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.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Those Big Brains at ESPN

I get most of my sports news on TV and online at ESPN, which is at best a mixed blessing.  These guys have so much time to fill and you have to give them their props--though they spend endless hours bloviating, they do seem to work at the details--they seem to know every player in every sport over the age of eight. 

They are obsessed.  March Madness is made for them. But in the end they're like the rest of the cable pack--they're baying wolves.   I happened to be watching when the last four of the 64 teams to be included in the NCAA March Madness college men's basketball tournament were announced.  These guys were apoplectic about several of the choices, made by some NCAA board I don't understand, and don't have long enough to live to care about.  But they were offended by some of the choices--notably a school called VCU---which I think is Virginia Commonwealth University.  They couldn't understand how this team could be picked.

What was fascinating about this was that they were virtually unanimous, all those experts.  At a certain point they seemed to be feeding on each other, each guy getting angrier by the second.  Some questioned the integrity of the process, intimating that prejudice was involved, hinting perhaps that money changed hands.  They were especially offended that not enough basketball experts were involved in the decision.  You know, experts like...them.

So they were angry and offended that VCU even got into the tournament.  They didn't deserve to be among the 64, and it was terrible what this choice meant for the boys who really deserved to be there.

Now those 64 teams are down to four.  Gone are the top teams, the #1 seeds and the usual favorites: Ohio, Kansas, Pitt, Duke, North Carolina, Florida.  So who is left?  VCU.  They've beat a team from just about every conference, and in most cases, beat them handily.  VCU, who the experts at ESPN said didn't even belong in the first 64, is in the Final Four.

Now Kentucky is the only big school left that's a media favorite--so naturally the ESPNers now favor Kentucky to win it all.  It's VCU and another small school, Butler, a team that shocked everybody at ESPN last year.  And UConn.  Now you don't have to be an ESPN expert to expect the women's finals to be UConn vs. Stanford, with UConn winning by six points--although maybe not this time. If Stanford brings its A game, they could pull the upset.  But nobody picked the men's Connecticut team for the Final Four, and personally I think they have a good chance to win it all.

But who am I.  I'm not an expert like those guys at ESPN.      

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

RIP That Championship Season

Before any more time goes by, I wanted to say a few words about Chuck Tanner, who died a few weeks ago.

From the first time I dimly understood what baseball announcer Bob Prince was talking about on the radio, I was a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, growing up and forevermore (even if I follow the SF Giants a lot more closely these days.) Of all the managers the Pirates had since the 50s, I remember three: Danny Murtaugh, Chuck Tanner and Jim Leyland. Of those three, Chuck Tanner was the only one I met.

I interviewed him in his Pirates office for a piece I was doing for the New York Times Magazine on the relationship of Pittsburgh and its sports teams in the season after that championship year of 1979. I'd been in the clubhouse before and after a game, and it was afterwards I was finally ushered into his office. "Hello, son," Tanner said, with a smile. "What can I do for you?"

I don't remember anything else about the interview except that aura of a really, really nice guy. And so I wasn't surprised to read in Pittsburgh Post Gazette sports writer Ron Cook's memorial column that "Tanner did the right thing as much as any man I've known. He was, simply, the kindest, most decent person I've met in sports."

Tanner was manager of the 1979 "We Are Fam-a-lee" Pirates of Willie Stargell, and other players who projected a positive-feeling image, like Bill Robinson and Tim Foli. That 1979 team had a sense of possibility and even of destiny (I recall an interview on TV with Bill Robinson late in the season when the Pirates were behind Montreal and he said fans shouldn't worry, the Pirates would win the pennant, it was meant to be.) At the same time, the Pirates could be an overpowering team, especially with Stargell and the team's semi-official bad boy--Dave Parker--in the lineup. And Tanner was a wily baseball manager. All of that would come into play in the World Series when the Pirates were down 3 games to 1 to the Baltimore Orioles. They became the first team since 1906 to go on to win the Series, and they did it on the road. Bookended by the Steelers consecutive Super Bowl wins, Pittsburgh was the City of Champions.

There was a dark side to those Pirates that Tanner could be faulted for not seeing, or for overlooking. It was in later years that the players using cocaine were exposed, but the locker room on one of my visits in 1980 showed the signs--particularly (but not only) Dave Parker, who before a game manically threatened to cause me bodily harm if I quoted him, and after the game meekly apologized. But Tanner was still manager when that hit the fan in the 80s, and Cook says he always stood by his 1979 players.

Tanner was the last Pirates manager to win a World Series, and that distinction is likely to remain his. Over a beer in the press mess at Three Rivers Stadium in 1980, Harding Peterson, the Pirates General Manager, layed out for me the Pirates dim future: in a small market in the middle of other small markets, and in an area that wasn't growing in population or wealth, the Pirates ability to compete for players' payrolls with big market teams was dwindling.

The Pirates did manage one more world class team in the early 90s--the fabled Outfield of Dreams team (Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke and Barry Bonds)--but after winning the division, the Reds and the Atlanta Braves would always break our hearts in the championship series. The worst was in 1992, when the Pirates were one strike away from going to the World Series, only to lose improbably and dramatically, and for the city, tragically. Everyone knew that the team couldn't afford to keep the Outfield of Dreams together. Now the Pirates have been a losing team for 18 straight years, a record for a professional sports franchise.

Chuck Tanner managed in Atlanta for a few years after leaving the Pirates in 1985, but the Pirates were always special--he was a Pittsburgher born and bred. He remained a popular and sunny figure in Pittsburgh and in baseball, and in recent years worked for the Pirates as a consultant to the general manager. He'll always be associated with a special time in Pittsburgh, and he will be remembered as among the best that Pittsburgh had to offer. He died in February at his home in New Castle, PA. May he rest in peace.