The everyday game


Today I got to meet some fans of the game I love. In everyday life, I’m not always very talkative. In truth, I’ll take writing over speaking every time. But when the subject is baseball, that’s a different story. I could talk about baseball all day long.

In the process of talking about the game today, I articulated something that I’ve never thought about too much before. What makes baseball great, in part, is that for six months a year, there are games going on every single day. Football doesn’t have that. Hockey, basketball, and every other team sport makes their fans wait for another game. But not baseball. There’s a game today, there’s a game tomorrow, there’s going to be games on (nearly) every single day until the end of October. And I love that.

Football, in particular, seems to be particularly cruel to its fans. Six days out of every week are devoted to talking about a game, analyzing a game, and doing everything except actually  playing the game. Not so with baseball. Every day is a chance to start over, to do something memorable, or to atone for something from the previous day. And it gets no better than that.

Changing college sports as we know them

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern

Today–March 26, 2014– is the 35th anniversary of the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird title game in the NCAA tournament. I remember watching that game as a ten year-old kid in Springfield, Illinois. It was broadcast on NBC, instead of on CBS. There was no three point stripe, no shot clock, and no possession arrow. The NCAA logo was some silly interlocking letters arranged inside a circle. The game followed a third-place game, where the two teams that lost in the Final Four still had one last chance to salvage something. In short, there were still five men on a side and the team that scored the most points won the game, but otherwise the modern sports fan would hardly recognize it.

And on the anniversary of that game, which arguably changed basketball itself for the next decade, the NLRB handed down a ruling that Northwestern’s football players can vote to form a union. There are many writers and fans bemoaning the ruling, saying that it will “change college sports as we know them.” To which I reply, change happens all the time in life. The NCAA championship game from 1979 (which is within my living memory) is all the proof anyone needs that change is inevitable, in sports and in life itself.

To those who would bemoan the loss of something in college athletics, I would invite them to consider that the athletes on the floor in the basketball tournament, and on the field during the bowl games and in the regular season, are generating millions of dollars for their schools, yet they aren’t allowed to share in any of it. The schools do award scholarships and provide room and board, but they keep the money and in turn make their professional coaches into wealthy men. They give the chattering heads of CBS, ESPN, and a thousand other places something to talk about and write about and take pictures of. They allow the advertisers to reach a captive audience and sell more product. And what do these athletes get in return? Not what they should, if you ask me.

There will never come a time when the NCAA, in its benevolence, decides to share the wealth with the players who do the work and assume the risks. There will never come a time when a school pays for the long-term medical bills of a player who gets hurt playing a game, while wearing their school’s colors. And there will never come a time when a player who can’t keep up with his academics and his team responsibilities is told that academics are why they are in school. Football comes first, or basketball comes first, and everyone understands this. But it’s wrong and it needs to stop.

It’s ironic that the very first Final Four, or the first time that NCAA schools competed on the same floor for a basketball championship, happened on Northwestern’s campus, all the way back in 1939. I know that that was basketball and today’s ruling applies to football, but that’s not the point I’m making here.

Northwestern–my alma mater–showed the NCAA the possibilities that a championship tournament offered. And 75 years later the Final Four, and the tournament leading up to it, is a money-making juggernaut. But what Northwestern giveth in basketball, it taketh away in football and–soon enough–in basketball, too.

If making money from the toil of players who don’t get to fully share in the pie they create seems fair, I will respectfully disagree with that premise. Million-dollar coaches don’t play the games; the players do. And the false hope of a professional payday–which the overwhelming majority of college athletes will never get to see–is shameful. It’s gone on for too long, and the sooner it comes to an end, the better.

Kudos to Kain Colter and the Northwestern football team, for sowing the seeds that will one day bring about some much-needed and long-overdue changes in college sports.

Oh yeah, life goes on


It was a typical Saturday of taking my daughters to their various meetings today, but it started, as it often does, at the ice skating rink. And the TV was tuned, as it so often is, to Sportscenter on ESPN. I’m sure that the skate moms aren’t much interested in the day’s sports headlines, but whoever makes the decisions about what to put on in the morning is probably in tune with me, on some level.

The ESPN highlights this morning included the sort of thing that made ESPN so exciting once: a backboard being shattered at what looked like a high school basketball game. When Darryl Dawkins broke two backboards back in 1979, ESPN (which had just gone on the air that September) showed the footage over and over again. These occurrences got more exposure than they would have received back in the dark days when the only way to get sports highlights was on the local news at night. I remember those days, and ESPN caught on, in part, because people want to see sports more than just a few minutes of an evening. People’s appetite for sports, in fact, is nearly limitless.

I say all of this because as thrilling as a backboard shattering dunk once was for me, seeing one as an adult hit me much differently than it did back in the late 1970s. For one thing, it occurred to me that the game in question probably came to an end when the backboard was shattered, or at least there would have been a terribly long delay in clearing the court and hanging a new backboard, assuming that it could be done in an hour or less.

And, on top of the existential threat to the game itself, the cost of a new backboard would have to be absorbed by somebody. Maybe there’s insurance to cover it, and maybe there isn’t. But either way, backboards aren’t free, and the money would have to come from somewhere.

It seemed that a shattered backboard was less of an exciting thing to me at this stage of my life than it would have been to me as a teenager. From the look of it, the fans in the stands were enjoying the sight of shattered glass in their gym. But it created headaches for some people as well, and I realize that now more than I ever would have in the days of Darryl Dawkins.

After my daughter took to the ice for her skating lesson, I went back to the car and turned on the radio. The first song that I heard was the guitar part of John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane,” and the lyrics “Oh yeah, life goes on…long after the thrill of living is gone.” It seemed funny that Mellencamp’s lyrics somehow applied to glass backboards being shattered. My thrill of seeing one–such as I had when Darryl Dawkins did it–has now been replaced by more grown-up concerns about what such an event means to the game and to somebody’s bottom line. Life sure has gone on, just as Mellencamp predicted it would

Consider this a little ditty about crackin’ backboards…..

Link to a post on ChicagoSideSports


This was the greatest moment of the Bulls 1990s championship run. There were many of them, of course, and others will probably have a moment they like better. So be it.

20 years have gone by since this happened back in June of 1993, and the young guy that I was back then is no more. But I remember this moment well, and I felt a responsibility to share those remembrances with those who there, and also with those who were not yet born or were too young to understand.

Here’s the piece, and enjoy the trip down Memory Lane. I know I sure did.

He was the villain


Saturday morning, Lincolnwood, Illinois

This morning I find myself at an estate sale. I’ve visited them before, and written about them before, and today is more of the same: picking through the worldly possessions of someone who’s no longer worldly. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, over and over again in Slaughterhouse-Five, “So it goes.”

I come across upon a large box of baseball cards from the early 1990s, but the sale’s proprietor wants much more than I think they’re worth. They aren’t worth the cardboard they’re printed on, in my view, but pawing through a box of them is sort of interesting, so we agree that I can pull out the ones I wanted for a dollar.  So I’m looking for something of interest, and I found it in the form of this John Starks basketball card.

In the early 1990s, during the first Bulls’ championship run, John Starks was the embodiment of  the New York Knicks. They were the only team that could threaten the Bulls, and they came within an eyelash of actually beating them, but for this remarkable defensive sequence. Starks had the ball, and thought about shooting it but passed the ball off to Patrick Ewing, who then passed it to Charles Smith under the basket. I’m sure Smith just wishes that Starks or Ewing had shot the ball instead.

As I’m walking out of the sale, recalling those glorious times from twenty years ago, my eye catches the Bulls logo on the shorts of whoever it is that’s defending Starks. I laugh at the irony of this. Of all the teams it could have been on that player’s shorts, it had to be the Bulls. It’s almost as if Starks has no purpose, other than serving as the Bulls erstwhile, yet ultimately unsuccessful foe. In a very weird twist of fate, Starks played four games in a Bulls’ uniform in 2000, after he had left New York. Seeing him in a Bulls’ jersey is proof that anything can happen.

I pay a dollar, and leave the sale with a reminder of the Bulls’ glory days and a story to tell on my blog. That seems like a fair trade to me.

A late summer’s afternoon in the park

Standing atop a small little dirt incline that’s enough to pass for a hill around here, I saw it all quite clearly. The scene that I had spent ten minutes surveying, pondering, and trying to get a few pictures of finally came into focus for me. And it inspired me to write, because there isn’t much else that I can do about it.

Off to the left, a youth football team ran through a tackling drill. The coach blew the whistle over and over, directing the action, and telling his players he wanted to see some harder hitting. In the foreground, a number of teenagers played a pickup basketball game, which was limited to half-court because one of the rims had been pulled down and never replaced. But no matter, they were running around and having a good time. And in the background sat an empty and neglected baseball field.

The diamond itself would have needed a significant amount of work to get it into a playable condition. Rather than tilling the soil, and evening out the gaps where puddles had formed and then dried away, the most attention that anyone had given this field was some artwork that had been sketched out with a stick, and some tire marks indicating that it had been used as a dirt track by somebody. Nobody was going to tend to this infield, because nobody would use it if they did. No kids were playing catch, or shagging fly balls, or anything else to suggest an interest in baseball, the game that I would have been playing in a park during my youth.

Major league baseball still survives and, for the fortunate few who make it onto a big league field, it’s an escape from a life of ordinariness. But American kids today don’t grow up wanting to be the next Tom Seaver, or George Brett, or Reggie Jackson. Some kids in the Dominican Republic, Asia, or other places where the big league teams are now actively mining for talent have their own role models, but they aren’t the ones that I had when I was young.

American kids want to be more like Derrick Rose than they want to be like Mike Trout. He and Bryce Harper have proven that baseball can still resonate with younger kids in the internet age that we now live in. But when baseball’s pennant races are heating up, it makes it all the more obvious that baseball has been left behind, in the imaginations of most American kids. Today’s kids are tomorrow’s athletes, and they aren’t going to be on the diamond in any significant numbers.

Change is inevitable, and I write about it all the time in this space. Sometimes change happens and I’m happy about it, and other times I wish things could just stay as they are. But change doesn’t need my approval in order to move ahead. In fact, it often happens despite my nostalgic pining for the days of yore. I couldn’t stop it, even if I wanted to, and there’s a certain helplessness in that.

But on the other hand, I can still acknowledge the change, while not fully embracing it. I can point out what came before, and try to capture just a little piece of it for anyone who might someday wonder about it. And I can also take comfort in the fact that a stream never stays put in its banks. It needs to flow from place to place, and this flow provides the sights and the sounds and the action that makes life more interesting than it otherwise might be.

Change is the only constant, after all, and if it takes an afternoon in the park to make this clear, then it was a walk worth taking, and a post worth writing, too.

What is “Government help” anyway?

I was recently visiting some family near Melbourne, Florida when I came upon the sign pictured above. It was apparently intended to overlap with the Republican convention in Tampa, and its sentiment seems to be a dig at President Obama and the “You didn’t build that” remark. I addressed the willful and misleading interpretation of Obama’s words here, but the people who put this sign up apparently didn’t read it. So I’ll address their baseless claims here, instead.

The only reason that I was able to access their facility was by driving on Florida State Route 518. That means it’s a public road, and any of their employees who use that road are, in fact, receiving government help. What’s more, the Eau Gallie Causeway is a rather large bridge that crosses over the Indian River in Florida. Without that bridge, which was built and maintained at public expense, this business would be cut off from the Florida mainland and the rest of the outside world. Good luck maintaining a business without regular, dependable access across that river.

The building itself appeared to be shut down for the day, so people who might want to knock on their door to discuss this sign weren’t able to do so. I could have tried to break into the building if I wanted to, since no police officers would come to arrest me. They’re government help, you know, and this business apparently doesn’t accept such help.

Maybe, in the absence of government police protection, they use a private security company. That’s better, after all, since it’s the free market, which of course is more efficient than the government could ever be. Let’s say the private security firm comes out, catches me in the act, and takes me into custody. But even if they could arrest me, this means I’d have to go to jail, which is another government service. Sending me to jail would mean accepting government help, and they quite clearly don’t do that.

But maybe they would change their minds, just to teach me a lesson. If they did send me to jail, the Constitution would then give me the right to a fair and speedy trial. And where would this trial be heard? In a government courthouse, of course. The prosecutor who would bring charges against me, and the judge who would oversee the trial, would both be government employees, too. Even the jury, if it came to that, would be composed of people being summoned, and paid for, by the government. What’s a non-government -help-accepting company to do, if they want to bring me to justice?

All right, all right, let’s imagine that they allow themselves to accept the government’s help in putting me on trial, but only because justice must be done. So then I would be found guilty by this government-supplied jury, and sentenced by the government judge to do time in a correctional center somewhere in Florida. What’s that? More government help? Nooooooo!

Or maybe, just maybe, the threat of being captured, tried, convicted, and detained, all at government expense, is enough to make me realize that whatever I might find on the inside isn’t worth all of that risk. Just the threat of all this government help is a form of help from the government, all by itself.

But let’s take it one step further. This business makes commemorative memorabilia for a variety of sports leagues, including Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA, and many major colleges and universities. When the University of Kentucky won the national championship in NCAA men’s basketball last spring, this outfit got to make the kind of “In your face, losers!” materials that a Kentucky alum might want to have. Their list of client schools includes the University of Alabama, the University of Oregon, the University of Michigan, and even the U.S. Military Academy. It’s an impressive list, to be sure.

But here’s the problem, and I hope that you’ve recognized it already. With just a couple of exceptions, the schools on this list are all publicly funded. To put it another way, the University of Kentucky was created, and now sustains itself, with funding from the government of Kentucky. When all of Kentucky’s investments pay off, and the school wins a championship for its fans and alumni to brag about, this company can then come in and sell their products. But this can never happen without the initial outlays made by the governments of Kentucky, Michigan, and even the U.S. government in the case of the Military Academy.

So yes, I’m afraid that this outfit does receive government help, whether they realize it or not. It’s indirect, in the example of the colleges, and it’s direct in other cases, but for this company to assert that they receive no government help at all is absurd on its face, and it deserves to be called out as such.

An act of American Appeasement

Three-quarters of a century ago, Jesse Owens thought his work at the Summer Olympics was done. He had gone to Berlin and beaten Hitler’s athletes, and everybody else’s, in three events: the 100 meter dash, the long jump, and the 200 meter dash. He had spoiled Hitler’s planned demonstration of Aryan superiority, and had one-upped the man who would soon plunge the world into a long and bloody war. I’m sure that Hitler never forgot about the Berlin Olympics.

Someone else who never forgot, and with good reason, was Marty Glickman. Glickman was a college freshman at the time, and a member of the 4 x 100 meters relay team. The competition was scheduled for August 9, 1936, but on the day before the race, Glickman and another Jewish athlete named Sam Stoller were removed from the team and replaced by Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, two African American runners.

The reason for this was as clear as it was shameful. The Jewish runners were removed to avoid offending Hitler. These two runners missed out on the chance of a lifetime, in order to keep Hitler from being displeased. Marty Glickman was mad, and with good reason. When he returned to the stadium in Berlin in 1985, he had this to say:

“…I began to get so angry. I began to get so mad. It shocked the hell out of me that this thing of 49 years ago could still evoke this anger. I mean I was fucking mad. I was cussing – I was with people, colleagues of mine, and I was cussing. I was really amazed at myself, at this feeling of anger. Not about the German Nazis, that was a given. But anger at (U.S. Olympic officials) Avery Brundage and Dean Cromwell for not allowing an 18-year-old kid to compete in the Olympic Games just because he was Jewish.”

Marty Glickman later became the radio voice of the New York Knicks and the New York Giants for many years. Anyone who has heard “the key” and “the lane” to describe a basketball court has him to thank for those terms. His imprint on the sporting world has been very large, indeed. But what could have been his first brush with sports glory, nearly eight decades ago today, ended in a way that hardly anyone knows about. This is a small attempt at telling this man’s story, as the current version of the Summer Olympics is still unfolding.

Thanks to Josh Wilker at Cardboard Gods for providing me with a link to Glickman’s story

Mark Grace and number 17

This is a true story:

I was picking my daughter up at school one day last spring, probably sometime in May, when I spotted a kid on her school playground. This kid, who looked like a fourth or a fifth grader, had a blue shirt on, with a number 17 on the back. I said to myself “Huh. What do you know about that? An old Mark Grace shirt.”

It wasn’t until I got closer, on my way back to our car, that I saw the name on the back of his shirt wasn’t “Grace” but “Lim,” and the team on the front of the shirt wasn’t the Chicago Cubs, but the New York Knicks. It turns out that the shirt wasn’t as old as I thought it was.

Mark Grace wore number 17 for over a decade for the Cubs. I bring that up because I came in at number 17 on the listing of fan blogs for the month of June. Anybody who came to my blog in June looking for baseball content probably went away disappointed, as my baseball writing has fallen off considerably. The little bit of it that I do now is typically sent to ThroughtheFenceBaseball, instead. I love baseball, and I always will, but writing tales from my life, past and present, has crowded it out, at least when it comes to this space.

Mark Grace was a very good player–among the best in the game–for several years in Chicago. He had more hits, and more doubles, than any other big leaguer in the 1990s. He hit an astonishing .647 in the National League playoffs in 1989, and he gave Kerry Wood a congratulatory hug on the day that Wood struck out 20 batters in 1998. He was, perhaps, the face of the Cubs franchise in the late 1990s, at least until Sammy Sosa started doing his home run thing.

But then, after the 2000 season, he went to Arizona. And he did what he never had been able to do in Chicago, and that’s win a World Series title. He started the ninth inning, championship-winning rally off the most automatic closer the game has ever seen, Mariano Rivera. Not a single Cubs fan could deny him the excitement and the glory he felt in that moment. The sad part was that it didn’t happen for him–and for all us Cubs fans–as he was wearing a blue uniform and a red C on his cap. But at least he got there, so good for him.

I see Mark Grace doing baseball commentary sometimes, but I can’t really think about him as a Cub. He won a World Series, he got his ring, and he wouldn’t give that up for all of his years in Chicago, I’m sure. I wouldn’t either. But it makes him, somehow, not a full Cub, at least in my mind. Perhaps that’s a bad way to look at it, but that’s how it seems to me.

Mark Grace had such an impact on me, when he played with the Cubs, that every player who wears #17 after him–baseball and basketball, apparently–reminds me of him.  The Cubs will never retire Grace’s number, because he didn’t reach the Hall of Fame, and that’s probably just as well. It means that his memory will be preserved, every time a different #17 takes the field, for as long as those of us who were around in the 1990s are following the team. And that could be more years than Jeremy Lin will ever get.

April is here at last

It’s finally April, at least on the calendar. It feels like April was here a few weeks ago, or maybe like April never came at all this year.

But no amount of warm weather could bring the baseball season any earlier. Spring training is an annual ritual, which must be carried through to its completion. But the end is finally in sight.

Next weekend will find us all at the start of a new season. There will be surprises and storylines aplenty, and every day will bring new opporunities for history to be made.

Last night, as the Final Four was unfolding on television, I started to talk about baseball. I put forth my theory that unlike basketball and football, baseball is an everyday sport. You couldn’t have another sports league survive with the business model that baseball has. Injuries would destroy the players’ pool, but public apathy would set in pretty quick, too.

When a player has a great game, or a lousy one, they don’t have a chance to linger on it for too long. There’s another chance the next day. That’s the best I can do to explain the appeal of this game for me.

I sometimes see people wearing “Baseball is life” t-shirts. I don’t entirely believe in this sentiment, but I’m happy to point out the similarities between them from time to time.

Happy baseball season to one and all.

So it’s come to this

I wrote an earlier post about how I had no NCAA brackets to consult this year. The Final Four has now been set, and there are no VCU-type cinderella stories this year. Louisville, Kansas and Kentucky are among the entrenched elite of college basketball, and even the team that wears scarlet and gray has had more than its share of success over the years. So it’s one more weekend without baseball, and then on to the baseball season, at last.

I don’t want to do this, but I’m pulling for that school that comes from Columbus, Ohio to win it all (I can’t even bring myself to say their full name, or that silly “the” that comes in front of it). It’s the only Big Ten school left standing, and since the SEC has a hammerlock on the college football scene, everyone else has to grab what little bit of glory is left over.

The Big Ten Network, which I don’t have anymore after canceling cable TV, has been effective at making all of the Big Ten schools feel like part of something, well, Big. It’s a big dust-up between all the schools during the regular season, but then it’s time to close ranks and pull for the conference standard-bearer when the other schools and conferences are involved.

I employed a similar philosophy last fall, when I begrudgingly went on the record as favoring the Cardinals over the Rangers in the World Series.  It’s quite easy to hate on the State, particularly after the football scandal that erupted last year, but the truth is  I want to have a rooting interest for the games next weekend.

Since I’m lacking a good reason to pull for any of the other schools playing in New Orleans next week, I’ll  pull for the Buckeyes. But I won’t like it, not one little bit. And I’ll be much happier once it’s over, when baseball season will be just a few days away.

An amazing turn of events

I was leaving work last Friday, on a day sunnier and warmer than I had ever before seen in the middle of March, when I spotted a round object near the curb of the parking lot. I knew from the size of it what it was, but the elements had dome a number on it, all the same. It was a penny that someone had dropped on the ground, and if I had to guess I would say that it was plowed to the curb in one of the two snowfalls we had this winter. I hesitate to say “last” winter just yet, because there’s always one last surprise snowfall waiting in the wings.

I rubbed at the penny a bit, trying to uncover what the year on it was. I have sometimes taken the year on a penny and used it for a starting point for a story or tale of some kind. Through all of the scratches on the coin’s face, I was able to make out the year “1993.” And a moment from that year came to me right away.

I write about the Cubs quite a lot here, but in 1993–as with most of the 1990s–the team was fairly rotten. But that didn’t matter too much, because the Chicago Bulls had the NBA by the tail. The Michael Jordan Era was in full swing, and the first two titles had already been secured by 1993. But the main hurdle seemed to be not which team came out of the NBA’s Western Conference, but the New York Knicks of Pat Riley, Patrick Ewing, and the much-despised John Starks. And when I say “much-despised” I’m probably going easy on him.

So in 1993, the Bulls began their by-then customary title run, but the Knicks announced their presence by winning the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals. The Bulls had not been in a 2-0 hole before, and there was more than a bit of concern at this development. Patrick Ewing had never before won a title, and was certainly starting to feel like it was his turn. Pat Riley had trademarked the term “Three-peat” and didn’t want the Bulls joining his Lakers teams in that realm. It wasn’t looking good for the Bulls at that moment.

Watching the games in a bar with a group of work colleagues was a certified event in those days. There was discussion at work over which place was the best one to be at, who had the best set-up as far as TVs went, and so on. But underpinning all of it was the expectation that the Bulls were going to win. Nobody doubted the Bulls at that point, but the trends weren’t encouraging. And the Knicks had home-court advantage, in case the series went to seven games.

The Bulls came back to Chicago and won the next two games of the series. Now it was game five and, for some reason, NBC played the omenous opening bars of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” before the pre-game show. This clearly was the moment of truth for the Bulls and the Knicks.

The Knicks had the ball and a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter, when the series shown above began. Ewing wanted to put up the winning shot, I’m sure, but he got in trouble and dumped the ball off to Charles Smith in the lane. Victory was literally a couple of feet away.

But then he was stopped under the basket. Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Horace Grant knew exactly what was at stake, and so they put on a clinic about how to defend the basket without committing a foul. Smith’s moment of triumph had quickly morphed into flailing nightmare. And, after a possible fifth attempt went off Smith’s hands and right to Horace Grant, and after Stacy King delivered a hard elbow to clear Smith off of the ball, the Bulls cleared the ball and iced the victory.

Smith was the one who watched the ball go through the hoop as the buzzer sounded. And Smith then slammed the ball down on the court with every ounce of frustration he ever felt in his life. I imagine that it got very quiet in Madison Square Garden.

But back in Chicago, everyone let out a collective sigh of relief. There was no way, with the series coming back to Chicago, that the Knicks could recover. And they didn’t, as the Bulls finished off the series on their way to the third straight title. And it was the sweetest victory yet, perhaps the sweetest one of the six that the Bulls eventually won.

I’ve wondered sometimes if Smith thinks about that sequence much. It has come to define his playing career, and not in the way that he hoped it would. He had the dagger in his hand, with a chance to plunge it into the heart of the Bulls’ dynasty. But the Bulls denied him, again and again, and Smith has had to carry that around with him for nearly two decades now. I’m sure it can’t be easy for him.

The Bulls are on the rise again now, and perhaps they can get past the Miami Heat this year and make it to the NBA finals for the first time post-Jordan. But as far as I’m concerned, the Jordan Era won’t ever be equaled in the future. But I’m willing to let this newest incarnation of the team try.

Going bracketless this year

2012 is the first year in a very long time that I have no NCAA tournament bracket sheets to keep up with. The four-day college basketball orgy that started today, and continues through Sunday, is as big a ritual as there is in contemporary America. There’s always an office pool, or an online pool, or some other way of matching your guesses up against others who are convinced they somehow know the name of this year’s surprise team.

But the reality is that, in two weeks, it will have sorted itself out and the Louisvilles and the North Carolinas will still be playing on, with perhaps an upstart like Butler around for novelty purposes. Lots of attention will be lavished on these teams, and the schools may receive some notoriety, as VCU did at this time last year.

But when it’s all said and done, there are probably fewer than 10 schools that could actually win this tournament. The other schools are having their fun now, but it will all be over in a week, or two weeks at the most.

The Final Four, which is now just two weeks away, usually makes for some exciting moments, and I hope that this year is no different from the rest. I’m not down on the tournament as a whole. But I’m finding that not needing to consult a brackets sheet all day feels kind of liberating. We’ll have to see if that lasts through the rest of the tournament.

The Linsanity of it all

It appears that the NBA, Jeremy Lin, and several other parties are trying to claim the word “Linsanity” as their own private trademark.  It’s a question of whether the rights to this term should belong to the Lindividual, or to the Linstitution that employs him. And it would be Lincorrect to assume that this is a Linconsequential issue.

The Linability of a person or corporation to generate Lincome from a play on words would be a grave Linjustice. It would be highly Linappropriate to deny a player the right to profit from such a Lincomparable outpouring of Linterest in one player.

This Linadequacy of the court system to protect this player’s rights is most Linexcusable. Hopefully, all sides can come to an agreement that provides proper financial Lincentives,  and prevents any Lindecent use of the name of such a Linternationally known figure.

More Linformation will be passed along, just as soon as it is received in this Linsignificant corner of the Linternet.

Bring on the tournament

The college basketball season isn’t over yet, but another couple of weeks should bring the end of the regular season, and then will come the conference tournaments, followed by that wonderful four-day orgy of college hoops, when everyone has their brackets at the ready, and tries to keep up with their picks as it all plays out on television. We aren’t there yet, but it’s coming soon enough.

The end of that weekend means that the games will continue on, but the second weekend isn’t the same as the first. There’s still four straight days of college hoops, but there isn’t the wall-to-wall basketball feeling that there is on the first weekend.

And then comes the week-long buildup to the Final Four and then the college championship game. The NCAA gets it right with the tournament: it raises public interest, makes  a lot of money, and actually does what the BCS does not do by allowing all teams the chance to settle things on the court.

And the best part of this process has nothing to do with basketball. When it’s all over on April 2, and one team has cut down the nets in New Orleans and has been crowned as the new national champion, the baseball season will be just about to get underway. And then sports can really start to mean something again.

Then and now

After taking my little one to skating practice this morning, lacing up her skates and listening to the details from a sleepover party last night, I went out to the car and found a penny in the parking lot. As I have written about before in this space, I picked it up and looked at the year the penny was minted. And the year I saw–1986–may well have been the most momentous one in my life to this point. In fact, it was the turning point.

The picture above shows me as I was in 1986. I’m in the middle column, at the bottom of the page. The picture was taken by a local photographer, and it appeared in my high school yearbook as well. Seniors had their pictures published in color, while everyone else had to settle for smaller pictures in black and white. Rank has its privileges, both then and now.

The book that this page was taken from appeared in was what we all called the “Freshman facebook.” It’s funny how today everybody knows about Facebook in a different sense. But I, and all the rest of my classmates, were in a facebook of a different sort. And this is helpful for getting at who I was back then.

My name appears along with my nickname and home address. I never actually lived in Springfield, Illinois, but in a small village–a suburb, actually–that bordered Springfield. In hindsight, I wish I had just put Jerome, Illinois as my mailing address, since it did set me apart from nearly everyone else that I knew back then. But setting yourself apart from the herd is not something that the 18-year old version of me wanted to do. Thankfully, I’m more willing to do that now.

Below my address (and somebody lives there today, but not me or my family) are my interests which, if I had been completely honest about it, would have also included drinking beer, but I couldn’t publicly own up to that. The interests that I was willing to share with all of my soon-to-be classmates are kind of funny: basketball (Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics, particularly), baseball (anyone who’s ever read this blog knows about that), and rock music (see yesterday’s post about Van Halen’s tour for evidence of that). The basketball interest has faded somewhat, but the other interests are still right up there, a quarter of a century later.

Below my interests are the place I graduated from high school (which no longer exists) and my intended major. I viewed political science as my pre-law major, and even though my school didn’t have a pre-law curriculum, I had every intention at that point in my life of becoming a lawyer some day. Fate had other ideas, as it so often does, but without fate I wouldn’t have been in Northwestern’s freshman facebook to begin with (there’s more about that here).

I drove home from the skating rink, turning 1986 over in my head, and thinking about how different I am from the person who occupied that space at the bottom of page 52. I wondered what the 2012 me and the 1986 me would say to each other. That sort of thing pops up on Twitter every so often, with a hashtag like “#thingsIwouldtelltheyoungerme.” I have become, in many ways, what the younger me wanted to become, but would never say so publicly.

I’ve lived into my 40s, which I’ve learned that not everybody gets to do. I have a family, with a wife and a dog and two kids I would do anything for. I also own a house in a historic part of a city that I love almost as much as my family. I drive two cars–a hybrid and a minivan–which didn’t exist back in 1986 but serve their purpose very well. I have seen some of the world, which the 18 year me had not yet done. I have a career that has allowed me to do some interesting things, while not also consuming my every waking moment. I drink coffee–which the 18 year old me would have thought impossible–but I don’t drink  alcohol, which the 18 year old me would have though equally as impossible. And I still love rock and roll, and am looking forward to concerts by some of the same performers that I listened to back then. The 18 year old me would have really loved the Loop.

The place I’m at in life today is the result of the course I began charting back in 1986. I was on my own, for the first time in my life, and I enjoyed all of the freedoms that came with this. But I stayed on the path, not knowing where it was going to end up. And this morning–as I’m hearing my older daughter laugh with a friend in the next room while writing down some thoughts to share with the wider world–I must say that I am happy with how things have turned out.

One of my favorite songs back in 1986 was “Foreplay/Long Time” from Boston’s debut album. The lyrics of that song include the lines “I’ve got to keep on chasing a dream/or I may never find it”. I left my parents home in 1986 to chase a dream that I couldn’t define very well back then, but what I’ve found since then fits the bill better than anything I could have imagined. I’m not a millionaire or a celebrity or anything that a typical 18 year-old fancies himself to be one day, but I am a middle-aged, middle class dad who knows what really matters in life, and has everything that he needs to have. And I’ll take that every day of the year.

Ending two bad streaks

I just returned from a one-day trip into the heart of Michigan country, Ann Arbor. I wore, as I often do, a purple Northwestern hat, but not with the intention of making any point about my school. It’s just a hat that I’ve been wearing for many years–decades, even–and am comfortable with. But I was representing the Wildcats, all the same.

The Big Ten played its first football championship game tonight, and now it’s on to the bowl season. Michigan will be back in one, after an unusual hiatus for them and their fans, but Northwestern’s status is unclear at this time. They won six games, which makes them “bowl eligible” but doesn’t assure them anything. Northwestern is going to have to appeal to some bowl game that wants to sell tickets, rather than put a good game on the field. All of these games are about money more than they are about competition.

Northwestern is a small, private school, and that means fewer students and alumni are available to buy tickets and travel to the game. A school like Michigan has a large student and alumni base, and so bowl games will fall all over themselves to bring Michigan to their party. Not so with Northwestern.

But on the other hand, Northwestern does have a pretty good record with selling their bowl allotment in years past. There are plenty of alums–myself included–who remember when we had to throw marshmallows at each other during the home games to keep our attention away from how awful the team on the field was. So playing in a bowl game is–and always will be–a validation of how much progress has been made since then.

There’s a problem,  though. NU (and it’s not NW, because Northwestern is all one word, and University is another word) has been to many bowl games (eight, to be exact) and lost them all. Their outgoing seniors have been to three bowl games, and haven’t won yet. They all want one more game, and if they get it, they sure won’t want to lose it. If they go, we’ll know where it is soon enough.

But there’s another Northwestern streak that’s coming into view again. The basketball team–which was just as dreadful as the football team was when I went there–has gotten better in recent years, but they haven’t yet received an invitation to the NCAA tournament. This is the de facto dividing line between the teams that had a successful season, and the teams who didn’t. And Northwestern has never been to the NCAA tournament before. Talk about a streak.

When it comes time to hand out the tournament bids in March, it’s all about “quality wins.” Who have you beat? When have you proven yourself to be one of the best teams in the country? Playing in the Big Ten, there’s rarely a shortage of quality opponents to point to on the schedule. Beating Wisconsin, or beating Michigan State, or beating Illinois (my favorite type of victories) usually helps to build a tournament portfolio, as it should.

But today’s game against Baylor is different. Baylor is unbeaten and ranked in the top ten of the weekly polls, but Northwestern hasn’t played them before. Beating a top ten opponent would be big all by itself. But doing it in December, before conference play even begins, would be even better.

This is a game that wouldn’t have been played ten years ago, when Northwestern played a soft non-conference schedule to take the sting out of the walloping they routinely got in conference play. But as a result of their successes over the past few years, they play with some bigger teams now. And beating those bigger teams–as Northwestern can do later on today–is the way to get the quality wins that will bring this NCAA-less streak to an end.

Go ‘Cats!

8 out of 12 ain’t bad

I promised a wrap-up of the second night of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, and here it is. The Big Ten won for the third straight year, with another 4-2 performance in Wednesday’s games. All Big Ten teams won except for Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Nebraska. And the eight wins is the best that the conference has ever done in one of these things, so good job, Big Ten!

Conference play begins at the end of this month, so this was a chance to pull for the other schools in the conference before that gets going. The bowl season is coming up, and there could be as many as 10 Big Ten teams involved, but after that it will be two months of internecine battles  (there’s a term I don’t use everyday!). It should be fun.

It’s a tribal thing

The first night of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge was yesterday, and the made-for-ESPN event will wrap up this evening. The Big Ten is off to a 4-2 lead so far, and has to win at least two of tonight’s games to claim victory for the season. And a tie goes to the Big Ten, since they’re defending champions from last year, but hopefully it won’t come to that.

When the World Series came around this year, I wanted the Cardinals to win, despite my personal distaste for them, because they were the National league team. By the same token, even though I loathe Michigan, strongly dislike Ohio State, and have a personal antipathy for the blue and orange of Illinois, I wanted them to win their games (and two of the three came through last night, too).  My school held up their end of the bargain, and in the early days of this challenge that usually wasn’t the case.

I give credit to the Big Ten Network for tying the schools together in some meaningful way. They’ve been successful at this because the Big Ten represents the Great Lakes and midwest region of the country, just like the SEC does with the South, and the Big East does with the East coast. The ACC has long fancied itself as the premier basketball conference in the country, so anytime they can be disabused of that notion, it can only be a good thing for the rest of us. And Duke getting blown out? That’s a rare treat.

I’ll be back tomorrow to wrap up tonight’s games. But in the meantime, Go Big Ten!

Winners go on, losers go home

No other professional sport comes close to baseball for sheer number of games played in a season. Playing (almost) every day, for six months plus the post season, shows that baseball is the American game. Football is too violent to play once a week, and the idea that NBA teams could play two or three games in a row in the same city is laughable. Although right now, they probably hope they get to play anywhere at all this season. But we’ll see how that works out soon enough.

Every baseball game is less than one percent of a team’s entire season. And a double in April counts the same as a double tonight does. So there isn’t anything terribly special, statistically speaking, about tonight’s final regular season games. And yet, these at-bats for the players, and these innings thrown for the pitchers, could make the difference between playing games this weekend, or hopping a flight back to wherever home is. The old saying “win or go home” really does apply to the Cardinals, Braves, Red Sox and Rays this evening.

These aren’t “playoff” games, in the sense that they’re still being played during the regular season. The MLB logo doesn’t appear on the tickets to tonight’s games, and there aren’t umpires down the first and third base lines. But the stakes are essentially the same as a playoff game, and the fact that they’re not head-to-head games makes it even more interesting.

The concept of watching the scoreboard, in order to see how the other team is doing, comes into play tonight like it rarely does at any other time in the season. Fans at the games tonight will have one eye on the field, and the other eye on the scoreboard. Scoreboards are put into ballparks for signage money, sure, but tonight they serve the purpose they were intended to serve. And that’s great for the game.

The wild card has made tonight’s multi-city drama possible, and the fans in whatever cities emerge victorious tonight–or in a playoff game, if needed–should be grateful that baseball has extended them a second chance. That doesn’t guarantee success in the playoffs, but it means that a long season doesn’t have to end just yet.

I’ll be watching tonight, and hopefully there will be something to write about in the future. To be honest, it would only be surprising if there wasn’t something worth writing about to come from tonight’s games. It’s as if we’ve started the post season a day early, and we’re all the winners for that.

What’s happening with baseball

It’s been awhile since I’ve written about one of my favorite topics. And, as the season starts winding down toward a long winter’s rest (no playoffs in this city!), I may as well get another baseball-related post out there. Something will arise to take its place in the offseason (that’s why football and basketball exist in the first place), but they won’t ever capture my imagination the way baseball does.

Today was a crisp afternoon, with only a suggestion of fall in the air. All kids are back in school now, and Labor Day has come and gone, so nobody can have any illusions that Summer is still around. The days will keep getting shorter, and colder, and before too long we’ll all be wondering where this year has gone. But for now, there’s still daylight until well past seven in the evening.

Fall brings football with it, and organized soccer gets started up as well. The league my daughter plays in puts on whatever games it can until it gets too cold, and then takes a few months off before starting up again in the springtime. It’s life in a Northern town, for lack of a more original way to put it.

As my daughter and the other young girls on her team took turns at kicking soccer balls into a baseball backstop, an image caught my eye. I noticed that the baseball diamond at my local park has begun a metamorphosis of sorts. If you look at the picture above, you can make it out for yourself.

The right edge of the picture is where the grass and the dirt of the diamond meet each other. Recently, the grass has begun growing back into places that had formerly been dirt on the baseball diamond. When nobody uses the diamond, the dirt isn’t needed anymore, and the grass begins taking over instead. And, as you can tell from the soccer goal in what should be the outfield, more grass and less dirt would be just fine with the soccer players, anyway.

I wouldn’t expect any sort of organized baseball to be taking place on that diamond in September. There’s a greater emphasis on football now, and baseball season for school teams doesn’t kick in until the springtime. But the lack of even a few kids throwing a ball around, or hitting tennis balls for fun, or playing a game that we used to call “hotbox,” was troubling. I was looking for any sign of baseball life, and instead I found only soccer and football. It was quite depressing for me.

A half an hour later, and about a mile or so away, I came upon another diamond with a softball game going on. I was pleased that the diamond was being put to use like that, and that dirt would continue to predominate over the grass. But I also got to thinking about the grownups who play softball. They know the rules, and how to swing the bat and catch the ball and so forth, because they probably played baseball at an earlier stage of their lives. And, with space limitations and window replacement costs being what they are, it’s unrealistic to expect to see baseball being played in a populated urban area.  So softball can be considered as a sign of baseball, on some level.

I’m not breaking any new ground by suggesting that soccer is very popular with kids today. But I am going to also suggest that their interest in baseball has suffered as a result. In economic terms, the opportunity cost of playing in a soccer league is that baseball doesn’t have the same appeal for kids that it did a couple of decades ago.

I’m confident that there will always be professional baseball games to attend, and amateur softball games to play in. But the creeping grass at the park’s diamond reminds me that participation in soccer is on the rise with the next generation, while interest in baseball seems to be on the decline.  And that’s one “green” movement that I’d rather not see.

RIP, Lorenzo Charles

You have to be, let’s say, of a certain age to appreciate what Lorenzo Charles did. He wasn’t a household name as an NBA player, and in today’s world that seems to be all that matters. No, Lorenzo Charles belonged to another time. And now, sadly, he belongs to wherever it is people go after they die.

I remember Phi Slamma Jamma very well. They were a high-flying college basketball team from the University of Houston in 1983. Clyde Drexler, Larry Michaux, Akeem Olajuwon, and a bunch of other talented players. They got to the Final Four that year and beat Louisville (it’s funny the things you remember sometimes, isn’t it?). The final game on Monday seemed to be a foregone conclusion.

But I was pulling for their opponent, the NC State Wolfpack. I wanted the underdog to win, because anytime a team seems like they’re too good, you want to see them brought down a notch. And so it was with Houston that year.

As all NCAA finals should be, this was a close game that went down to the wire. And the ending couldn’t have been any better if you had tried to script it. A last second desperation heave by an NC State player, Derek Whittenburg,  seemed like it would fall short. But at the last second, an alert State player, the aforementioned Charles, leapt into the air, grabbed the ball, and stuffed it through the hoop as the horn went off.

Why none of the Houston players thought to go up for the ball too, I’ll never know. Maybe the altitude in Albuquerque, where the game was played, had something to do with it. But Charles went up, and in the blink of an eye he became a certified hero.

So all these years later, he was driving a bus when he went off the road and died at the age of 47. Not too much older than I am, by the way. Shakespeare has been proven correct once again.

I wonder how he must have felt at that moment back in 1983, and I wonder if it was tough living all those years after, knowing that nothing else could ever come close to that one moment. Maybe the tragic accident that took his life set him free from that. I don’t know for sure. But as long as I live, I’ll remember that game and what that improbable upset said to me. It said “don’t back down, give it your best, and things could turn out in a way that nobody expects them to.”

Hats off to the champions

I am not an NBA fan. I remember the Bird and Magic era in the 1980s, and the Jordan era in Chicago is looking better and better as time goes by. But the sport itself doesn’t interest me that much. Certainly not like baseball does, and probably not as much as football, either. And there are no other sports even in this discussion.

With that being said, the Dallas Mavericks won their first NBA title tonight. Winning a title is something that, as a Cubs fan, I never have experienced, and by now don’t I know if I ever will. So when a team like the Mavericks–who played in the NBA for 30 years before winning a championship–finally breaks through into the winner’s circle, I’m happy for them, of course. But I’m more than a little bit jealous, too.

Since 1975, when I first started following the Cubs, they have not only failed to win a World Series, but they haven’t even played in a single World Series. Do you want to take a guess at how many of the other teams playing in the majors in 1975 can say the same thing? Zero. Z-E-R-O. Not a single one. (NOTE: The Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals are not being counted in this sense. My blog, my rules. Sorry.) 

I’m not even going to address the issue of teams that did not exist in 1975 but have still played in, and even won, the World Series. That’s entirely too painful. But it sure doesn’t help to know that they are out there.

The Cubs this year–with their sinister union of  bloated payroll and outlandish ticket prices–are just a game or two away from being the worst team in all of major league baseball. And yet, somehow, their manager seems to think that Cubs fans will come to the ballpark and pay their money to support this team. Sorry bub, but it won’t happen. Not for me, anyway.

There are thousands and thousands of happy Dallas Mavericks fans tonight, Mark Cuban being first and foremost among them. But there are also hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Cubs fans who are watching the Mavericks celebrate and asking themselves “Why don’t I get to feel that way?” And until that question gets answered, don’t expect to see me at Wrigley Field.