Saturday, February 28, 2015

The (bleep) in the hat

So we're sitting in a local restaurant last night and I look up at the TVs over the bar, and there on the screen is the waste of oxygen known as "Jihadi John." And you know what he's wearing?

A Pittsburgh Pirates cap.

Yes, that's right. Some murdering piece of human excrement decided, probably not for any reason in particular, that he needed a cap for the picture. I don't know how it happened to be a Pirates cap, but as a lifelong Pirates fan, I am as not happy about that as everyone in the Pirates organization.

It says nothing good about the way 24/7/365 media works these days that players and club officials felt compelled to say that "Jihadi John" didn't represent the values of the Pittsburgh Pirates, as if that were not "well, duh" evident. Silly as it sounds, they undoubtedly said it because you just know that somewhere out there is a blogger who'd try to make some tenuous connection between a terrorist wearing a Pirates cap and the fact that Andrew McCutchen wears dreds.

Of course that's ridiculous. But turn on FoxNews for five minutes. Ridiculous is a media specialty these days.

At any rate ... I keep wondering what would happen if Roberto Clemente came back from the grave and saw that. I imagine he'd have something to say. He always did.

He also swung a mean piece of lumber. If you know what I mean.  

Friday, February 27, 2015

Time warped

It has been the coach's lament since Coach Oog first commanded his Cave City Rock Flingers to drop and give him twenty: Kids today just aren't the same.

Like most laments, it's only half-true. What's not the same today, or on any today for all time, is how we handle kids.

Once upon a time you shoved 'em, you screamed at 'em, you grabbed 'em by the throat. And you sneered at anyone who suggested you should apologize for any of it.


Now a coach gets in touch with his inner Bob Knight and feels compelled to apologize profusely. Which is what happened when Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings -- a Purdue grad, ironically -- profanely berated one of his players for clapping sarcastically at the end of a win at Tennessee last night.

It was nothing less than a time warp: Stallings screaming at Wade Baldwin IV, saying "We don't (bleeping) do that" and "I'm going to (bleeping) kill you" as he forced him to go back through the handshake line and apologize. The moment was an unedited page from the Knight school of discipline, and it came from a coach whose demeanor has always been the polar opposite.

And was again in the postgame, when Stallings publicly apologized, saying in so many words that he had embarrassed Vanderbilt and should have handled the situation differently. And he was as right as he could possibly be on both counts.

But as Faulkner once famously said, the past is never dead, it's not even past. And so you can be sure there was a whole segment of America who watched the clip of Stallings telling one of his players he was going to kill him, and ached with nostalgia.  Those were the days, by God. Men were men, coaches were coaches and you could do just about anything you wanted to some snot-nosed kid without meddling Pollyannas tsk-tsking over it. And you for sure didn't apologize, because apology is weakness.

All I can say is this: What a load. And thank God those days are gone.

Thank God Kevin Stallings recognized what he'd done, and apologized for it. That didn't mean he was letting Wade Baldwin IV off the hook. It only meant he understood who he was representing, and how you should conduct yourself accordingly.

Contrary to the once-accepted meme, it takes a man to do that. And so here's your score for today: Present 1, Past 0.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Childhood, interrupted

LeBron James is right about his son, and he is wrong about his son. That's where we've arrived now with American childhood, particularly when that childhood has any precocious shine or genius glimmer to it.

And so here was LeBron the other day, telling colleges to quit sending recruiting letters to his 10-year-old son, LeBron Jr., who apparently is a chip off the block on the basketball floor.  And yet here he also was, putting LeBron Jr. out there in an AAU pipeline expressly designed to showcase individual talent for college recruiters.

Can't have it both ways, LeBron.

And yet ...

And yet, he's right. Ten-year-olds should be off-limits. Mainly because, well, they should be 10-year-olds, and not commodities to be warred over by fat-dollar athletic programs.

The worst crime you can commit against childhood is to corrupt its innocence, and that's what's now happening now. The most damning line in the entire LeBron/LeBron Jr. story is buried deep within it, and what's damning about it is its very innocuousness. Here's what it says: "Kentucky's John Calipari watched LeBron James Jr. play last summer during the AAU Fourth Grade National Championship in Lexington."


There's a fourth grade National Championship?

For God's sake why?

When I was in fourth grade, my biggest concern was whether or not we'd be having Tater Tots or Tri-Taters for lunch (I was always a Tri-Tater man myself). It certainly wasn't playing for a national championship while a bunch of college coaches evaluated me like a piece of meat. I was a kid, and I was allowed to be a kid. And that was true even for my classmates who were precociously athletic and not, like me, comic relief.

But now 10-year-olds are not 10-year-olds but Prospects, future parts for a machine whose stated academic mission long ago became a sly wink and a poke in the ribs. The Blob's unease with AAU ball is well documented, and it's backed up by the likes of Kobe Bryant and Charles Barkley, both of whom have utter disdain for it. They believe it serves no purpose but to impede young players' fundamental skills and distort their sense of self, and they're absolutely right.

To belabor the point: No kid ever learned how to play basketball by playing AAU ball. That's because its implicit purpose is not to develop basketball IQ but to showcase talent for the college coaches with whom AAU coaches sometimes have entirely too cozy a relationship. And while there may be  good intentions in all of that, the corrosive nature of it is obvious -- particularly on kids as young as LeBron James Jr.

Nothing good can come of treating 10-year-olds like stars, and yet that's what AAU ball does. Its very function makes it unavoidable. And unless that 10-year-old has some pretty solid guidance at home -- and it sure sounds like LeBron Jr. does -- the inevitable result is a warped sense of entitlement that's only reinforced the older and better he (or she) becomes.

I've seen it happen, over the years. Not often, but on occasion, I've interviewed high school stars who clearly thought I should be grateful for the access. I always came away feeling not so much offended as sad and a little sorry for them.

 And I always wondered what would have happened if they'd been allowed to have normal childhoods, to not have such a bright spotlight turned on them at such a young and vulnerable age. If, when they were in fourth grade, their biggest concerns were Tater Tots or Tri-Taters, and rounding up enough bodies at recess to play five-on-five.

Somehow I think John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski still would have found them.

When the time was right.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A more orange shade of pale, Part Deux

You know what the Blob just said about those sufferin' Browns fans?

At least they don't live in Chicago.

Where the leading scorer in the NHL, the Blackhawks' Patrick Kane, went hard into the boards last night  and reportedly broke something in his shoulder region, an injury that's likely to keep him out until the playoffs or beyond.

And where Derrick Rose of the Bulls tore his meniscus and will have knee surgery again, effectively ending his season and perhaps writing finis to his career, or at least the career everyone once predicted for him.

Sucks to be a Browns fan?

Sure. But it says here it sucks worse to be from Chicago right now.

A more orange shade of pale

It's learned not to expect much, the grimly loyal tribe that roots for the Cleveland Browns. You watch Dick Van Dyke trip over the hassock often enough, your expectations become pretty modest.

Just don't break a leg.

Or, you know,  draft a quarterback. 'Cause you're not very good at it.

Aside from that, all Browns fans ask is that you throw 'em a bone once in awhile, or maybe some dog biscuits, or maybe the occasional can of Alpo (Try some! It's yummy!). Beat the Steelers once a decade or so. Throw a Bernie Kosar out there every so often. Suit up a wide receiver with the greatest name in the history of pro football, Fair Hooker.

Oh, yeah: And when you announce you're rolling out a new logo, actually roll out a new logo.

The Browns announced that awhile back, and then, well, tripped over the hassock again. The "new logo" is actually the old logo, only the orange is brighter. As a commenter observed in the story that unveiled the new logo, it looks they just changed the toner on the copy machine.

Really, Brownies?

Look. No one's a bigger fan of traditional unis than this guy. I happen to like the Browns' plain orange helmets. I might be the only man in America who wishes the Bengals hadn't dumped their copycat orange helmets with "Bengals" on the side for the tiger stripes. I still wish the Rams would go back to the traditional blue-and-white, the Chargers to the white helmets with the lightning bolts and numbers on the sides, and the Patriots to the sneering patriot in the tricorn hat, eternally preparing to hike the ball and knock you on your redcoat ass.

So if the Browns just want to pull out an orange crayon and freshen up their traditional look, good on them.

Just don't say you're breaking out a new logo. 'Cause you really didn't.

Although, in fairness, it's hard to conceive what new logo they could have come up with.

Perhaps a brown Milk-Bone, aggressively tilted forward on a field of orange. Bernie Kosar with his hands over his eyes. The little Brownie guy, visibly drunk, sending a fumble-fingered text.

These (bleepin') guys ...

Yeah. That.




Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Court (non)sense

First things first this morning, as the image of Bill Self being crushed against the scorer's table remains fresh:

Kansas was ranked eighth. Eighth.

The Jayhawks weren't No. 1. They weren't even in the top five. They weren't undefeated, and they didn't come in trailing an 81-game winning streak the way the John Wooden UCLA Bruins once did, and they weren't, like those Bruins, the seven-time defending national champions. They were just a pretty good team in a season where there's a lot of pretty good teams, and one great one in Lexington, Ky.

And still.

Still the students rushed the court down there in Manhattan, Kan., after Kansas State took 'em down. Still the mob became its own potentially lethal weapon. Still it was just another episode of made-for-TV mayhem that suggested K-State students must not get out much, and also that the rushing-the-court thing long ago jumped the shark.

Except that in this case, it became the shark.

A mob is a mob is a mob, and its mindlessness carries just as sharp an edge whether it springs from delirious joy or red-mad fury. And so there was Kansas coach Bill Self, crushed against the scorer's table. There was Kansas State coach Bruce Weber desperately trying to get the mob to back off. And there were a couple of Kansas players being assaulted -- there's no other word -- as they tried to leave the floor.

Question: What happens if one of those players starts throwing punches in retaliation, and a student goes down, and that student gets trampled as a result?

Question: What happens if Weber's unsuccessful, and Self goes down and gets trampled?

Question: Does this really have to end in tragedy, and criminal charges, and ruined lives, before it finally just ends?

Look. I know how this sounds, coming from me. It sounds like your mom telling you to zip up your coat and put your hat and gloves on, it's cold outside. It sounds like Get Off My Lawn Man ranting about These Kids Today, forgetting that he was once one of them. It sounds like the kind of thing they play laugh tracks over in sitcoms.

Get Off My Lawn Man doesn't care. Because one of these days this is all going to end very badly.

I'm thinking now of an ESPN 30-For-30 I watched not too long ago about the Hillsborough Stadium soccer tragedy in Sheffield, England. During an FA Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in 1989, 96 people were crushed to death and 766 were injured after the standing-room only section grew dangerously overcrowded. Police finally collapsed the gates and the panicked crowd stampeded onto the field to get away.

It's not precisely analogous to fans rushing the floor at a basketball game, but the elements are the same. As is the potential for disaster. Just ask Joe Kay, who a decade ago scored the winning bucket in a high school game in Tucson, Ariz., and then was trampled when his schoolmates rushed the floor in celebration.

Kay's in a wheelchair now. Bill Self, and others, could have wound up meeting the same fate, if not for the grace of God and pure dumb luck.

So what do you?

Well, the SEC has already banned rushing the court, and fines those who do a hefty sum. Maybe every conference needs to follow suit, with the additional addendum that those who do face criminal charges.

Let 'em storm their jail cells. Get Off My Lawn Man speaks.  



Monday, February 23, 2015

Oscar wins Daytona

So now Daytona is in the books and so are the Oscars, and let me just say that was one hell of a drive Eddie Redmayne put on. And doesn't Danica have a set of pipes?

Odd convergence of events on George Washington's Birthday, and it left me with an odd jumble of thoughts. I wish Jeff Gordon had won his last Daytona, and I wish Benedict Cumberbatch had won best actor for "The Imitation Game." I wish every driving instructor in America would show students those last 30 laps at Daytona as an example of how to drive in expressway traffic, and I wish  2015 hadn't been the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music, which I loathe and despise with every molecule of my being.

(This goes back, well, 50 years. I was a 10-year-old boy whose favorite TV show was "Combat." So my mom drags me off to see this interminable film about singing nannies and mountains and singing couples falling in love and disgustingly well-behaved children who are constantly singing while they climb mountains. You can imagine).

(But I have to say, even though I sat through the tribute thinking dark thoughts about how you could really solve a problem like Maria, Lady Gaga's musical tribute was stunning. That woman can carry a tune).

Meanwhile, back at Daytona ...

No, Eddie Redmayne didn't win. Joey Logano did, and hats off to him. And hats off also to Clint Bowyer, because at Daytona you're only as good as your friends, and Bowyer was a pretty good friend.

It was Bowyer who pushed Logano to the lead up there on the outside line, and after that it was Logano's race to lose.  A lot of times at Daytona you don't want to be the guy out front, but Sunday, for some reason, out front is where you wanted to be. That's because everyone was even more equal than they usually are in a plate race.

And, listen, as much the Blob has taken them to task for constantly running into each other at these deals, a moment here to give credit where it's due. For most of the last 30 laps or so, they ran three-wide around the place at 200 mph, whipping up a devil's brew of turbulence. And yet the Big One never happened, at least until the last half-lap. It was one of the most jaw-dropping displays of collective driving skill you're ever going to see.

Gordon was one of the victims of all that skill, as it turned out. He was in the lead pack as the laps ground down, but there simply wasn't anywhere to go because no one was making any mistakes or leaving any holes. In the end he got turned by Ty Dillon to trigger the last-lap scrum and finished 33rd -- a parting kick in the teeth from Daytona after he'd run up front all day and led a race-high 87 laps.

Kinda like Benedict Cumberbatch losing to Eddie Redmayne.

But I digress. Again.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

A few thoughts on That Race

It's still white-on-white outside, winter in full snow-muffled regalia. But down in Daytona, Fla., this afternoon, summer's about to make a daring daylight raid.

The Daytona 500 breaks out this afternoon, and so wind 'em up, America, and tell Jack London's Frozen North Collection to kiss your heinie. Of course, given that it's Daytona, the only reliable prediction you can make is that you can't reliably predict anything -- except that at some point mayhem will ensue the way it always ensues when 43 loons start flat-footing it around 2.5 miles of banked asphalt.

So, no calls here on your winner. Only a few other calls.

1. At some point, mayhem will ensue.

Daytona being Daytona, there will be at least one big wreck early and three late. The three late crashes will all happen in the last 15 laps. Danica Patrick will be in the middle of one of them. So will the half-dozen or so others who tend to crash as much as Danica does, despite the prevailing opinion these days that only Danica crashes a lot.

2. If he's still around, someone will try to push Jeff Gordon to the front in the final laps.

One year at Daytona, back when he was still Wonderboy and winning every other race (or so it seemed), Gordon was heard to lament on his radio that "we've got no friends out here."  That won't be the case today.

NASCAR being notoriously susceptible to sentiment, you can expect Gordon to have no shortage of drafting partners when the laps get skinny today. This is, after all, his last Daytona 500 as a full-time driver. So he'll get help. And if the Hendricks cars are as strong as they've been all week, it might be enough help to enable him to escape the usual cluster at the end of the race and take the checkers. Which of course wouldn't be the first time the script came out right in a NASCAR event.

3. If the script does come out right, expect the conspiracy theorists to suggest there actually is a script.

Because, you know, they're conspiracy theorists. It's what they do.

4. At least one person you never thought would be in the mix will be in the mix.

Because so much is subject to whim at Daytona, the usual suspects usually get their party crashed by Who's That. Remember when the otherwise obscure Trevor Bayne came out of nowhere to win one year? Remember when Ward Burton, who won just five Cup races in 13 seasons, somehow won Daytona one year?

And what about Martin Truex Jr.? Anyone remember him?

No reason you should. He had an awful year in 2014, finishing in the top five just once and leading a single lap all season. But he was strong last week in the Sprint Unlimited all-star race, and he was strong in his qualifying race this week, finishing fifth, and he goes off 10th today. Don't be surprised if he's up front somewhere late.

And last but not least ...

5. A Busch will not win this race.

That's because Kurt is suspended. And Kyle's out of it after an ugly tangle with a concrete inside wall which left him with a broken right leg and a broken left foot.

So there's one Daytona prediction sure to be right. If perhaps the only one.    

The timelessness of Miracles

So I turn on my car radio and Mike Eruzione is talking, summoning up a moment 35 years gone. America was deep in its malaise, and here came Rizzo and Jimmy and Buzzy, all the boys, and here was the inscrutable Herb Brooks back there behind the bench ...

And, well. Yes. Every American alive then, and some not, know the rest: Embarrassed by the mighty Red Army juggernaut barely two week before, the U.S, Olympic hockey team shocked the world in Lake Placid, and we waved our flags and were lifted up. The Soviets yanked the best goaltender in the world, Vladislav Tretiak, and Eruzione scored the go-ahead goal with exactly 10 minutes to play, and here at the end was Al Michaels yipping "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" while, underneath that benediction, Ken Dryden softly intoned his own: "Unbelievable."

Thirty-five years ago today.

What that speaks to, of course, is the shelf life of miracles, how somehow they remain forever fresh no matter how much distance we have put between us. I am coming up on 60 years old, which means I have lived more than half my life since that night in Lake Placid. Exactly as much time has passed between the Miracle and now as had then passed between the Miracle and the end of World War II. It has been that long.

But because the story is so endlessly told, and thus so endlessly renewed, we forget how long it's been, and what an utterly different world it was then. ESPN had been born, but no one had yet heard of it. There was no such thing as wireless, the internet, cellphones or personal computers. You could buy something called a VCR then, but they cost $1,500 and most of us didn't know anyone who owned one.

Elsewhere in the sports world, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were rookies in an NBA that was so devalued, the previous season Finals games had aired on tape delay. Not even the Olympics were totally live. That included the Miracle, which was played early on a Friday evening and then broadcast later that night.

I was a 24-year-old kid working for the dear departed Anderson Daily Bulletin then, and that night I was in Elwood, Indiana, covering a high school basketball game. I was down at the scorer's table taking down the JV box when the P.A. guy announced the score. The place went nuts, and, abandoning my own objectivity, I punched the air with my fist.

Later, back at the office, we all huddled around the TV to watch the last 10 minutes. Even knowing how it came out, it was excruciating -- mainly because there was still such an air of unreality about it, you kept expecting the Soviets to score on every rush. Somehow, they never did.

And, somehow, it lives on. And on. And on.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Swift justice

So apparently it's not just on the field of play that NASCAR is way faster than the National Football League.

No Roger Goodell-like dithering or tepid half-measures applied when the ruling came down that Kurt Busch had smashed his ex-girlfriends head against a motorhome wall at Dover last Sept. 26. Virtually as soon as the Kent County (Del.) family court commissioner granted Busch's ex a protective order, NASCAR borrowed Roger the Hammer's dormant accoutrement and brought it down on Busch, suspending him indefinitely from racing or any other related activities.

This is how you send a message about domestic violence, and because NASCAR did so, it won't have to trouble itself with makeup calls and playing the public relations catchup game. There was no pussyfooting, and so there'll be no accompanying soft-shoe to curry lost public favor.

In retrospect it probably didn't help Busch's cause that he's been such an incorrigible horse's ass over the years, bad-acting his way out of a ride with Roger Penske and only recently getting a second (or third, or fourth) chance from Tony Stewart, collector of lost souls/stalled careers. And it for sure doesn't help that his mouthpiece is attorney Rusty Hardin -- the same goof who represents Adrian Peterson, and who said on ESPN's Mike &  Mike one morning that Peterson's 4-year-old son didn't suffer any permanent damage from his father beating him with a stick, and so it was all good.

This time Hardin, who's predictably painted Busch's ex as a bald-faced liar, said he was confident Busch would be exonerated in the long run. (Kept waiting for him to also say his ex had suffered no permanent damage from getting her head smashed into a wall, but no dice). Yeah, whatever, son. After all, who could possibly believe Busch would lose his temper like that?

NASCAR, for one. And now Busch is out, gone, finished at Faber.

 And Roger Goodell?

Still conducting news conferences.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Makin' it snappy

To say watching baseball is sometimes like watching paint dry does a disservice to paint.

First of all, paint dries faster than you think. And second of all, it makes your average Red Sox-Yankees game look positively glacial, mainly because ... well, because your average Red Sox-Yankees game is positively glacial.

Entire Ice Ages spin past in the time it takes a batter to step out of the box to adjust his batting glove, step back in, step back out and step back in. And you could read a Stephen King novel (one of the real doorstoppers) in the time it takes a pitcher to  actually throw a pitch.

By which time the batter is yet again stepping out of the box to adjust his batting glove. Or his helmet. Or his hair.

And people think nothing ever happens in soccer.

Like paint drying, soccer is a blur by comparison, which is why the news that came down this morning is the gladdest of tidings. Major League Baseball, noting that an average nine-inning game now takes more than three hours to play, is instituting a series of rules to speed up play.

As with everything else in baseball, it took 'em long enough.

Essentially, MLB is putting in place four rules: that  managers stay in the dugout during replay challenges, that hitters keep at least one foot in the batter's box during at-bats, that there is a prompt return to play after TV commercial breaks and that pitching changes will be subject to the clock.

For this, all thinking fans of the game should shout "Hoorah." With all due speed.

That's because the game we all grew up with, and the one with which the nation became enamored,  was never intended to be a leisurely exercise. It was intended to be fast-paced and bang-bang-bang. That's the way it was played in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and that's why it became the National Pastime during that era.

Accounts of games from those years indicate it was the rare nine innings that stretched to two hours; most were played in well under that. Even taking into consideration the fact there were no TV breaks, the game was played at a much faster clip then, and that was even the case as recently as 34 years ago -- when, TV breaks and all, the average MLB game ran a little over two-and-a-half hours.


Now some regulation games plod along for three-and-a-half or even four hours. That's absurd. And it's not the way the game is supposed to be played.

Here's some irony for you: One of the reasons Americans regarded baseball as superior to one of its antecedents, cricket, is that unlike cricket a match didn't last for days on end. Now some major-league games last for days on end, or so it seems.

Well, to heck with that. After all, if cricket's what we'd wanted, we'd have let the British win the Revolution. 


Flunking bracketology

Some days I get along with bracketology no better than I've gotten along with a lot of Ologies over the years, and also a lot of Luses and Metries, like calcuLus, geoMetry and trigonoMetry.

In other words: Math makes my head hurt.

Right now it's pounding away like a tiny drummer is in there playing particularly a rowdy set, because I'm looking at what happened in Assembly Hall last night. And I'm wondering how certain things can be.

What happened was, Purdue beat Indiana for the second time this season, sweeping the season series. That leaves the Boilermakers 18-9 overall and 10-4 in the Big Ten, tied for second with Maryland. Indiana, meanwhile, is also 18-9, but they're mid-pack in the conference at 8-6.

And yet according to the bracketologists, Indiana's still a solid 7 seed in the Madness, while Purdue remains on the outside looking in. And basically that's because Indiana beat Butler and SMU in December, while Purdue failed to beat Gardner-Webb.

In December.

Which was, you know, last year. And, in Purdue's case, bears as much relevance to the basketball team the Boilermakers are now than if it had happened not last year but six years ago.

Yes, I know, their non-conference schedule is killing them, but their non-conference schedule is yesterday's news. And Indiana's continues to exert far more influence than it should for the same reason. But that's how bracketology works. Numbers is numbers; context means nothing, or at least very little. And so Indiana is in and Purdue is out even though the Boilermakers are clearly the better team right now -- which, you know, is kinda all that should matter.

Listen: In terms of being in or out of the tournament field, I don't care who a team beat or lost to three months before the tournament begins. That was three months ago, and in the lifespan of a basketball season, three months is an eternity. Who are you beating now, with the Madness right around the corner? Who are you losing to now?

That's all I want to know. That's all I care about. But, of course, I'm the same guy who almost flunked algebra in high school.

Could never figure out when in my life I'd ever have to add an X and a Y.

Or, in this case, why anyone should care about ... Gardner-Webb, was it?



Thursday, February 19, 2015

The price of candor

I forgive you, Kevin Durant.

I forgive you for going off on the media the other day, even though the media kind of had it coming this case, even though you've never gone off on the media before.

I forgive you for defending your head coach in a moment of (gasp!) candor, and for telling the media it didn't know (bleep). Because, frankly, sometimes we don't.

I forgive you mainly for being human, a condition for which the media has little tolerance.  Everybody snaps at some point, particularly under the unblinking eye of 24/7/365 scrutiny. You can say, with some justification, that being a celebrity/public figure makes being under 24/7/365 scrutiny a condition of employment, and so no whining allowed. But to also say no being human allowed is to ask the impossible.

It's the oddest thing. Those of us in sports media are constantly complaining that we get nothing of substance from athletes anymore, mainly because athletes don't really need us anymore.  They break their own news now on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook.  To say that makes media types a bit edgy is understating it.

And so, KD, when you went off the other day, we secretly loved it. It was the rare message we got to control -- the classic "gotcha" in what distressingly has become a "gotcha" culture. And if we were at the same time outraged at being the target of your candor, it betrayed our uneasiness at not really being needed anymore. Hence all that nonsense about "biting the hand that feeds you."

I forgive you, Kevin Durant, for calling us out on that. Actually, I thank you for it. Because it was a good reminder, in an age of 24/7/365 media, that no matter how pervasive we've become, we're no more all-that than anyone else. We don't make anyone a star; coaches and parents and work ethic makes stars.     

So, yeah, thanks, KD. And thanks for what you said Tuesday, because it was the straight-up bare-wood truth.

"I had a moment," you said. "Everybody in life has moments. You've had one for sure before, but it's not broadcasted like mine. I was more so trying to take up for my teammates, my coach and other guys in the league that gets scrutinized and I don't like ... What made me more mad than anything I was told I bite the hand that feeds me. I don't know what that means. I really don't know what that means. I wish someone would explain it to me. But I don't remember none of you guys being there when I was 8 years old and putting in that work, the nights when I'm in here putting in that work. So I don't really understand what that one means.

"But, hey, I gotta roll with it. That's a part of it. I was told I shouldn't cry 'cause everybody been through it. So I'm going to shut up."

Do us a favor, KD. Please don't.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The real all-stars

I didn't watch a second of the NBA All-Star Game last night, but word has reached me that basketball was somehow involved. A lot of baskets were made, apparently. Russell Westbrook scored 41 points while being double-teamed by molecules of air. The West scored a record 163 points -- and that was just in warmups.

I'm sorry I missed it. I was watching Peyton Manning pick on an 8-year-old instead.

Sunday was, after all, the mammoth Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary show, 3 1/2 hours of astounding talent occasionally interrupted by whatever that was Kanye West was doing. (Rapping while lying on the floor and being accompanied by a Chia pet? Wha--?). It was a great big belly laugh of a nostalgia wallow, and at one point here came Peyton and Derek Jeter to talk about all the athletes who've hosted, and then to show a montage of clips.

Let me say this about that: They could have stopped with Peyton, LeBron James and Charles Barkley. Because just about every other athlete who's hosted was forgettable.

Those three, however, had the chops to do the thing, and it was glorious. Who could forget Sir Charles abusing Barney the Dinosaur in a game of one-on-one? Or LeBron doing a turn as a Solid Gold Dancer? Or, yes, Peyton's memorable fake United Way spot, in which he knocks down little kids with footballs, berates them for not catching the ball and teaches them how to break into a car?

It's very simply the single greatest athlete sketch ever on SNL, and Peyton's appearance was the single greatest appearance. The man's so locked in and humorless in his day job you forget how genuinely funny he can be -- a trait apparently shared by his brothers, particularly the oldest, Cooper, the only Manning sibling who didn't play pro football.

Cooper, it seems, is the real comedian in the family. The best story (possibly apocryphal) comes from Peyton's days at Tennessee, when the Manning clan would head up to Knoxville for his home games. Before one game, Cooper, who bears a striking resemblance to Peyton, went out on the town. There he sat with a beer and a cigar in hand, and people kept coming up to him, shocked, wondering what Peyton was doing out and about the night before a game.

Cooper would just grin and look at them.

"Ah, hell," he said. "It's only Vanderbilt."

Hmm. Maybe SNL should book him next.


Apology 101

So now I imagine Jim McNally, the locker-room attendant on whom Deflategate is apparently going to be pinned, is already penning a heartfelt apology on the back of his pink slip. And if he properly plays the role of patsy for which heaven or the New England Patriots made him, you can pretty much guess what words it will contain and what words it won't.

The words it won't: Some combination of "Brady," "Belichick", "told", "me" and "to."

One word it will, regrettably: "mistake."

This is the problem with mea culpas: They're a lost art, if in fact they were ever a found art. No one in the public arena knows how to do them right. They admit wrongdoing without actually admitting wrongdoing, presumably on the advice of their dopey1-800-HURT attorneys. Thus the continual laying of blame on someone named Mistakes Were Made, who apparently is one of the most incorrigible felons of our time.

The other day, for instance, Alex Rodriguez tried to mend fences with Yankees fans with a handwritten apology for his latest PED dalliance. The tone of it suggested even A-Rod knew it was a futile gesture, given how completely he'd atomized the fences. But he struck all the right chords -- contrition, responsibility, acknowledging his nodding acquaintance with the truth -- except for one.  He used the word "mistake."

Um, no, no and no. A mistake is when you inadvertently add a couple extra zeroes to a check and pay for the pizza delivery guy's college education.  Taking PEDs is a willful act. It's not a mistake, it's a decision.

And so here's how A-Rod should have framed his mea culpa. It is, frankly, how every public figure should frame a mea culpa:

"Dear fans: I'd like to apologize to all of you for that thing that happened. What happened was, I took PEDs again. I did it not because someone slipped them into my 5-Hour Energy shot, but because I thought I could get away with it. I mean, hell, look how long Lance Armstrong got away with it.

"It wasn't a mistake, like when you overpay the pizza delivery guy. I knew exactly what I was doing. But I did it anyway because, you know, Lance Armstrong. And because I wanted to hit homers and be Alex Rodriguez again.

"Why? Well, because, basically, I'm all about Alex Rodriguez. I really didn't give a (bleep) about the Yankees. And I for sure didn't give a (bleep) about you, the fans. I realize now that makes me a selfish jerk. I beg your forgiveness for that. And I beg the Yankees' forgiveness, not that I deserve it or anything."

See how easy?


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Combine this

Today in Indianapolis begins the Blob's second favorite overheated NFL story of the year, right after the NFL draft and right before Roger Goodell's next news conference, during which he'll say, "I thought Ray Rice played for the Clippers. No, really, guys."

Forget that noise. Because it's NFL Combine Time again! 

Nothing gets you ready for football, two weeks after the Super Bowl, like watching guys in shorts with numbers pinned to their shirts run sprints and jump real high and bench-press Volvos. Predictions will be made. Brows will wrinkle over 40-yard dash times, even the 40 times put up by linemen, who'll dash 40 yards about once in their NFL careers. There'll be serious debate over whether Marcus Mariota can make it in the league now that it's been revealed he's only 6-3 1/2 and not 6-4, and whether Jameis Winston can put up a sufficient Wonderlic score if the test doesn't include the question "If Jameis has six crab legs and Billy has five, who do they send to raid the dairy case for butter?"

OK, OK. So I kid.

Seriously, though, the combine is the clearest of all windows into the obsessive over-analysis that is the NFL's dominant meme these days. Nothing better illustrates what a completely corporate entity it is than the combine, which reduces the hopes and dreams of flesh-and-blood humans into little more than a commodities market. Because a commodities market is what it is.

Players aren't players, they're investments. And they're judged as such.

This is, of course, unavoidable, and the direct result of pro football's popularity in this country. That popularity has made it America's No. 1 pastime, but as with everything it comes at a cost. In this case, it's the romance of it all. That began to disappear the first time the NFL moved off Sunday afternoons to Monday night, and it utterly vanished when advertisers began to pay 50 gazillion clams for a minute of air time during the Super Bowl.

Now the Super Bowl commercials are nearly as big an event as the game itself. And that, too, speaks volumes.

What it says is that all this is just bloodless commerce now, and the romance is gone. Everything is reduced to what can be quantified: A 40 time, a vertical, X-number of reps of X-amount of weight. The only pleasure left is imagining how teams would have judged players from the past whose gifts were unquantifiable. Would  Joe Montana, at barely 6-1 and with what was deemed at the time an average arm, have passed the combine? How did Drew Brees and Russell Wilson, two more prospects who would have flunked the tape measure, succeed? Would Joe Namath, a great talent but indifferent student at Alabama, have been deemed a "character risk" because Bear Bryant suspended him one year after a public intoxication arrest?

And how would Bobby Layne, the noted hell-raiser who quarterbacked the Lions to their last NFL title, have fared on the Wonderlic?

Q: You have a big game on Sunday. But your friends want you to go out. What do you?

1) Beg off, saying you have a big game on Sunday.

2) Go out with them for awhile but drink nothing stronger than a cappuccino or two.

3) Have a few drinks but be home by midnight.

Bobby would have answered  the questions with a question: "What the hell's a cappuccino? And can you put whiskey in it?"

Ah, the days. The days.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Ah, the first feud of spring

Snow drew white curtains across your vision. The mercury headed for the skinny numbers. And every time the wind shrieked, it brought Ice Station Zebra with it.

Heck of a day to look up and find spring again.

I saw it last night from my living room couch, just past where the dog was curled up next to a cheery fire. Turned on the TV, and there were two walking logos yelling at each other. Spring had sprung.

NASCAR was back, and, on an icebox night in the Midwest, that did what it always does for me. It told me spring was coming, no matter what that stupid groundhog says. It told me soon, very soon, I would be able to walk outside without dressing like Neil Armstrong when he walked on the moon. It told me that one of these days I would see green again, no matter how mythic such an occurrence seems now.

I know this because there on my screen was that long freight train of rolling iron, everyone chasing everyone else around Daytona's 31-degree banking in a familiar tableau that snapped you right into summer. It was NASCAR's traditional curtain-raiser, the Sprint Unlimited all-star race, and damned if it didn't look like July on the half-shell. There was the usual restrictor-plate mayhem. There was the usual game-changing pass, this time by Matt Kenseth. And, yes, there was the usual stagecraft in the pits afterward, all that manufactured yelling and finger-pointing by the aforementioned walking logos.

On this night the walking logos were Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano, and as usual with these deals, God only knows what they were upset about. Apparently Logano pushed Harvick a little too aggressively at a track where pushing the guy in front of you is standard procedure for getting to the front.  Logano thought he was doing that; Harvick, for some unfathomable reason, didn't. You could watch the replay 100 times and never figure out why he was so hot.

Unless, of course, he was adhering to the apparently unwritten rule that at least two drivers have to wind up confronting one another after every Cup race. One of those TV deals, I suppose.

In any case ... it was a genteel breath of spring on a rude winter's night, and it warmed the cockles of the heart. Whatever they are.

I'm guessing a car part.


Saturday, February 14, 2015

Your defense of mascots for today

So, Julius Erving thinks mascots have ruined the NBA All-Star Weekend Slamdunk Contest.

(I don't know if that's the official name. But that's what I'm calling it).

He thinks spectacles like the Minnesota Timberwolves mascot dunking off a trampoline and the Phoenix Suns gorilla dunking off a trampoline have turned the contest into the X Games. And that, after you've seen someone in a gorilla/wolf/something-that-looks-like-Bob-Marley-with-paws dunk, seeing actual humans dunk pales in comparison.

Of course, he's right.

And what's wrong with that?

Because, listen, watching humans dunk stopped being interesting when Michael Jordan stopped doing it. Or when Spud Webb stopped doing it. Or when Dr. J himself stopped taking off from the free throw line and doing it.

Those were jaw-dropping moments. Now so many players can dunk in so many inventive ways -- they do stuff in games now that players used to do in the dunk contest -- that it's been there, seen that. Blake Griffin jumping a car is just another way of saying the dunk contest has jumped the shark. There's only so many ways you can cram an orange spheroid into an orange ring, after all. And they've all been done ten times over.

And so ... bring on the mascots!

Because, first of all, mascots are great. And, second of all, mascots are great. And, third of all, an eagle wearing a hockey jersey, a giant red ant and a goofy-looking guy wearing a tin pot on his mammoth head are infinitely more interesting than some NBA player 12 people have heard of dunking a basketball.

I mean, really. Who wouldn't want to see Icy Eagle, Johnny TinCap and the Mad Ant in a dunk-off?

Johnny would get lost on the way to the Coliseum. The Mad Ant would take the basketball away from Icy because, well, he's bigger, plus scary and red. Then Icy would go get his four-wheeler and chase the Mad Ant off the floor, thereby winning the contest by default.

You think Dr. J from the free throw line beats that?


Friday, February 13, 2015

February rising(s)

Quietly now, the two of them make their noise.

Purdue beat Rutgers by 10 last night, on the road, the Boilermakers' eighth conference win and their sixth in their last eight games. They're now tied for second in the Big Ten, two games adrift of Wisconsin.

IPFW hammered IUPUI by 15 Wednesday, on the road, the Mastodons' seventh Summit League win and their sixth straight overall. It's their longest winning streak in 22 years, and they're now fourth in the Summit League after being dead last a month ago.

They are two schools playing basketball on different levels, but with the same trajectory. And doing so while not stirring up a great deal of attention outside their respective spheres of influence.

That's too bad. Attention should be paid.

It should be paid in West Lafayette, because this might be Matt Painter's finest hour. He came to this season on something of a hot seat, although most of that perception admittedly originated outside the Purdue athletic department. And it surely didn't get less warm for him in December when the Boilermakers lost by 30 to Notre Dame and then to Gardner-Webb at home back-to-back.

Well. All of that is a dim memory now, because the Boilers are not that team anymore. Rapheal Davis has stepped emphatically into the senior leadership role every successful team must fill, and everything has flowed from that. He's bought into what Painter is selling, and he's brought everyone with him -- most notably enigmatic big man A.J. Hammons, who's finally achieved a modicum of consistency.

What's come of that is a team that was constructed to win in the Big Ten -- presence on the low blocks and a reasonable amount of scoring elsewhere -- and is doing so. And this despite being picked to finish 11th in the conference preseason poll.

And the Mastodons?

There was a lot of low rumbling that they weren't living up to their high expectations early on, because they weren't. But now they are exactly the team everyone thought they would be when they were picked to win the Summit League, thanks to Steve Forbes getting healthy and a couple of notable personnel moves by head coach Jon Coffman.

The first was inserting Max Landis into the starting backcourt. The second was deciding to bring Joe Reed off the bench, a role Reed filled with gusto last season.

Both have worked famously. Landis has gone for 19, 27 and 14 points in IPFW's last three games. Reed has become Reed again, producing his usual energy and production at both ends. Forbes has reasserted himself under the glass, and a team that looked lost at times six weeks ago has regained the focus and swagger that took it to 25 victories in the breakout 2013-14 season.

The Mastodons may not catch the three teams ahead of them. But do those teams, or anyone else in the conference, want a piece of them right now?

Or, in the Big Ten, want Purdue?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Fun with numbers

There's a 66 percent chance Charles Barkley was right the other night when he said analytics are "crap," that what matters in the NBA is talent.

Eighty-eight percent of guys who used to play will say what he said about guys who didn't, which is that they don't know doody.

 Eighty-nine point six percent of the time, the guys who played will go on to say what Barkley said, which is that the guys who didn't play “never played the game, and they never got the girls in high school, and they just want to get in the game.”

There's a 77.8 percent probability they'll say that because they really are channeling high school again, when the jocks were king and the analytics types -- like, say, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, the target of Barkley's ire -- were the weeny little guys wearing pocket protectors. And, no, they didn't get the girls ,because they spent all their free time figuring the odds that they would go to Harvard while the jocks wound up selling Slurpees at the 7-Eleven.

There's a 99.57 percent chance that's a ridiculous stereotype that doesn't hold up to serious scrutiny.

Sixty-seven percent of the time, the jocks wind up graduating from prestigious universities, too, and 41 percent of the time they do so with degrees that don't involve Theory of Keeping Air In The Balls 101. (Obviously this applies more to members of the New England Patriots than anyone else). In other words, some of them are smart, too, like Barkley -- who says really funny, really provocative stuff 81 percent of the time.

Of course, there's a 77.621 percent chance that what he says is obvious.  Sure, if you've got Michael Jordan on your team, you don't need analytics to beat anybody. And teams put together solely by the numbers never win anything worth talking about (See: The Oakland As, stars of "Moneyball"). But there's a 88.53 percent probability that analytics have some value, too.

That means there's a 99.9 percent chance this entire argument is moot. And that it's 100 percent the product of that age-old jocks-vs.-nerds thing alluded to 3.8 paragraphs ago.

Go figure.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Lights, camera, misbehavior

The death of innocence is never a pretty thing.  And that's especially true when it dies in such tiny increments no one notices until the corpse has been cold for some time.

Which brings us to Little League, and the Jackie Robinson West team from Chicago, and the banal nature of corruption.

The news that Little League was stripping JRW of its U.S. title will evoke no cries of "Is nothing sacred?" here, because at its highest levels Little League hasn't been sacred for some time. In 2015, after all, it's just another made-for-TV spectacle, slickly packaged and given over to the full ESPN treatment. And to the innately corrupting influence of that treatment.

No one in Little League had corruption in mind when it let ESPN into the Little League World Series some years ago, but it was pretty much unavoidable. Whatever innocence there was to the concept of kids from all over the world playing baseball vanished as soon as that first camera went live. TV changes everything, even as inviolable a thing as baseball. And so the lights went on, and the LLWS became a vehicle for celebrity instead of what it was meant to be, which is a game played for the game's own immeasurable sake.

This is especially dismaying when the celebrities who get caught in the glare of the lights are 12 years old. Twelve-year-olds were never meant for the full ESPN treatment, but they're getting it now. And so are their coaches, who got involved not to become TV stars but simply because they loved the game and they loved kids. The juxtaposition of those two things -- pure motives and manufactured celebrity -- never comes out well.

There's no way to know for sure just how much the lure of the TV lights factored into Jackie Robinson West 's illegal padding of its roster, but it would be foolish to think it didn't wield influence on some level. Even if it was all just about Getting To Williamsport, that means something irretrievably different than it used to. Now it means Getting On ESPN, too.

With all that entails. Good and bad.

Mostly, it says here, the latter.

The hour draweth nearer

So I'm in my favorite hangout last night, and on the TVs No. 1 Kentucky and LSU are warming up, and conversation turns again to the rash promise I made back in November, when I wrote that if Kentucky went undefeated, I would print out that particular blog post and eat it.

I told a friend, who's a huge UK fan, that I was starting to worry.

"I don't know. I'm kinda nervous about this one," said the friend, whose name is Doug. Which is what he always says.

"Listen, the only way LSU beats them is if they bring Pete Maravich back from the dead," I replied.

Well, the Tigers tried. But in the end, Pistol Pete stayed dead, and Kentucky survived by two. And now they're 24-0, their two stiffest road tests are behind them, and the only games that look worrisome (No. 24 Arkansas and Florida) are both at home in that blue hell called Rupp Arena.

And now I'm getting nervous.

Because, listen, if the Wildcats were going to lose, it was last night, but they showed grit and poise down the stretch and didn't. And so now I've gotta deal with a team that has grit and poise on top of talent and depth and structure and unselfishness. And discipline. Don't forget discipline.

This isn't looking good.

If UK runs the regular season table, then I've gotta hope they get knocked off in the SEC tournament, which frankly is probably my best hope. They won't be desperate; a lot of other teams who are trying to get into the Madness will be. Once the Madness begins, I think Kentucky will be pumped, because then they'll be chasing a national title.

Of course ... if the Wildcats run the regular season table, they'll enter the SEC tourney chasing history. So they'll have motivation there, too.

Let's face it. I'm screwed here.

As for Doug ...

He's warming up the marinara sauce.   

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Cinema verite. With bruises.

You can cue the soundtrack now, because Ed Sabol is gone at the stout age of 98. And it's a tribute to the man's life and influence that everyone older than, say, 2 or 3 knows exactly which soundtrack.

It played in your head in the backyard as you feinted and swerved and stiff-armed imaginary tacklers, the football tucked under your arm like a loaf of bread. Brass blared and strings soared as you threw wobbly passes to yourself, after which you spiked the ball triumphantly between one spreading oak and the next.

Doo-doo DOO-doo doo-DOO-doo doo-DOO doo ...

It was the musical score to your childhood autumns, and Ed Sabol, the founder of NFL Films, put it there. Because of Ed Sabol, you sometimes danced between the oaks in slow motion. Because of Ed, you knew who John Facenda was -- the sonorous voice of God who narrated the NFL Films highlight packages, and whose solemn delivery made you feel that sitting down to watch the Bears on Sunday afternoons was as reverent an experience as standing in the middle of the Sistine Chapel and looking up.

And that was when Jack Concannon was the Bears' quarterback.

(Facenda, by the way, was always credited with inventing the term "the frozen tundra." In truth, he never uttered those words. Although it sounded like something he'd say).

Sabol didn't invent the NFL, but what he did invent was a certain look and feel that became the signature image of pro football to generations of fans. All those tight, slow-motion shots. The soaring music. Facenda. The exaggerated gravity that turned what was essentially a child's game into a  weighty American ritual, infused with meaning and portent.

Even if it was just Concannon throwing another spiral into Lake Michigan.

NFL Films made even that look like it was an act beyond the grasp of mortals, and so today, in Ed Sabol's honor, the music of your life should be Doo-doo DOO-doo doo-DOO-doo doo-DOO doo. 
And John Facenda should be narrating it.

These are men ... great men ... men who can battle the elements and emerge triumphant. Men who can face the frozen waffle with courage and will, and force it to emerge warm and fluffy and delicious. Especially with syrup.

Well. We'll work on it.



One touched Knick

James Dolan may not be the worst owner in professional sports. But he could win an Oscar for the portrayal.

Dolan has been the owner of the New York Knicks for 16 years, a stewardship notable only for the ironic use of the word "stewardship." Under Dolan's hand, the Knicks have won just three playoff series. They've had 10 losing seasons. They've made comically disastrous signings, hired Isiah Thomas and generally devolved from one of the NBA's landmark franchises into a laughing stock. So far this season, they're the worst team in the league at 10-42.

And so, taking all that into consideration, a longtime Knicks fan sent Dolan an e-mail. It was not a nice e-mail, but it was accurate. Basically the author ran down Dolan's resume as owner, then pleaded with him to sell the team before he could again do something stupid.

Too late.

In response, Dolan attacked his attacker by theorizing that he was miserable human being who was a burden to his family and likely an alcoholic. And that, as such, the Knicks didn't want him. He could go root for the Nets instead.

It's unclear what sort of font Dolan used to frame his reply.  But if there's a font called "Childish Scrawl,"  that would have been perfect.

Listen. I'm not James Dolan, and thank God for that. But I've gotten my share of nasty e-mails over the years, too. What you learn very quickly to do is simply delete the personal attacks, and send a measured response to those who criticize in a measured fashion.

Dolan chose the I'll Channel My Inner 3-Year-Old approach instead. And you know the worst part?

The worst part is NBA commissioner Adam Silver essentially shrugged, saying only that Dolan was being "the consummate New Yorker." To which, if I were a New Yorker, I would have taken offense, given that Silver essentially implied that all New Yorkers are petulant jackasses with the emotional maturity of a toddler.

Maybe a lot of them are. But the ones I've met aren't.

Of course, I've never met James Dolan.

Thank God.



Monday, February 9, 2015

A Tiger's sunset

Golf was on the box Sunday afternoon, coming at you live from Torrey Pines in California. The grass was green. The ocean was blue. Some people named Jason Day, Harris English and J.B. Holmes were out there hitting balls around in short-sleeve shirts and sunglasses.

From the vantage point of Dead O' Winter, USA, it all looked impossibly fantastical, a world where the colors came at you in chunks so bright they hurt your eyes, accustomed as they've become to the  gray and white palette of February.

Or, as it's known in these parts, Bleeping February.

Bleeping February looked pretty darn non-Bleeping out there in Torrey Pines, and maybe that was why you didn't really notice who wasn't there. Didn't really notice that Tiger Woods, whom the network suits keep insisting is golf in the flesh, was MIA again.

In actuality this time, instead of merely by circumstance.

Truth is, at 38, Tiger is yesterday's news, no matter how the teevees keep thrusting him upon us. If he still moves the needle for the golf audience, it's largely nostalgia that fuels it, plus the unending media obsession that keeps making him the story even when he's not.

And mostly these days, he's not. He's a golfer with a bad back pushing 40, is what he is. Last week he shot an 82 and missed the cut. This weekend, he tweaked his surgical back again and had to withdraw from a tournament he's won eight times. It was the third time in his last nine tournaments he's had to quit the course.

Right now, who knows when he'll return, or what shape his game will be in when he does. Or if it matters at all outside the sphere of the teevees, given that right now he stands 62nd in the world golf
rankings, down there with the Graham Delaets and Kevin Streelmans of the world.

The bare truth of it is, he's not Tiger Woods anymore. He's a guy trying to find a swing that won't make his back scream like an actress in a horror flick, same as a lot of hackers and machete artists out there.  His short game's a mess. His putter works the way a 38-year-old's putter always works, which is intermittently.  He's ... well, nothing special.

Only the golf fans and the teevees chasing the ghost of what he once was make it look like he still is.

For everyone else, the game has moved on. Jason Day's the guy to watch now. Rory McIlroy. Rickie Fowler and Adam Scott and Bubba Watson and a dozen or so others.

Tiger Woods?

He's still got some game. If he ever gets healthy enough for long enough, he may still win a tournament or two here or there. But his day as a force in the game is done.

No matter how long the teevees wait in the parking lot for him, hoping for a word after his latest 82. Or his latest withdrawal.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Wind 'em up again

The thunder was never going to stay away. Somehow you knew that.

Somehow you knew there were too many blaring Saturday nights out there past the runways, too much Moose Myers and Tom Wible and a zillion flat-footing others. Fifty years is a goodly space of days for anything, much less 3/8 of a mile of pretty much flat greasy asphalt, and so when Baer Field Speedway went quiet two days before the Fourth of July last summer, you knew it wouldn't stay that way. You knew all that sound and fury wasn't going to just dissipate into the ether, that after five decades it had seeped into the very ground and was simply lying dormant, like springtime in February.

Which, come to think of it, was kind of what we got the other day when Dave Muzzillo of Angola,  
president of the International Championship Auto Racing Top Speed Modified Tour, was introduced as the now 52-year-old track’s new promoter.

And if that counts as the best of news for local race  fans -- and the drivers who spent their Saturday nights under Baer Field's smoky lights -- there was also a feeling of inevitability to it.

To be sure, keeping a local bullring like BFS upright is a hard dollar in 2015, with chronically high fuel costs and an economy that, while back on its feet and moving forward again, is fundamentally different than the economy of our fathers and grandfathers. And so anytime a local racetrack can make a go of it, it's a victory.

But in Baer Field's case, a victory you sensed would eventually come.

It's an article of faith that what you see on Sunday afternoons at Daytona or Bristol or Darlington was born on hundreds of Saturday nights in hundreds of places, all those bright globes of light and sound scattered through the rural darkness of middle America. That's not quite as true now as it used to be, but it's still true enough. And that makes places like Baer Field and Eldora and Winchester and Angola places that are still worth the investment.

 For as much as high-end racing has gone corporate, there still must be grassroots to sustain it, and few places have deeper ones than Baer Field. Across five decades, a dozen Daytona 500 winners and eight NASCAR Cup champions have raced there. Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Unser once held the track record. Fellow 500 winners Al Unser Sr., Gordon Johncock and Johnny Rutherford turned a wheel there.

 The thunder, sunk deep.

And now, come April, it will rise again. The lights will blaze. The  tire smoke will drape its veil of haze around them. The P.A. announcer will shout, the green will drop and a pile of Detroit muscle will loudly clear its throat.

Nothing will ever sound more eloquent.


Friday, February 6, 2015

Home sweet home

You know what you say now, you NFL fan who long ago was shunted aside by the wants and needs of the Shield. You say, who needs it, right?

Who needs to wipe out a month's wages just to park a nautical mile from the stadium, sit a nautical mile from the action and pay eight bucks for a Bud Light? Right here in your own living room, you've got the best view in the house on HD TV. You've got your own private bathroom. You've got a couch and snacks and all the Bud Light you can pour down your neck, and it doesn't even cost eight bucks a six-pack.

Well. The Shield has heard you. And it doesn't like it.

It doesn't like being one-upped by the common ruck, even though it created the situation itself. And so now there's this: The Miami Dolphins are going to horn in on your action.

They're knocking out seats in Sun Life Stadium to create 32 "living rooms." Yes, that's right. The rich elites who already occupy all the good seats in NFL stadiums will have their own recliners, iPads, and HD TVs, either 32-inch or 24-inch.

In other words, your living room will become their living room. The difference being, their living room will cost $75,000 for the standard package, ensuring that Joe Fan in his Aaron Rodgers jersey will never darken its door.

Lord knows why you'd want to spend $75,000 for the same experience you could get for nothing in your own living room, except to flaunt that you've got $75,000 just lying around. Except to be able to say, "I've got $75,000, basically three years' pay for you, schmucko, and I'm gonna spend it on a living room inside the stadium because, you know, a living room inside the stadium is better than any living room you'll ever see."

Don't you hate that?

Don't you hope the recliners won't recline and the reception on the TVs will be snowy and the snacks will amount to a lonely package of month-old bologna?  Don't you then hope Mr. I've Got Money To Just Throw Away will show up at your door, looking all downcast and pathetic, and beg to watch the game in your living room?

Because you know what your response will be.

"Sure. That'll be 75 Gs, please. And the pigs-in-a-blanket are mine, so don't even think about it."


Thursday, February 5, 2015

The luckless ones

Enough, for  now, about winners and champions and the mortally lucky, like the New England Patriots, who stood and watched as Pete Carroll handed them the Super Bowl by A) not running Marshawn Lynch and B) running instead a pass play that wouldn't have scored anyway.

Let's raise a cracked glass insead this morning to the non-champions, the unlucky, the dogged victims of inexorable fate.

Or, in the case of Cleveland Browns fans, the Dog Pound-ed victims.

America's most frequently dismayed fan base took another shot to the hope gland yesterday when it came out that the Brownies could lose draft picks and face a suspension of GM Ray Farmer for texts sent the sidelines during games. This is a distinct no-no, which is probably why the Browns did it, being as they are the most can't-get-out-of-their-own-way-ing franchise in sports.

It's no fun to worship a team that, like Dick Van Dyke, never misses a chance to trip over the hassock.  But it's been especially hard so far this offseason: Before TextGate, there, came the news that troubled (and immensely talented) wide receiver Josh Gordon would be suspended a year for again violating the league's drug policy, and quarterback Johnny Manziel was headed for rehab to essentially learn how not to be a goofy 22-year-old. Which, of course, simply added to the growing sense of doom among Browns fans that their guys had burned another valuable draft pick.

Raise a glass to 'em. Hell, raise several.

Raise a glass, too, to the young men playing basketball at Syracuse right now. Because of infractions that  occurred before most of them were there, the school self-imposed a postseason ban yesterday. That means no March Madness for a group of players who likely had nothing to do with the infract-ing. Meanwhile, it's no skin off the kids who cheated -- nor, really, of those who either let it happen or actively helped it happen.

Here's what I think the school should have done: Suspend Jim Boeheim and his coaching staff and let the team coach itself in the tournament. It's not as far-fetched as you might think. My father, who played high school ball in Indiana in the '40s, remembers that during timeouts the team captain ran the huddle, not the coach. So there's precedent of a sort.

Of course, that would never happen in major college basketball, where the coaches are the stars and the players merely the supporting cast. There's too much chance Syracuse might actually do OK. This might get people thinking that maybe the coaches don't have as much to do with things as we're encouraged to believe -- and that in turn might get them wondering why these guys are making such huge piles of money.

Bottom line, it's about the bottom line. Another great idea killed by commerce.



Wednesday, February 4, 2015

It's not about ... who's driving

Once upon a time, in an alternate reality far, far away, Lance Armstrong was the knight without stain, a man so above reproach that even to suggest his brave narrative might be a little too brave brought down wrath unending.

I know. It happened to me.

Wrote one time that it wasn't unreasonable to be a little skeptical of the man's story, which involved rising from his deathbed to, within two years, become the greatest Tour de France champion ever. I didn't wonder aloud how he could be dominating all the drug cheats in his sport if he weren't one himself. In fact, I gave him what turned out to be too much the benefit of the doubt by saying I thought he really was doing it clean.

I bought into the narrative, in other words.

And got killed for it.

Simply because I suggested it wasn't unreasonable to wonder how he did what he did, the e-mails and letters and phone calls poured in. In a quarter-century as a columnist, I was never more viciously slammed for anything -- even my occasional suggestions that Bob Knight was probably not a guy who had a firm grip on his temper.

Well. Now that we know what we know about Lance -- that he was both a fraud and a de facto mafiaso, not only doping but strong-arming others into either silence or complicity -- I often wonder about the people who called or wrote or emailed, and what they're thinking now. And I'm wondering that today, with the news that Lance once again has revealed that character matters, especially when you don't have any.

It seems that just after Christmas, Lance imbibed a little too much one night, got behind the wheel of his car and crashed into a couple of parked vehicles. Then, because he's Lance, he apparently either convinced or allowed his girlfriend to take the fall by claiming she was the one behind the wheel.

It was classic megalomania from a classic megalomaniac.

Look. I'll always tip my hat to the man for beating cancer and becoming a symbol of hope for millions of cancer patients. But I'll also recognize that, ultimately, he turned out to be a false symbol. This latest disclosure does nothing to disabuse me of that. It just makes me sad.

Once upon a time, in an alternate reality far, far away, Lance Armstrong wrote a book with Sally Jenkins titled "It's Not About The Bike."  In retrospect, it might have been the one thing about him that wasn't a bald-faced lie.

It wasn't about the bike, see.  It never has been.

For Lance, it's about Lance. Always.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Johnny Therapy

You learn something every day, if you're lucky. And so today the lesson comes from Johnny Manziel, strange as that may sound.

The lesson is this: You can get help for being 22 years old.

Near as I can figures that's essentially what Manziel, the Cleveland Browns livin'-a-little-too-large quarterback, is entering rehab for, as announced yesterday by Manziel's "spokesperson."  (And when did backup quarterbacks start employing "spokespersons," anyway?). Johnny Football is going to become Johnny Therapy, not for any disclosed substance abuse, but in order to "figure out his value system."

And here I thought people went to church for that.

Johnny, though, is entering rehab for it, which suggests that either he was smart enough to figure out that his life was about to spin completely out of control, or someone close to him was smart enough to figure it out for him. Somehow I think it's the latter, and somehow I think that someone was his employer.

This frankly has the Browns' fingerprints all over it, and further suggests that at some point there was a come-to-Jesus meeting between Manziel and management. And if there was, I imagine the gist of it was that Johnny Football needed to rein in Johnny Good Times, or Johnny would be playing his Football in Saskatchewan or some similar outpost.

So, he's off to rehab himself from ... what, exactly? Being too willing to have a good time? Being not enough like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? Being Johnny?

Maybe this isn't at all unusual (I'm guessingit probably isn't), but it sure seems unusual. And maybe later we'll find out that Manziel was, in fact, spiraling out of control with drugs or booze or gambling or some other recognized vice.

Right now, though, he's the only high-profile athlete of whom I've heard who entered rehab to stop being 22. And it's a fascinating window into the mentality of the NFL, which values image above all else, particularly as it applies to high profile positions such as quarterback.

I haven't, for instance, heard anything about Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots' equally good-timin' tight end, entering rehab to figure out his value system. But, then he's just a tight end, not the de facto CEO on the field the quarterback position has become in the NFL.

And so, off to rehab Johnny Therapy will go. And if this was truly all his own doing, good on him. It's a rare human who recognizes he's headed down the wrong path before he's gone too far down it. Nothing in Manziel's public persona suggests he is that rare human -- so far he's more personified the genus Goofius Kidius -- but if so, there's far more depth to him than any of us suspected.

And that's a good thing.


Monday, February 2, 2015

Patriot Day

So much of this ends differently, if Pete Carroll doesn’t make that call.

Tom Brady likely becomes a three-time Super Bowl loser instead of Joe Montana 8.0.

Russell Wilson likely becomes the guy who beat Peyton Manning and Brady in back-to-back Super Bowls instead of the guy who almost did.

And America is not subjected to a lot of sanctimonious jaw-flapping about answering their critics from the New England Patriots, a shady lot who have fully earned the criticism.

Instead … well, instead, Pete Carroll made The Call.

And, no, not the slant down on the goal line with the clock inside a minute, the ball inside the 2 and Marshawn Lynch waiting to take three more cracks at the end zone.

That call cost the Seahawks the Super Bowl, and it was inexplicable only outside the context of the Other Call. That would be the gamble Carroll pulled off in the first half, with the Seahawks inside the 10 and six seconds left until Katy Perry and her dancing sharks.

Logic says you take the three points there and go to halftime down 14-10. Instead, Carroll played to the inside straight, opting to squeeze in one more shot at the end zone without time enough to kick the field goal if it missed.

It didn’t.

Wilson found Chris Matthews for six, and the Seahawks went in tied at 14-14 after being dominated for the entire half. And the table was set, not to say the mindset, for what happened at the end.

You can’t definitively say pulling off the riverboat turn once influenced Carroll to try it again with the game on his racquet. But it for sure didn’t influence him not to try it.

In retrospect, of course, it was the dumbest play call in Super Bowl history, considering what was riding on it. When you have three tries from the 2 with the guy who runs at the goal line better than anyone in football, you run him at the goal line. Duh.

But, no. Wilson threw the slant, Malcolm Butler read it perfectly, and a magnificent football game would forever be known for the magnificence of Brady, who engineered two fourth-quarter drives that, as this is written, already are being bronzed in Canton.

Down ten to the best defense in football, he took the Patriots home not once but twice to deliver the Lombardi Trophy -- and, yes, it really did remind you of how cold-blooded Montana was in the final drive against the Bengals in his first Super Bowl. Now, like Montana, Brady belongs to the ages, and to inarguable numbers.  

 Four Super Bowl rings, same as Joe. Thirty-eight completions, a Super Bowl record. Twelve career touchdown passes in a Super Bowl, another record. Greatest playoff quarterback in NFL history, case closed.

In his fourth win, Brady went after the Seahawks a nick at a time, throwing a lot and mostly underneath. The dink-and-dunk chewed up yards and clock and prevented the Seahawks from getting to him even when they had a clear shot. He got hit, but, in most cases, the ball was gone by the time he did.

And then Pete Carroll handed him his legacy on a silver platter, after Wilson led a valiant drive in the last two minutes that was highlighted by yet another Roman Numeral Miracle – Jermaine Kearse catching a bomb from Wilson while lying flat on his back.

It was David Tyree’s helmet catch all over again for the Patriots, and then it was not.  Brady had his legacy, Bill Belichick tied Chuck Noll with four Super Bowl wins, and the Patriots were almost certainly off the hook for Deflategate, because the NFL is not going to do anything to mess with such historic business.

Expect Roger Goodell to eventually issue some fine commissioner-speak about the Shield not finding anything “conclusive,” and let’s move on, folks. Hey, how about that Tom Brady?

Well … yes.

How about him?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Lay down your money

We're only six hours or so now from opening kickoff for Super Bowl XLIX, which means if you haven't gotten your bets down, you'd best get crackin'.

(The Blob, without any confidence whatsoever, is picking the Seahawks. Place your wagers accordingly).

There is, of course, a lot to bet on. Prop bets have become almost as much a Super Bowl meme as Super Bowl commercials, and there are a million of them. I mean, almost literally a million.

Want to know if Marshawn Lynch will grab his crotch again? You can bet on that.

Want to know if Bill Belichick will smile on camera?  You can bet on that, too.

Who will the Super Bowl MVP mention first (teammates are at 3-2, God at 2-1). What color will the Gatorade be that gets dumped on the winning coach's head (orange goes off at 3-2). What will Belichick's reaction be if it's him ("Snarls 'Get that bleep away from me'" is the 3-2 favorite).

OK. So I made up that last one.

The others, though, are legit, plus many more. But just to prove you can never beat a good thing into the ground, the Blob has come up with a few others ...

1. When will Ben makes his first daylight raid on the queso? ("Noon" is the 2-1 favorite).

2.  How many times will Ben's wife, Julie, say, "Who's Russell Wilson again?" ("More than four" is the leader in the clubhouse at 3-1).

3. Will Ben recognize anything Katy Perry sings at halftime? ("No" is 2-1. "Hell, no" is 5-4).

4.  What are the odds Ben gets up during a break to retrieve another beer, and misses the best Super Bowl commercial? ("Really good" comes in at 3-2. "Of course he will" is 4-1).

5.   Will there be a Super Bowl commercial better than the Snickers ad starring Danny Trejo as Marcia Brady and Steve Buscemi as Jan? ("Not bloody likely" is 4-5).

And last but not least ...

6. What will Ben's reaction be after he falls asleep in the middle of third quarter and then wakes up in time to see Belichick raise the Lombardi Trophy? ("This is a hell of a nightmare I'm having" is your 2-1 favorite).