappear if google/blogger decides to purge old blogs.

Second I'm going to write about sports, which I've been doing lately at one of my other blogs, Dreaming Up Daily, but it's a bit embarrassing because I doubt that anybody is actually interested.  I'm doing this for myself mostly.  I mean, I'm following a fairly unique set of teams: namely the Pgh Pirates and SF Giants in baseball, with some interest in the NBA, following the gloomy fortunes of the Lakers for instance.  I note that the last post here was kind of down on following the NFL and the Steelers, but the Steelers are such a part of my backstory that I'll have to follow them, even from afar.  And again, I am in far northern CA now, and there's the Niners.

But I finally did carry through on my "threat" and dumped cable TV.  I was one of the last men in America to get a cell phone, and I'll be one of the last to get a smart phone and their neat sports apps.  So these days I listen to the Giants on radio, and otherwise follow sports online.

So on to baseball...

Right now I'm listening to the Giants first game back home after a so-so road trip, playing a fairly weak team (Philadelphia), and having lost their 3-1 lead in the 8th, the Phillies have scored twice in the 10th.  I can hear the depression in the announcer's voice--they don't believe they can win this one. (And they didn't.) The only bright spot: Michael Morse broke out of his home run slump with a three-run homer, the only scoring the Giants did.

The Giants just haven't bounced back after their disastrous late June and early July.  Once 8 games in first they are 5.5 back to the Dodgers (who fortunately for them lost tonight.)  Injuries have been and remain important.   The ones that hurt were Angel Pagan and Brandon Belt, and Belt is still out.  His hitting has turned out to be crucial. (The top photo is Hunter Pence, who has been one of the bright spots for much of the season, though he's had long dry spells too.)  Losing Matt Cain for the season is probably less important, for the remaining starters are brilliant or terrible for any given game.  But the bullpen exploding started their losing streak in July, and that's recurring.  This game tonight tells the tale.  The Giants are toast.  Unless they unaccountably catch fire immediately, they aren't going to win the division, and it will be a struggle to get a wild card.  (Now I see the SF Chron comes to the same conclusion.)

Right now the Pirates are even more wounded.  They lost Marte for many games, now their best hitter, the MVP Andrew McCutchen is out indefinitely, and Neil Walker has been in and out of the lineup.  They are now losing one run games they used to win.  But they are in better shape than the Giants, and look to remain competitive for at least awhile longer.

So the news isn't good for either team.  That they are both at least theoretically in pennant races makes rooting complicated--for example, that Dodger game tonight with the Brewers.  The Dodgers lead the Giants' division, and the Brewers lead the Pirates' division.  So when it came down to it tonight, I was rooting for the Brewers to lose.  It didn't work out that way, so the Pirates lost a game in the standings tonight.

No news in the NBA except the Clippers ownership seems to be resolved, which means the team and the coach will remain on the job.  I have been following the fortunes of both the Lakers and the Knicks because of the connections to back in the day: Phil Jackson prez of the Knicks with Derek Fisher the new coach,  the Lakers with Kobe and Byron Scott the new coach.  Come to that I guess I'll be checking out Golden State with Steve Kerr the new coach.

I've commented on Dreaming Up Daily on the disastrous decisions the Lakers have made in the years after losing Phil Jackson--one of which was failing to hire him back when they had a chance.  D'Antoni or whoever he was really blew the Dwight Howard possibility.  What a waste, all because Jerry Buss died and his son wanted to make his own mark.  Now he's hired an honored Laker to coach and the season will start with at least the good will of Lakers fans.

What I've actually been watching are tapes of the Shaq and Kobie Lakers of 00-03.  What a team they were!  The last glory game of that era turned out to be the end of the 1st round of the playoffs in 2003, game 6 against Minneapolis.

This was also Michael Jordan's final year as a player, his second for the Washington Wizards.  I was surprised that my memory wasn't quite correct--he was much better than I remembered, and became the oldest player to score 40 pts in a game. I saw the game he did some amazing things, including hitting his chin hard on the floor as he scrambled for the loose ball, only to lose by one point.  And afterwards he went after his team for not playing hard enough.  So when the Wizards dropped back beyond playoff contention, the team abandoned him.  I couldn't watch his last game--I just remember how the rest of the players ignored him, wouldn't pass him the ball, until he took himself out.  And that wasn't the end--he lost his ownership stake and presidency of the team as soon as he quit playing. Painful.

Any good new news?  Well, there's the Little League World Series. The first day gave us the victory of Jackie Robinson West of Chicago in their first game, sparked by three--count 'em, three--home runs (plus a triple) by leadoff batter Pierce Jones. Representing Great Lakes Region as the Illinois state champs, Jackie Robinson West from the South Side of Chicago is the first all-black team to make it to the LLWS in "over a decade" (according to this ESPN report) and the first Chicago team since the 80s. The team is part of the league's urban initiative program begun 15 years ago.  And Chicago is in love with this team.

On the second day of the Little League World Series, Pennsylvania team pitcher Mo'Ne Davis threw a two-hitter to become the first female pitcher to win a LLWS game. She's also black. Apart from the extra-sports significance, these stories are big deals for baseball because the proportion of African American MLB players has been diminishing.  So great sports news and more.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Speaking of Sports, Final Edition?

Talk about storybook: Saints qback Drew Brees broke the record for most yards in single season with a touchdown pass on Monday Night Football in his home stadium, in the city with one of the closest bonds to its football team in the NFL, New Orleans.

It's been a long time since I've posted here, on what had become my sports blog in recent years, since I moved most political etc. content to Dreaming Up Daily.  Partly that's because I'm less and less interested in major league and college sports.  Add up all the bad behavior, the obscene paychecks and money in general, the increasing evidence of physical damage in football, and all the commercials breaking up the rhythm of the games, I'm much less regularly engaged.  Then there's the absence of compelling teams, individuals and stories, at least for me at my age. 

So the whole thing is getting to be a road too much travelled, or, a rut.  The NBA season is starting, and I'm really not interested.  The Lakers are one of the few major teams not to improve themselves with trades, and seem to have gotten worse.  They traded their key sixth man and kept the guy who lost them the playoffs last year because his girlfriend left him.  I don't even look for their scores anymore.  I loathe Miami and although I thought I might find something in the new Bulls, I guess my era is over.  Magic and Kareem.  Michael Jordan.  Shaq and Kobe.  Now it's pale imitations at best. 

It was fun when the Pirates made a little run last season, and the longsuffering hometown fans got to cheer.  The Giants are worth following but not often worth watching on TV.  Nothing much is worth watching on TV, and that's the problem.

The Steelers are in my genes, so I always root for them, but the truth is I can't watch their games, even the few that are available here.  They are just too hard to watch.  From an entertainment perspective, they are simply not fun to watch.  I enjoy watching Drew Brees and the Saints, and I enjoy watching the Packers, and that's about it.  I have a rooting interest in the Niners if they get past the first round of the playoffs, for they seem to have the better chance of making the Bowl.  But I'm about to give up my cable, and my disenchantment with sports viewing is making it easier.    

Monday, May 16, 2011

NBA Degrees

In one of the most ignominious games in history, the LA Lakers defeated themselves out of the playoffs.  It was Phil Jackson's likely last game as a coach, and like Michael Jordan's actual last game as a player, it was a game nobody would want to remember. 

But there's this keeper of a portrait of Phil Jackson in 2011 by Bill Simmons that is the entire excuse for this post.  It's one of the best pieces I've read recently on any topic.

As for the NBA, I'm interested enough to watch the scores and highlights, and I might even watch game 7 of the Bulls-Heat series if it comes to that.  Before it started it seemed to me that the only chance the Bulls had was for the series to go 7, and that's still probably their best chance.  But while winning the first game (as the Bulls did, decisively) is usually important this late in the playoffs, and of course winning the seventh is the decider, the crucial games in how a seven game series goes are usually games 2 and 5.   If the first game winner takes game 2 as well, they will be hard to beat, especially because it means the loser's adjustments didn't work, and that could be fatal.  (Usually in a tight series the loser adjusts for the next game--which is why home court is crucial, and the Bulls have it.)  And especially when the series is tied, the team that wins 5 often wins 7.  So there's a long way to go, and the Heat have the m.o. of looking terrible in losses and unbeatable in wins. 

So just to be clear, I'm rooting for Chicago all the way.  If they can beat the Heat, they can beat the Mavs or the Thunder.  (But what if it's Heat v. Thunder?  The All-Climate Championship?)    

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Take That, ESPN

You picked Kentucky, which didn't make it to the finals.  I picked Connecticut.  Connecticut won.

A great college sports story, too: Connecticut's 11 straight post-season wins, including 5 victories in 5 days in the Big East tournament.

But turns out that following conventional wisdom on women's NCAA bball is just as dangerous.  Both the prohibitive favorites, Stanford and UConn, lost in the semi-finals, on the same day.  Now it's Notre Dame v. Texas A&M.  I'm picking Notre Dame.  Also rooting for them.