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.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Bowled Over

The last time a Steelers quarterback threw two interceptions and lost the Super Bowl, he was gone before the next season began. That would be the still infamous Neil O'Donnell back in the 90s. That's an unlikely fate for Ben R. since this offense is built around him, but his style means that he gets beat up, and he wasn't 100%, nor was Troy P., again whose style of play invites injury.

But I can't comment much on the Super Bowl since I didn't see it. I saw moments of it, but the first few commercials were so disgusting that I just recorded it, and peeked once in awhile (when I did, something disastrous invariably happened for the Steelers, so I gave up). Now I have no plans to look at the recording. I'm observing myself moving away from the game. I didn't watch even much of the playoffs live, mostly fast-forwarding through the recordings. Part of it is the useless expenditure of emotional energy over a bunch of millionaires, whose victories or defeats affect my life very marginally if at all. Yet there is this history of that emotional identification. I remember actual sleepless nights over fumbles or dropped passes, by players whose names I can barely remember, in those long years between Bowl appearances. And I was supposedly an adult by then. The phenomenon of fan identification has fascinated me for decades, and it's been worth exploring, both within myself and especially outside. But if it leads to such a bloated tawdry spectacle as the Super Bowl, I wonder.

So at this point it's less a deliberate decision to back off than something I seem to be doing, despite my interest in the game. Same thing with basketball. They were a fun way to waste time, and learn a few things. Maybe I've learned those few things, I don't know. It's time's winged chariot, too. As I wrote to someone recently--a line I think I'll keep: there aren't too many more floats in this parade.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Super Surprises

The sports pundits are reaching their consensus, which the game may well mock. It often does. What would be the surprises?

For the Packers: if they effectively run the ball.
For the Steelers: if they drop back in coverage more than they come after the quarterback.

Expectations now are for a high scoring game, despite the reputable defenses. So the surprise would be 14-10.

Expectations are that Rodgers will play well indoors. Surprise will be if he doesn't. Perhaps the concentrated Super Bowl dazzle gets in his eyes.

Of course the biggest surprise for the pundits would be: the Steelers win.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Super Bowl Ahead

Judged by the team and player merchandise sold, the Steelers are the most popular NFL team in the world--one writer insists they are the real "America's Team." But a poll claims that most people are rooting for the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl.

That pretty much says it all about two teams that are a lot like each other, and enter this game pretty evenly matched. Even the fans and their towns are similar. The Green Bay coach has a stronger Pittsburgh accent than the Steelers.' He's from a few streets away from where I last lived in the Burgh.

Pittsburgh is relatively small and Green Bay is even smaller, and they both lost a lot of people when industries faded (Pittsburgh more I'd guess.) For this and other reasons, their fans are spread out. There are a lot of Steeler fans who've never even been to Pittsburgh, but there are a lot of ex-Pittsburghers who stay in touch to some important degree through the Steelers. Like me, or this woman.

As for the game itself: when a reporter asked Big Ben how he won the championship game he replied, "luck." He's a smart guy. Luck is going to be important on Sunday. But though the Packers are still favored and have the offense to even run away with this one, I'm still giving the edge to the Steelers because of their Super Bowl experience. You saw it this past week already--while the Packers were publicly fighting among themselves, the Steelers were talking each other up, and otherwise pretty quiet. And with a little luck...

(The photos by the way tell a lot about that Super Bowl legacy--that's Franco and Rocky presenting the league trophy after the Jets game, and the scene after the last Super Bowl win.)

Both teams have particularly devoted fans, which led the New York Times to check with mental health professionals, and found that those in Wisconsin and PA are on high alert:

Therapists in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are prepared. Most have seen plenty of people who suffer from what could be called Football Attention Neurosis (F.A.N.), in their practices, in their living rooms, and sometimes in the mirror.

“The belief that these patients have is that the world will end if the Steelers — uh, I mean, their team loses,” said Mark Hogue, a psychologist at Northshore Psychological Associates in Erie, Pa., who owns a trunkload of Pittsburgh Steelers paraphernalia, including a Snuggie. “As a therapist, you need to take that fear seriously.”

(The rest of the piece is pretty funny.)

But there is a very ugly side to Super Bowl madness. Apart from bad behavior at the games (while on average it may not be worse than before, from what I've heard the worst of it is much worse) there's the dark side of the Super Bowl as an event. And I don't just mean the maddeningly frequent and long commercials (or the fact that they are why some people watch the game at all.) There is growing awareness that trafficking in human slaves, often children, especially for sex is a growing problem, and as the San Antonio Express News put it: "As thousands of fans flock to Texas for America's biggest sporting event, human traffickers are preparing to bring in hundreds of women and children to serve as sex slaves for what is also America's biggest sex trafficking weekend." Another report says that this involves children as young as 11, and that these children have a life expectancy of seven years after they are first trafficked.

The federal government is taking this seriously, as are officials in Texas and in Dallas itself. But some charge that the NFL itself is resisting. Personally I was unaware of this, and I expect a lot of football fans are as well. The NFL and its teams need to talk about this, because theirs are likely to be the most powerful voices to shame it out of existence.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Against All Odds

With the score 24-0 in the first half, it was looking like my kind of game. But of course the Steelers had to make it way too interesting, hanging on to defeat the New York Jets 24-19, aided by a gutsy goal line stand and some brilliant first downs when it counted most to end the game.

Diehard Steeler fans had to be ecstatic with that first half, especially because of all those yards on the ground, watching Rashard Mendenhall run like the reincarnation of Franco Harris (kind of hard since Harris was there, doing the ceremonial coin toss with his running mate Rocky Blier.)

So the Steelers will face the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl. Green Bay has already been installed as the favorite, which continues the theme--it's become a cliche, but few really counted on Pittsburgh to get to the Bowl this year, including me. Meanwhile the Packers weren't very impressive on Sunday. They beat a second and then a third string Chicago quarterback, and the third stringer almost beat them. Rodgers, like Big Ben, had a sub-par game, but both made plays when they most needed to. Even so, I'd give the edge to Ben in quarterback play on Sunday.

I'm also inclined to give the edge to the Steelers in the big game, based on their experience, their team play, and Big Ben. He threw some dumb passes on Sunday, but he never gives up, and he's been tested. Rodgers can be brilliant, but he and this Green Bay team haven't been really tested. The unknowns as usual are injuries and the flow of the game on that day. The Steelers lost their young center Maurice Pouncey, and that probably hurt them in the second half. He says he'll play but nobody will know that yet. Anyway, get ready for the hype.

Congratulations Pittsburgh. I can hear you singing: the Steelers are going to the Super Bowl!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

It's Why They Play the Games

So much for that Atlanta-New England Super Bowl. Both #1 teams lost this weekend, convincingly. The closest game of the weekend was the Steelers coming back to win over the Ravens. Since the Jets beat New England, the AFC championship game will be in Pittsburgh, the Steelers v. the Jets.

After a crisp early drive and a touchdown, the Steelers gift-wrapped 14 points for the Ravens and were down 21-7 at the half. But then they cashed in three Ravens turnovers in the third quarter, and drove to a touchdown to win it in the fourth, with a not-soon to be forgotten 3rd and 18 pass to young speedster Antonio Brown. Looking to the future, the Steelers may wind up with the most potent deep threats in the league, with Mike Wallace and Brown.

So it wasn't 40-31 but 31-24 was still beyond most expectations. Still it wasn't really a shootout since most of the scoring on both sides came from turnovers and a shorter field. But here's what was clearly true: Ben Roethlisberger is a better quarterback than Joe Flacco, especially under pressure.

Speaking of pressure, both the Jets and Steelers will try to make that a big factor next weekend. The Jets used coverage and pressure or blitz packages to throw Tom Brady out of rhythm. The Patriots' offense was kind of a puzzle--it was unrelentingly conservative, except for a couple of big risk plays that didn't pay off. Whatever the Jets defense did, the Steelers better understand it and counter it in prep this week. But the weekend also showed that when it comes to dealing with pressure, Big Ben is better. Specifically better than Mark Sanchez of the Jets.

The Steelers are not a lock to win this game, not against a team that have overachieved to beat two of the highest rated quarterbacks in successive weeks. But the Steelers have a very good chance to win it. In contrast to the Baltimore game this weekend, I think next week's will be a low-scoring affair, along the lines of 20-17. What could well be decisive again is Big Ben and especially his playoff and Super Bowl experience. The Steelers were only weakened by injury on special teams so far, and Troy Polamalu had a quiet game against the Ravens. He didn't play last time against the Jets. I expect he'll make his presence known next week. Tight end Heath Miller also didn't play against the Jets, and that probably cost them the winning touchdown as time expired.

The other league matchup will be Green Bay v. Chicago, one of pro football's oldest rivalries. Green Bay looks unbeatable now, but so did New England until today. What's striking is that except for Big Ben, all the surviving quarterbacks are inexperienced in playoff football. The pressure only mounts week to week. You'd have to say at this point that the Steelers have the best shot. Green Bay would be the stronger opponent for them. But they are fully capable of beating these three teams. They'll have to start though with the Jets.

Friday, January 14, 2011


Wild card weekend was wild but not wild enough: the one clear favorite that actually won was the Baltimore Ravens. Now the Steelers have to face them for the third time this year, for the privilege of being beaten by New England in the championship game, one would expect. But weird things happen.

Anyway, the Steelers at home have the edge but there's really no clear favorite. Anything can happen. The Steelers may be more rested but if they aren't up to speed right at the beginning, a Ravens score early could be the difference in a tight game, as it was with the Jets. Everyone expects a defensive battle. Which means it could wind up being a 41-30 game. Both teams have potentially potent offenses that have occasionally lived up to their potential. That the Ravens had no problem with Kansas City is a confidence boost for them, on both sides of the ball. But the Steelers have put up a lot of points in their recent games.

As for the other Wild Card games, Indianapolis and New Orleans made quick exits on Saturday though both were favored--New Orleans by a lot over the Seattle Seahawks, who still don't have a winning record. By way of explanation, no truer words were ever spoke than these by Colts Qb Payton Manning: "We would have liked to score more points than them." That way they would have won the game, see?

Commentators talk about the Steelers-Ravens game as brutal, more than hinting that the game can hinge on injuries to key players. Both teams are going into the game about as healthy as they've been all year. The question will be how they come out of it. Will the winner still be healthy enough to compete in the next round?

During the week some Steelers players have talked about how their games with the Ravens always come down to the fourth quarter. This is true, but it also may reveal a mindset. The Ravens played on Sunday, the Steelers are rested and are playing at home. They might be thinking that if they can hold off the Ravens for 3 quarters, they can wear them out in the fourth. If the Ravens are worried about their stamina as well, it's more motivation for them to take chances on offense early and try to run up the score in the first half. The Steelers of course would like to score early and often, especially since they know how to defend a lead this year. But just preventing a Ravens score in the first quarter could be a big advantage for them.

Meanwhile, the Patriots know that once they take care of the Jets, they will be facing a tested but probably very beat up opponent--and if it's the Ravens, a pretty tired one as well. But what's interesting for the Steelers and Ravens is that their game is on Saturday, and the Patriots-Jets on Sunday. So when Pittsburgh and Baltimore play, facing the Jets in the championship game is still at least a possibility, more motivation to win, because the Jets are beatable. As long as Brady is standing, it's doubtful that the Patriots are this year. (Still, the Steelers came back against them after looking completely out of their league for the first half, so...but that's really getting ahead of the game.)

Big Ben has never been beaten by the Ravens, and his record in the playoffs is 8-2. You could argue that he's due. But how he plays may be the difference. Though the same may be said of Flacco, or the corners, or... Here's the thing. In many ways, some of them a little eerie, these teams are evenly matched. But that doesn't guarantee a close game. The odds are it will be a heart attack, but a blowout is also possible. It's like very existential, dude.

How about that other league? The winner of the Green Bay-Atlanta game will be in the Super Bowl. I saw some tentativeness in Atlanta against New Orleans, so in a pretty even contest I wouldn't be surprised if Green Bay won. Seattle-Chicago may be the most fun to watch because the game is meaningless. The winner ain't going nowhere past the next round.