Thursday, April 30, 2015

Feeling a draft

The NFL Draft is a sitcom in search of a laugh track.

It's what would happen if you took Howard Wolowitz and Sheldon Cooper from "The Big Bang Theory" and tossed them in a giant blender with a hair stylist, chef-with-anger-issues Gordon Ramsay and Coach Taylor from "Friday Night Lights." Hit puree. Chill for five minutes, because, as we all know, absurd over-analysis is a dish best served cold.

For days and weeks and even months ahead of the actual draft, which begins tonight and goes on until Bill Belichick growls "Knock it off, already,"  Mel Kiper Jr., Todd McShay and various assistants to the draft gurus slowly have been driving themselves insane trying to know the unknowable. Like, who's got more ultimate upside, Marcus Mariota or Jameis "Hey, Those Aren't My Crab Legs" Winston? Is USC defensive end Leonard Williams the best player in the draft? Who is Leonard Williams? Is he related to the late and dearly missed Leonard Nimoy?

(Sorry about that last one. The Trekkie in me just comes out sometimes. I'm getting help).

Mel and Todd and the assistants consistently guessify these things, conducting all manner of mock drafts (a splendid name if ever there was one). And all the while understanding that the front office people to whom they're surgically attached are probably lying through their bicuspids.

It's surely a hellish existence, relying on the word of people whose job it is to deceive. Must be a bit like covering the Indiana statehouse.

In any case, there are no lengths to which Mel and Todd and the assistants will not go to get it right. Absolutely true story: ESPN actually has something called a Production Analytics crew, and it has actually come up with something called the Total Quarterback Rating, a formula to "help teams reduce the risk of drafting the wrong quarterback." Why ESPN thinks it's its job to do this is a question for another Blob, although it's the oldest of news by now that the Worldwide Leader functions less as a news organization than a carny shouter for its various broadcast properties.

But back to the Total Quarterback Rating. According to ESPN's own website, it takes a player’s college stats (adjusted for defenses faced), physical measurements, scout grades and play-type frequencies in college and throw them into our aforementioned blender. Then it judges a QB's success over his first four years on passing plays, running plays, sacks taken and penalties incurred.

Based on all that, the quarterback in this year's draft most likely to succeed is Gandhi.

OK, so that's a lie. It's actually Mel Kiper Jr.'s bulletproof hair (marketed by ESPN Properties as The Hair Helmet, now on sale at a fine sporting goods establishment near you).

OK, so that's a lie, too. It's Mariota. He'll be better than Winston even though no quarterback who's ever come out of Oregon's spread system has ever succeeded in the NFL. But he didn't steal any crab legs and doesn't have a civil suit hanging over his head for sexually assaulting a young woman, so Mariota's the guy.

What this means is the actual quarterback who'll wind up being the next Tom Brady or Peyton Manning is neither Mariota nor Winston. It will be some guy from Bilgewater Tech who, like Brady, won't get taken until the sixth round.

I know this because I've created my own Total Quarterback Rating, which I've cleverly named the Blob Total Quarterback Rating. It's totally different than the ESPN Total Quarterback Rating. Instead of measuring passing stats, scout grades and play-type frequencies, it measures what I like to call the "intangibles."

 Among them:

1. Who's got the coolest name?

(This works except when it doesn't, like with a college quarterback who was named, for real, Prince McJunkins. He never played a down in the NFL).

2. How much does he know about Ryan Leaf?

(If he can quote Leaf's rap sheet verbatim, pass on him).

3. Can he boil water?

(A nod to Peyton Manning's fabled ineptitude at even the simplest household chores. There's a story, probably apocryphal, that his mom had to come up from New Orleans to program his TV for him. So if you're undecided who to pick, go for the guy who's locked himself out of his car).

4. Does he have tight skin?

(True story: During the run-up to the draft one year, Mel or some assistant to the guru actually said former Colts defensive back Marlin Jackson would be a great pick because he had "tight skin." It was almost as silly as hearing another assistant to the guru mark down an offensive lineman because he was a "waist-bender").

5. How does he spend his weekends? Reading the playbook? Watching wholesome Disney favorites like "That Darn Cat" and anything with Hayley Mills in it? Drinking nothing stronger than herbal tea and spending the hours until evening vespers in silent contemplation with the rest of his Trappist brethren?

(If you answered "yes" to any of these, run like hell from this guy. Pick Gandhi instead).

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Echo chamber

They'll play a baseball game in Baltimore this afternoon, and the only audience will be a profound sense of the bizarre. The city burns, but the corporate prerogatives of our national game will be met, no matter how ludicrously. Unfocused rage in the streets continues to obscure real injustices, but the game, as they say, will go on.

With the city in turmoil and the National Guard called in to restore order, Major League Baseball made the curious decision to back up today's scheduled game between the Orioles and White Sox to this afternoon, and to play it in a ballpark devoid of fans. And so pitchers will pitch, batters will bat, and empty seatbacks will be the witnesses.

Baseball is its history. But it's likely never seen anything quite like this.

It will be weird and surreal, but the visuals will be great. And if we've not been reminded these past few days how important the latter is to the sensibilities of American media, we simply haven't been paying attention.

The networks largely missed the peaceful march last weekend that put 10,000 people in the streets of Baltimore calling for justice for a young man named Freddie Gray. But they've been all over the knotheads who've besmirched his memory by trying to burn down the city.

And so you'll see lots of fires and  various acts of destruction on the nightly news, but you likely won't see much about the numerous neighborhood citizens who, appalled by what was happening, stood between the police and the rioters. If it burns, it earns. A bunch of people just standing around, not so much.

What that leaves us with is mayhem without context, and there is some. If the application of rage is hideously misplaced here (not to say hideously counterproductive),  the rage itself is not. This cauldron's been boiling for awhile, not just in Baltimore but all over the country.

Too many African-Americans routinely going to prison for crimes for which whites never do time. Too much Shot/Choked/Beaten While Black. Too much exploitation of the working classes by a corporate oligarchy that grew fat not because it used the middle class as its private ATM, but because hefty paychecks and benefits made the middle class the engine of the economy.

The first two of those are unconscionable, the latter unsustainable. No nation can remain peaceful and prosperous if businesses don't provide jobs that pay enough to allow consumers to consume (or keep them off public assistance, for that matter). But that's our economy now. And for a variety of reasons, it's impacted black America to an inordinate degree.

The irony, of course, is that some of the very people who could do something about that are the people whose businesses are burning. It makes no sense, but rage never does. The trick is to do something about the sense of powerlessness from which it springs.

In the meantime, there will be baseball in Baltimore today.

Kinda. Sorta. More strangeness in a strange land.  


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A legacy worth remembering

I can’t tell you the last time I ran into Lionel Repka. But I’d bet the second mortgage he was smiling.

The man was always smiling, save for one notable occasion. He was damn good at it, after all; from across the room he’d spot you standing there, and the show would be on.
He’d stick out his hand. His eyes would scrunch down to happy slits. And then the San Andreas Fault of grins would split his square-jawed Alberta Clipper mug, and there you would be, totally disarmed, unable to form any possible judgment but one: Geez, what a nice guy.

He was more than that, of course.
You’ll get the particulars elsewhere today, on the occasion of his passing from cancer at the age of 80. The 666 games he played in 11 seasons as a Komet. The Governor’s Trophy he won in 1965 as the International Hockey League’s top defenseman. The 98 goals he scored here, including eight in the playoffs. The No. 6 he wore, and which now hangs in the Memorial Coliseum rafters, never to be worn again by any Komets defenseman.

They called him Choo-Choo for the way he churned tirelessly up the ice, and if that and the No. 6 swaying up there in the air currents confer a certain permanence on the man, it goes beyond just a number and a nickname. Minor league franchises are the most ephemeral of things, but in this city the Komets long ago transcended that notion. They’ve become so much a part of our identity that we can no more imagine the town without them than we can imagine it without Little Turtle or Anthony Wayne.

And we have Lionel Repka to thank for that.

He and Lenny Thornson and Reggie Primeau and a whole pile of others not only played hockey here, they lived here, forming a template that Komets players follow to this day. If Repka and Thornson and Primeau stayed – and Colin Lister and Ken Ullyot and George Drysdale, too – so  did Colin Chaulk and Nick Boucher and P.C. Drouin. So did Grant Richison and Steve Fletcher and Guy Dupuis, and many, many more.

None had any connection to the city, understand, or even to the country. They were a bunch of kids from Canada – Repka hailed from Edmonton – who came here to play their national game. And yet they saw something here of value, something that went beyond the dimensions of a hockey rink. And so they stayed.

In the process, they stitched the Komets indelibly into the fabric of the community. And into their own, of course.

That became clear some years ago, when a handful of those who first came and stayed was hit hard by misfortune. Ullyot was fighting a grim battle with fibromyalgia. Primeau had just lost part of his leg to complications stemming from diabetes. And Lionel Repka’s son Ron, 40, had been struck and killed while riding his bike on a county road.

It was a gray autumn afternoon when I drove out to Lionel’s home in Fox Chase to talk about all that. We sat at a table in his living room, looking out at woods bright with October fire. Lionel greeted me with his trademark grin, but then we started talking about the day of Ron’s funeral, and the grin vanished and his voice grew soft.

There on a hilltop overlooking the gravesite that day, Repka remembered, sat a small rumpled figure in a wheelchair. It was Reg Primeau. He was still in the hospital, but when he heard what had happened he climbed out of his bed and came out to the cemetery to be at his teammate’s side.

“That just …” Repka began.

And then he stopped. His hand covered his mouth. His eyes began to glisten.

And now?

Well. All these years later, a whole city knows the feeling.

Expectation anticipation

And Tom Crean thought they warmed his chair with a flamethrower this past season.

Now comes the springtime of his true discontent, because the Coach Knight Would Never Have Lost That Game Nuclear Clock just ticked a second closer to midnight.  On the one hand, Yogi Ferrell, James Blackmon Jr. and Troy Williams are all coming back, to be joined by a legit big man (Thomas Bryant).  On the other hand ... Yogi, James and Troy are all coming back, to be joined by a legit big man (Bryant).

What that means is there again will be expectations in Bloomington this year, and this time they will be, you know, expectations. Plenty of IU fans called for Crean to be loaded into the tumbrel even this season, when he won 20 games with a team picked to finish ninth in the Big Ten, then outcoached Greg Marshall in a gritty NCAA Tournament loss to Wichita State. What's it going to be like next season, with the core of that team back and a platinum-grade presence on the blocks?

Already the Hoosiers are being picked to finish in the top four in the conference next season, and early polls have them ranked as high as 15th. Hopes are soaring. Excitement is building. Skepticism ("Let's see how Crean screws this up") is rampant.

Look. It's not like Tom Crean didn't know what it was going to be like when he arrived in B-town.   One of the reasons he got the job, after all, was because he instinctively understood what Indiana basketball means to its acolytes. And yet his continuing education since has been illuminating to say the least.

He got his first real taste of it after the top-seeded Hoosiers were bewitched by the Syracuse zone in the Sweet Sixteen in 2013, and it has never really abated through the two pale seasons since. The litany of complaints is long, but it can be crystallized into three essential points:

1. He's no Brad Stevens.

2. He's no Brad Stevens.

3. He's no Brad Stevens.

Stevens, of course, became everyone's darling  (and Crean's presumptive replacement) after he turned humble Butler into a national power. The problem is, he's, well, everyone's darling.

That includes his current employer, the Boston Celtics, who are surely not going to let him go anywhere after he took a team of spare parts to the playoffs and emerged as one of the brightest young minds in the NBA. To think he'd return now to Bloomington, even if the alumni ponied up a mountain of cash, is a fairy tale worthy of the Brothers Grimm -- and probably a few Grimm cousins to boot.

So Crean remains the man. And if the griping about him subsides a bit now, it's not as if it's wandered  very far off. The loudest sound in Assembly Hall next winter will be the collective tapping of 17,000 feet as the faithful wait for the Hoosiers to lose a game they believe a better X-and-O guy would have won.

Crean, of course, will profess not to hear it. But he'll know it's there, just as every IU coach who isn't Bob Knight will know it until the Hoosiers again cut down the nets on the first Monday in April.

The feet are tapping. The clock is ticking. Crean has to win now, and win a lot, because he'll again have a team capable of doing so -- and if that is his blessing, it is also his curse.

Tap, tap, tap.

Tick, tick, tick.

Strange how much alike they sound.


Monday, April 27, 2015

How you gonna root?

It was always easier when you didn't know so much. Blissful ignorance meant you could wear an athlete's cap or his jersey with the lack of ambivalence imperfect knowledge imparts, drawing comfort from it even if it was false comfort.

Things were so much brighter when you didn't see the darkness in a man's (or woman's) soul. Home truth.

Now, of course, we do, the all-encompassing 'net being what it is. And if you can rightfully argue that we see too much, it's better than not seeing enough.

There may be ambivalence now where there was none before, but I'll take it. I'll take the queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever I hear a bunch of lacquerheads spin a narrative about someone that's 90 percent bunkum.

That's what I heard yesterday when Kurt Busch landed in Victory Lane at Richmond, and that's what I'll likely hear this week about Floyd Mayweather Jr. from the carnival shouters trying to squeeze a few more bucks out of the Pacquiao fight. Pardon me if I choose not to play along.

Busch led 295 laps at Richmond and drove a masterful race, but, please, don't sell it to me as some sort of redemption tale. Busch is and always has been the architect of his own troubles, and that especially includes the domestic violence beef he just ducked when the authorities chose not to prosecute. That didn't mean he didn't smash his ex-girlfriend's head into the wall, as he was accused of doing. It just means it wasn't a gold-card lock for the state to prove it, so the state chose not to try.

As with anyone in his situation, Busch chose to see that as vindication, even if we'll never really know if it is or not. That why it's always best not to lean too hard on the redemption thing. And yet that's what media in all its forms tends to do these days, because it's a lot harder to sell nuance than to craft a simple one-size-fits-all narrative, whether or not it remotely squares with reality.

So, yeah, watching Busch celebrate in Victory Lane made me a little uneasy.  Watching the run-up to Mayweather-Pacquiao, on the other hand, will make me feel downright disgusted, because there's no uncertainty at all about who Mayweather is and what he's done.

The man's a woman-beating punk.  There's no way to paper over that, although God knows the entities that stand to make major coin off Saturday will try. One representative of those entities, Stephen A. Smith of ESPN, has been a Mayweather toady for years, consistently sneering at the numerous complaints lodged against him.

And yet: Since 2002, Mayweather has not only been accused of slugging women, he's been tried and convicted of it. He pleaded guilty in two incidents, and in another was convicted but threw enough lawyers at it to get the charges dismissed four years later. Most recently, in 2010, he belted his ex-girlfriend around in front of two of their children, drawing a 90-day stretch in the Graybar Hotel.

Floyd Mayweather Jr. is no one anyone should be rooting for, but of course people will. We'll hear a lot this week about how we should give him the benefit of the doubt in his numerous instances of punching women in the face. We'll hear he's a changed man, and we should respect that. We'll hear he's a good guy at heart who's paid his debt, and so we should let bygones be bygones.

Shoot. We might even hear there's a giant invisible bird in the sky that flaps its wings and makes the wind blow.

Now that I believe.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia ...

I saw a brief clip of Tim Tebow running in the rain the other day, shirtless. His shoulders looked like the Himalayas. His chest was so broad you could have put a picture of a local insurance agent on it and used it for a roadside billboard. The man looked nothing like any quarterback I've ever seen, anywhere.

Which, of course, is the whole deal with Tebow. He's really not a quarterback, but both Tebow and a lot of other people insist on treating him like one.

The latest is Chip Kelly, head coach of the Eagles and the inventor of everyone's favorite parlor game these days. It's called "What The Hell Is Chip Kelly Thinking?", and it proceeds from one of two premises:

1. Chip Kelly is way smarter than the rest of us, so shut up already about what he's thinking.

2. Chip Kelly is so smart he tends to outthink himself, which is why he signed one quarterback who's broken all the time (Sam Bradford) and another who's really not a quarterback (Tebow) but who, because he's Tebow, will bring media hellfire to rain on the Eagles for as long as he's there.

Which is to say: Chip Kelly is crazier than ten bedbugs. Or, again, he's a flipping genius.

I've got a feeling it's the latter more than the former, although what mad genius was behind signing Sam Bradford is beyond my feeble powers to comprehend. He arrived hurt and he's gonna get hurt again, because that's just what he does. So then you've got Mark Sanchez and you've got Tebow, who, again, isn't really a quarterback -- although maybe that's precisely why Kelly signed him.

Here's a thought: Maybe Kelly really is a mad scientist. Which means, this very moment, he's got Tebow stretched out on a table in some dank castle keep, and he's cackling madly and mumbling to himself the way mad scientists do.

"He'll be my greatest creation!" Dr. Chip raves, "Voila: The NFL's first Q-back! A quarterback who lines up in the gun and sometimes will take direct snaps and sometimes will go in motion and sometimes will run seam routes! And, sometimes, especially in the red zone, he takes handoffs and either runs at the goal line or executes that jump-pass thing he did in college!"

Then he cackles madly again and Igor hits the switch and, OK, enough with the Frankenstein meme.

 Instead, let's consider that Kelly might actually be planning on using Tebow as some sort of elaborate hybrid. His skill set -- and he has one -- certainly seems to lean that way. I've always maintained that he's more a Gronkowski-like hybrid tight end than a quarterback, and that's where his future lies if he has one. You move him around, you line him up in various places, you use what he has to your best advantage.

He's never going to be your classic pocket passer, or any kind of passer, really. That's fairly well established. But you can use him in that role in certain situations, and maybe that's what Kelly envisions.

Then again, maybe there's nothing more to it than what Sanchez said the other day.

"Another guy to throw (while Bradford heals)," was Sanchez' verdict.

Oh, that Chip Kelly. Always thinkin'. 



Saturday, April 25, 2015

Horse sense, Part One

So it's come to the Blob's attention that we're only a week away from the Kentucky Derby, which means it's high time I got cracking on my Derby prep. The one thing you never want to do when you write about the Derby is sound like a complete goober who doesn't know anything about horse racing, even if you're a complete goober who doesn't know anything about horse racing.

Besides, I have money riding on this. Two bucks doesn't just grow on trees, you know.

And so, for my edification as much as yours, here are a few early, early tips from a guy who used to get his Derby intel from a talking horse named Ted, until Ted wised off one too many times and ended up as a 12-pack of glue sticks:

1. The Derby favorite is a horse named American Pharaoh.

No, I don't know why. What do I look like, the Racing Form?

2. There are three contenders with war-like names: Bold Conquest, Firing Line and War Story.

This is important, because if you sound fierce, you run fierce. OK, I don't know if that's true at all. But it sounds like it could be true, so we'll go with it.

3. Firing Line is trained by an English guy who looks like he should be at the prom, and it's ridden by Gary Stevens, who starred in "Seabiscuit."

The English guy is named Simon Callaghan, which is pretty English as names go. Stevens wore a big cowboy hat in one scene in the movie. I don't know what significance any of that has. It's just sort of cool.

4.  Metaboss is a really pretty horse.

Also, it won the El Camino Real Derby. Also, it's kind of reddish-brown. Secretariat was kind of reddish-brown. So there you go.

5. Madefromlucky is a really pretty horse, too.

Also, it has "lucky" in its name. Also, Todd Pletcher is its trainer. I've heard of Todd Pletcher.

6. Danzig Moon.

Just because "Danzig Moon" is fun to say. Also, it's not a gray horse. Gray horses are frequently mutts. The last gray horse I saw in the Derby finished in June.

Place your bets accordingly.

Silent reminder

Bill Belichick is the best coach in the NFL, and also the shadiest. He has the emotive skills of either a kumquat or an armadillo, depending on whether or not the armadillo is alive or has just been turned into road pizza on some West Texas two-lane.  It's rumored he smiled once.

Here's what you can't say about Belichick, though: That he's incapable of the occasional elegant gesture.

The Patriots made the traditional Super Bowl champions visit to the White House yesterday, and of course Belichick was there. And of course, being Belichick, he spoke volumes without ever saying a word.

What he did was wear a small Armenian pin on his lapel, and not by accident. As it happens, yesterday marked 100 years nearly to the day that the Turks' attempted genocide of its Armenian population began.  It was one of the first major episodes of mass murder in the 20th century, and, like so much about the First World War, presaged other, gaudier slaughters to come.

The United States government under both George Bush and Barack Obama has been loathe to call it what it was, however, because of the strategic importance of Turkey in the Middle East. Bush killed a bill in 2007 that would have condemned the Armenian genocide, and Obama has consistently refused even to refer to it as genocide. It's one of those instances when political cowardice occupies both sides of the political aisle.

Belichick is no politician, but he recognizes a political opportunity when he sees one. And so there he was, front and center, wearing an Armenian pin.

Hate on the man all you want. But yesterday, in his own Belichickean way, he was on the side of the angels.

Sport of kings (only)

I will not be watching Manny Pacquiao fight Floyd Mayweather a week from Saturday. Neither will most of the rest of  America.

Partly this is because most of the rest of America doesn't care about boxing anymore.

Mostly it's because boxing itself doesn't care if the rest of America cares about boxing.

With a deliberate intent that goes back decades, it has made itself irrelevant, devolving  into a sport almost exclusively targeted to elites. To some extent this is true of most American sport in 2015 -- try taking the fam to an NFL game without dropping a month's worth of paychecks -- but boxing has been doing it longer, and it's taken it to an entirely different level.

Consider: Tickets went on sale the other day for the May 2 fight, which is not the same thing as saying tickets went on sale the other day for, say, the next Komets playoff game. The cheapest seat is $1,500, plus service charges. The most expensive is $7,500. And only 500 are available, even though the MGM Grand Garden seats 16,000.

This is because the rest of the tickets are controlled by Mayweather Promotions, Top Rank and the MGM Grand, which will distribute the tickets to their customers, the fighter camps, fight sponsors, HBO and Showtime (who are putting on the joint pay-per-view), and the brokers with which they do business. In essence, that means this fight, like every big fight, is not really a public event. It's a private screening -- a perception only enhanced by the fact that the pay-per-view, should you decide to go that route, is 150 clams per customer.

What all this means is obvious: A sport largely fueled by working class kids doesn't really need working class money. Nor does it even really want it.

Can't afford a ticket?

Tough. Get a second job.

Can't afford the pay-per-view?

Tough. Get a third job.

The irony in all this is that boxing was a working-class thing at its dawn, and it owes whatever narrow place it maintains in the sporting spectrum to men and women with dirt under their nails. They were the ones who not only provided the entertainment itself, but made it financially attractive. If the high rollers and entrepreneurs took it from skulking illegality to semi-respectable  sporting enterprise, it was blue-collar fans who showed them the way.

And for a long time, it was still a people's game. Radio, in its infancy, took it to the masses in a way it had never been taken to the masses; television, in its infancy, built its empire in part on the Friday Night Fights of the 1950s.

Then came Muhammad Ali, a child of the TV generation and a heavyweight champion virtually made for TV. Shortly thereafter, pay-per-view made its appearance, and whatever mainstream cache the Alis and Fraziers had given the fight game slowly began to erode.

Now the Alis and Fraziers are long off the stage, and boxing's glamour division is a dial tone to most of America. Nine out of 10 casual sports fans couldn't tell you who the reigning heavyweight champion is, and it's been two decades since the heavies have had anything close to a marquee fight.

What passes for a marquee fight these days happens on May 2, when two welterweights on the downslope of legendary careers -- one of  them (Mayweather) a woman-beating punk -- square off. Pacquiao-Mayweather would have been a battle of titans five years ago; now it's just the Battle of Two Aging Titans Who've Been Ducking Each Other For Five Years.

If anyone with clout in boxing cared at all about their sport, they'd have leveraged this fight when it would have  commanded the brightest spotlight possible. And they'd have put it live in prime time on ESPN or network TV, charged top dollar for the advertising rights and still made a killing.

But no one in boxing does care. They're all too busy counting their pay-per-view piles.

The skinny of it is, they'll make plenty off Pacquiao-Mayweather now. So why care that it would have been better for the sport if they could have made it happen earlier?

Once upon a time, Muhammad Ali styled himself the People's Champion. Now there are no people's champions. The "people," in 2015, are standing on the wrong side of the velvet rope, and boxing is carrying on upstairs in a private room to which the people will never be admitted.

More's the pity.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Robin takes his leave

You can sit this one out today, those of you who are not of a certain age. The Blob knows how you hate all that back-in-the-day noise, all those sentences and paragraphs that never seem to get out of the rocking chair.

So, you are excused. Doug Buffone has died, and we're gonna talk about it some.

If you grew up in northern Indiana when NFL Sundays were the Bears in the early game and the Rams and/or 49ers in the late game, you knew who Buffone was. He was Robin to Dick Butkus' Batman. He was 55 to Butkus' 51. He was the Other Linebacker --  a tag that was accurate but also unfair, because Buffone lasted longer and put up numbers that, had he not lined up next to one of the greatest linebackers in history, would be far enduring than they seem to be now.

Consider: Buffone played 14 years, the second most in Bears history. In half those seasons, he had more than 100 tackles. He also had 24 interceptions, still the most in club history, and 37 sacks.

If he wasn't Mr. Bear -- after his playing days, he became notorious for his passionate rants about the team as a broadcaster -- he was at least Mr. Bear for a particular era. It was an era we wanted to forget at the time, but, almost 50 years along, it retains a curious attraction that never quite fades.

The Blob has had big fun over the years at the expense of Jack Concannon, the Bears quarterback during that particularly beige period in the late '60s. But I would kill to have a Concannon jersey now, no matter how many times he threw the football into Lake Michigan on third-and-long. Ditto a Larry Rakestraw jersey, Rakestraw being Concannon's equally ineffective backup. Ditto, of course, a Buffone jersey, an Ed O'Bradovich jersey, maybe even a Ralph Kurek jersey for fans of highly obscure running backs -- which, in that era, was pretty much every running back the Bears had who wasn't named Gale Sayers or Brian Piccolo.

And we all know why we remember Piccolo.

At any rate, they were all pieces of Bears teams that were unrelentingly awful, and yet strangely watchable. You watched, in those days, to see Sayers make moves you'd never seen a running back make before. You watched to see if this was the week Butkus literally detached someone's head from their shoulders. You watched to see Buffone clean up whatever messes Butkus couldn't ... or to see Kurek or Ronnie Bull run for two yards off-tackle ... or to see Dick Gordon haul in a pass, stunning those of us who didn't think Concannon could throw it that far.

Then, of course, Mac Percival would come on to kick a field goal. Or the Bears would get penalized for some dumb thing, and Bobby Joe Green would have to come on to punt for the 50th time that afternoon.

No matter. The Bears were the NFL, if you were of that certain age and lived where we lived. Watching Butkus chase Fran Tarkenton all over Cook County or Ray Nitschke and the Packers keep Sayers semi-contained made fans of us. And if we didn't realize then that that made us part of the NFL's coming of age, we certainly realize it now.

So go to your rest, 55. And thanks for the memories. 

Ranking the rants

The NFL has released its 2015 schedule, which means there'll be a lot of excited yammer today about OH MY GOD THE PACKERS ARE PLAYING THE BEARS and HEY LOOK THE SEAHAWKS ARE PLAYING THE 49ERS.

In other words: Today is the day the NFL proves yet again that it not only moves the needle, it is the needle. Where else in Sports Land could it be major news that the same teams that were in the league last year are going to play each other again this year?

Thanks, but the Blob will pass. We'd much rather talk about Cincinnati Reds' manager Bryan Price's epic rant the other day, which is still raining random f-bomb fallout on large parts of Montana and the Dakotas.

Oh, look. Another one just fell right the eff on an effing cow.

You don't hear a guy go on for five minutes and drop 77 f-bombs every day, and so the natural instinct now is to determine where Price's tantrum fits in a historical context. Using a completely random and startlingly unscientific method (i.e., the It's This Way 'Cause I Say So Method), here is how the Blob fits Price into the all-time list:

1. Lee Elia, Cubs

Still the reigning champeen. Its neatly lyric cadence ("my effin' ass") and obvious fury is enhanced by the fact that Elia so enthusiastically touched the third rail of sports, i.e., the fans. It's one thing to go after the media/your players/the game officials. It's another to go after Joe Blow skipping work to sit  in left field with an Old Style in his fist and hopelessly unrequited love in his heart.

Big brass ones there, Mr. Elia.

2.   Hal McRae, Royals

Not so much a rant as a tantrum, this one narrowly beats out Price for two reasons: 1) Its complete and unapologetic 3-year-old-in-a-sandbox ambience, and 2) the fact that physical damage was involved.

Dropping f-bombs is one thing. But when you can't truthfully say No Phones Were Harmed In The Making Of This Rant ... that's gold, Jerry. Gold!

3. Bryan Price, Reds

It wasn't just the f-bombs, lightly garnished at first and then applied with a slowly building and ultimately  zany heavy hand. It was what Price was ranting about -- which was, in essence, a reporter simply doing his job.

Every ink-stained wretch who's ever covered a team takes it on faith that the team he covers believes he's there to wave pompons and wear a cheerleader skirt. This is compounded, in this day of corporate pseudo-journalism, by the fact that some "reporters" readily accept the fanboy role because their bosses believe it's good for business. Numerous embarrassing examples exist.

So perhaps Price could be forgiven for not getting that the people who cover the team aren't there to serve the team.  They're there to break news. But Price takes that cluelessness to a whole new level. Well done.

4. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State.

Again, it's not the just the rant that sets this one apart. It's the fact that what set it off was a relatively innocuous column about one of Gundy's quarterbacks. The amount of overreaction is always the measure of any meltdown, and Gundy is right up there in that category.

And then there's the sheer timelessness of it. If you Google "I'm a man, I'm 40," Gundy's name and a video of his rant will pop up. It's his signature line now, just like "Four score and seven years ago" is Abraham Lincoln's.

Well, OK. So not just like.

5. Jim Mora, Colts.

Speaking of timelessness ... is there any single line from an NFL postgame that has the enduring shelf life of "Playoffs? Playoffs?!"

Quick story: Some years back, when he was covering the Colts, one of my colleagues, Justin Cohn, downloaded "Playoffs? Playoffs?!"  into his phone as a ringtone. One day, standing on the sidelines during training camp, his phone went off. Several heads immediately snapped around.

"Is that Jim Mora?" someone asked.

Now that's immortality.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Human milestone

Once upon a time I called him the voice of all our winters, and now it is years later and I realize I've sold him short. Bob Chase is no longer just the voice of winter. He is a voice for all our seasons, in the sense that you cannot mention WOWO or Fort Wayne or the Fort Wayne Komets anywhere in the United States, at any time, and not hear his name eventually come up.

Tonight, at the age of 89, Chase will call his 500th Komets playoff game, and if that is yet another milestone for him, it is a measure of his iron permanence that calling it a milestone sells him short yet again. After 62 years behind a microphone that  eternally will be his, Chase himself is a milestone, one of those measures by which we mark out our lives.

I listened to Chase shout "Look out!" and "Heeere comes (pick a name), raggin' it all the way into the zone" when I was 10 years old and 20 years old and 40 years old. And now I am 60 and he is still shouting those things. When I was in college, my roomie and I used to tape his game calls and play them back, especially in that lost season after the Komets won the Turner Cup in 1973. The team was so bad that season, so unremittingly hopeless, that playing back Chase calling the lowlights was actually less painful than unintentionally hilarious.

In comes (Saginaw's Dave) Cressman, look, shoot, score!

He's tryin' to get around (Komets defenseman Charlie) Labelle, he gets around  him ... score!

You get the idea.

I don't know where Dave Cressman or Charlie Labelle are now, but I do know where Chase will be tonight. It is where he has always been. He is the living proof that Woody Allen was right when he said 80 percent of success was just showing up. Chase has done that and more, which is why the Lester Patrick Award sits somewhere in his home, the highest honor the National Hockey League can bestow for service to the game of hockey. And they bestowed it in 2012 on a man who never called a game in the NHL.

And, of course, never missed it. Why would he? He couldn't possibly be more renowned than he already is for the simple act and monumental feat of always being there.

That hit home yet again last Sunday, when I attended the Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame banquet. Speaker after speaker got up and said one of the highlights of the day was getting to meet Bob Chase, who was there to present 2015 inductee Blake Sebring of the News-Sentinel. Among them was fellow inductee Bob Jenkins.

All that guy's ever done is be the ESPN voice of IndyCar and, for a time, the Indianapolis 500. And yet it was Chase he wanted to meet.

Another milestone for the milestone.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The past, present

So now we step out of the Wayback Machine, and it is springtime past. Tim Tebow is on an NFL roster again, the Eagles signing him a one-year deal that will instantly make him the most famous third-string quarterback in NFL history. And the Fort Wayne Mad Ants are back in the D-League finals, one year after that magic night when the confetti fell and the music blared and the Mad Ant who had seen it all, Ron Howard, finally got his just reward.

If I close my eyes, I can still see that night, Howard hoisting the trophy, a four-lane smile sprawled across his face. And now I open them, and here are some of the same  characters (Conner Henry, Trey McKinney-Jones, Matt Bouldin) pressing the replay button.

The Ants kicked Canton to the curb in Canton last night, advancing to the D-League finals for the second straight year. Once again, they have yet to lose a playoff game, sweeping regular-season champ Maine in the first round and Canton in the semis. Once again, they seemed to have elevated their game at the exact moment when that was required -- and now, once again, they're two wins away from the confetti and the trophy and the celebration.

And, once again, I'm compelled to marvel at the reversal of fortune.

Three years ago, the Mad Ants were a D-League bust, a chronic loser that put on a great show on game nights but had never made the playoffs in their five seasons of existence. And there was more than a little grumbling that team president Jeff Potter and the front office were the problem.

Potter had been through two coaches by that time, and yet, among four teams that joined the league in 2007, only the Mad Ants had failed to reach the postseason. They'd never had a winning record. They'd never finished higher than third in their division. And so when the third coach, D-League veteran Duane Ticknor, came aboard, there was a healthy amount of skepticism that Potter would get out of his way long enough for him to work his magic.

Those days seem very far away now.

Ticknor showed up, Potter gave him his head, and, in their sixth season, the Ants finally made the playoffs, losing in the first round.  Then Ticknor left for the Grizzlies, and Potter made another brilliant hire, bringing in veteran D-League assistant Conner Henry. And Henry produced a champion right out of the gate.

Now it's 2015 and he seems poised to do it again, and the skepticism about the direction of the franchise is long in the ground. Henry is the best coach in the league. Potter's front office is now justifiably regarded as the league standard. And the franchise that could never seem to get anything right has now won 10 straight playoff games since last spring.

Three years ago they were the never-show Clippers. Now they're the Showtime Lakers. Who saw that coming?

And who wouldn't want to see it again?


Friday, April 17, 2015

Whither justice

There will be signs. There's an outside chance some of them will even be spelled right.

There will be signs and there will be catcalls drifting down from on high and Adrian Peterson might as well resign himself to it, might as well surrender to the reality that when you live in celebrity's spotlight, your bad acts will never be forgotten. They will be thrown up to you long after whatever official justice has been meted out. They will echo down the years because, unlike the legal system, the court of pubic opinion carries no statute of limitations on anything.

Particularly if you're wearing Viking purple on an autumn Sunday in, say, Green Bay, Wis., or Chicago, Ill.

That Peterson may or may not be doing that remains an open question, given that he feels the Vikes failed to adequately stand by him during the late unpleasantness. If their relationship is not officially on the rocks, it's on a direct heading toward them.

Meanwhile, Roger Goodell has reinstated Peterson, and so let the retribution begin. You whip a 4-year-old with a switch so zealously you bruise his testicles, no one's gonna let you up easy even if the league has. And frankly no one should.

That Peterson's lawyer, Rusty Harden, so clumsily tried to defend the indefensible -- he actually said, that the child suffered no permanent damage, so no harm, no foul -- only made things worse for him.  And it's hard not to react to that by saying "Good."

Look, I don't care Peterson if grew up getting beat by his dad because his dad got beat by his dad, who got beat by his dad.  Family tradition is no excuse for a grown-ass man to whip a 4-year-old with a switch. And trying to paper over it by calling it "discipline" is just the coward's way of not owning up.

That said ... Goodell wasn't wrong to reinstate him.

The fans may recognize no statute of limitations, but the legal system and civilized society in general do. And Peterson's has expired. The legal system has acted, Peterson has accepted its verdict, and it's time to move on. As disgusting as what he did was, a lifetime ban from the NFL would have been equally disgusting -- especially for someone who had been a generally exemplary employee until he decided to pick on a 4-year-old.

Within the constructs of civilized society, there is justice, and there is revenge. Banning Peterson for life would have been the latter. Reinstating him after an appropriate period of time is the former. We can certainly debate the definition of "appropriate," but it wouldn't change the ultimate outcome.

Sooner or later, Goodell was going to let him up. And now he has, officially ending penalty phase one.

Penalty phase two -- the signs, the catcalls, the court of public opinion weighing in -- figures to last awhile longer.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

Things fame can't do

He'll be processed in a correctional facility less than four miles from Gillette Stadium, and here's your recommended daily requirement of irony for April 16, 2015. Once, worlds and eons and numerous bad acts ago, Aaron Hernandez caught touchdown passes from Tom Brady in the Razor, his ears ringing with cheers. Now the cheers are long gone, and the only sounds in his ears are  the soft click of handcuffs and the metal clang of iron bars.

A Massachusetts jury made sure of that yesterday, finding Hernandez guilty of first-degree murder in the brutal slaying of Odin Lloyd in the summer of 2013. The verdict carries an automatic life sentence without the possibility of parole.

All those cheers and touchdowns and bright moments with the best organization in football were of no value to him, when it got down to cases. Aaron Hernandez' fame bought him no special accommodation, no consideration beyond that accorded any accused felon. He's a bad man and he got treated like one.

The jury wanted make sure everyone knew that.

 "The fact that he was a professional athlete meant nothing in the end," its official statement read.  "He is a citizen who was held accountable by the jury for his depraved conduct."

This is exactly as it should be, of course, but it says something about the way we regard the famous that the jury felt compelled to spell it out. Fame works two ways, when it intersects with notoriety. Either it earns the famous a benefit of the doubt not accorded the faceless, or it earns them harsher scrutiny by a legal system trying to remove any appearance of favoritism.

 Both happened in the O.J. trial, when L.A. police essentially framed a guilty man. But it's a credit to our legal system -- justifiably maligned for its often unequal treatment of suspects based on race -- that the famous far more often get no special breaks.

To be sure, star-struck juries exist and occasionally allow the famous to skate. But the Blob suspects that happens far less than most people think. Perception rarely squares with reality in anything these days, because everyone has an agenda and the means to publicly advance it. That would seem to be especially true here.

A tip of the cap to the Hernandez jury for allowing reality, for once, to win the day.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Quarterback calculus

So now Jameis Winston is over another hurdle, and yet the doubts linger. His arm, pocket presence and on-field intelligence in reading coverages are beyond dispute. And his Wonderlic score, sketchy barometer that it is, was 27, which puts him in company with Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson (28).

And yet.

And yet, this being 2015, half of America still thinks he's the Next Big Bust.

They think he's the Next Big Bust because of the crab legs thing and the cussing-in-the-student-center thing and the running-around-campus-shooting-BB-guns thing. Most of all, and more darkly, they think he's the NBB because of the accusation of sexual assault made against him by a young woman -- a charge that lingers and will continue to linger even though he was cleared.

It is the legacy of playing for a football school in a football town that's inclined to look the other way when one of their valuable commodities goes off the rails. If Tallahassee and FSU didn't do that in this case, they certainly made a good show of it. And so  no one's ever going to quite believe Winston didn't get away with it.

Thus he comes to the draft with expectations of failure that never would have been there 30 or 40 years ago. But the NFL was not the industry then that it is now, and quarterbacks were not the investments they were then. Missing on one back in the day was an embarrassment; missing on one now is the next thing to catastrophic.

The position, and what it can do either for or to a franchise, demands a standard that didn't exist perhaps as recently as 15 years ago. Witness what's happening in Cleveland now, where Johnny Manziel just spent 10 weeks in rehab for issues that remain undisclosed, but which we can reliably assume are tied to his Good Time Charlie rep. That Manziel likely doesn't have the skill set to become a franchise quarterback is one thing; that he'll never approach it without a massive injection of maturity is quite another.

The first you can't do much about. The second you can. And so off he went, essentially, to recover from being 22 years old.

Imagine for a moment the Jets doing that with Joe Namath, back when Broadway Joe was the seminal Good Time Charlie. Or the Lions doing it with Bobby Layne, who caroused on Saturday night and carved up defenses on Sunday afternoon. Or the Packers doing it with the most famous Good Time Charlie of all, wide receiver Max McGee, who partied until the wee hours the night before Super Bowl I because he didn't expect to play that much.

Then he did, catching seven passes for 138 yards and two scores in the Pack's 35-10 win over Kansas City.

McGee likely would never have gotten that chance in 2015. He'd have come in at 4 a.m. and been cut by 6. Quirky and free-spirited are no longer a roll of the dice NFL teams can afford in an era of big-money contracts and choke-a-horse TV deals.

That's especially true with quarterbacks. You do not have to be a monk to play the position these days, but it helps. Winston is hardly that. And so the doubts will never quite go away, even if he proves all the doubters wrong.

Welcome to today's NFL, Jameis. Where your shortcomings will always cast the longest shadows.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The taint remains

He creeps up on the thing now like a night-borne thief, without tumult and without shouting. Alex Rodriguez is five home runs away from tying Willie Mays for fourth on the alltime list with 660, and yet you would never know it.

In a game built more than any other on the pursuit of numbers, the silence around this particular pursuit is deafening. Even Rodriguez' own team, the New York Yankees, remain singularly unenthused, saying instead they will fight the bonus they're contractually obligated to pay once A-Rod hits No. 660.

The reason?

Because of Rodriguez' serial PED use -- and, perhaps more than that, his serial lying about it -- the Yankees say No. 660 now holds no value. It is, they say in so many words, a worthless number.

A worthless number. In baseball.

There, in five words, is the sourest legacy of the Steroids Era, the one that will ring down loudest through history. The human cost will come later, when the note comes due for all the exotics Steroids Era players have injected/gobbled/applied. The toll on the fabric of the game, though, we can already see and hear. That deafening silence speaks volumes.

The catechism of numbers has always been the bedrock of baseball, its true north and most faithful currency.  A base hit in 2015 carries the same intrinsic value it carried in 1870. One-hundred forty-five years hasn't changed that, and that is the game's unifying force.

So when something happens that throws the numbers into shade, it throws the entire substance of baseball into shade from that day to this.  The unifying force comes undone.

The Blob has been adamant that someday Steroids Era players will be in the Hall of Fame, partly because some PEDs will eventually become legal and common, and partly because to exclude them in bulk would simply leave too gaping a hole. And so Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and the others will be there, with perhaps a notation on their plaques that they played during that period of time known as the Steroids Era.

That in itself, of course, will throw the game into shade. But that's as unavoidable as it is unfortunate.

"Some people are going to want to celebrate (660), some people are not," Rodriguez' own manager, Joe Girardi, said the other day with the next thing to a shrug. "I think it is a personal preference."

How sad is that?


Monday, April 13, 2015

A Masterful arrival

You don't judge what just happened among the pines and azaleas by the kid in the green jacket. You judge it by the barely-beyond-a-kid who finished fourth.

Rory McIlroy is still in his mid-20s, but he's the world's best golfer, and nothing he did the last four days will change that an iota. The man from Northern Ireland knocked down Augusta National and took its lunch money, shooting four sub-par rounds and going minus-10 on Saturday and Sunday. His 72-hole total of  276 would have won last year's Masters by four strokes, and would have won or tied in 15 of the last 20 Masters.

And yet.

And yet, he wasn't even a dust eddy in Jordan Spieth's mirrors Sunday.

 McIlroy's 276 left him six strokes adrift of the 21-year-old Texan, and it would have been seven strokes had Spieth dunked that 5-footer for par on the 72nd hole. That would have left him a preposterous minus-19 for the tournament, breaking the record of another phenom, Tiger Woods, who announced himself to the world with a minus-18 in 1997 no one thought would be approached again.

But Spieth matched it, and did so on a longer and tougher course than Woods faced, because Augusta's response to Woods' minus-18 was to Tigerize the place. And so now will come the presumptive chorus that forever waits to anoint the Next Whatever the way a small boy waits for the bathroom, hopping from foot to foot as his back teeth float.

It is too early yet to do that to Spieth, to call him the next Tiger as twilight still gathers around the original Tiger. But the career trajectory is very much the same,  and so at the very least we can say he's gone to the front rank of a generation of young golfers as deep and talented as any in memory.

American golf, as fellow American star Dustin Johnson said Sunday, is in a very good place right now. And not just American golf, but all of golf.

Consider, for instance, what Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose had to be thinking Sunday afternoon. Both of them finished at 14-under. Both of them shrugged off all those Sunday gremlins that lurk around Amen Corner and various other environs and put up small numbers -- Lefty a 3-under 69, Rose a 2-under 70. And yet they couldn't lay a finger on Spieth, who became the first man to lead the Masters wire-to-wire in 39 years.

It was the sort of soul-crushing deal we used to see from Tiger back in the day. And it reminded us again that, while Tiger remains the one reliable draw in golf, his day is largely past. His mystique is still there -- how many other guys who tie for 17th will ever get the kind of air and ink he did? -- but it's driven more by nostalgia now than current events.

The game has moved on. The Next Whatever has arrived. And if its name is not yet Jordan Spieth, it's only because it answers, and will continue to answer, to a lot of names.

Spieth, for now, first among them.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

Evil wind blowing

Today will not be about Jordan Spieth, last seen birdieing the windmill hole as he goes about turning Augusta National into Shiver Me Timbers Pirate Miniature Golf. It will not be about baseball or whether Steph Curry is human or Cylon, or the Mad Ants trying to close out the Maine Red Claws in the first round of the D-League playoffs.

A pause in all of that, if you please. The Blob is open today only for a little back-in-my-day codgerism.

That's because April 11 has come 'round again, and April 11 means something to Hoosiers of a certain age. If we close our eyes, we can still hear the howling in the sky, still see the darkness coming down as the lights went out and stayed out.

Fifty years ago today the sky turned black and the tornadoes came out of it with a freight-train roar, and there has been nothing like it here since. It was Palm Sunday, and even now, five decades along, those words carry something more than a holy tinge. Fifty years ago, they meant death and destruction: whole towns blown to matchsticks, house trailers wrapped around trees like twist ties, debris dropped from who knows where back in granddad's woods.

I was 10 years old the night the twisters came, and my memories of it are purely sensory. Wavering shadows on the wall, cast by the candles lit all over the house after the power went out. The aforementioned mobile home, burst open around that tree, spilling its pink insulation innards. Melted candle wax on a Monopoly board, because once the power was gone we kids had to do something to occupy ourselves.

The rest of it is in the history books now, of course. As many as 100 funnels might have been aloft that night, and almost 50 of them touched down. Seventeen were F4s; of those, as many as six might have been F5s. Several small burgs -- Linn Grove just west of Berne and Russiaville in central Indiana among them -- were virtually wiped off the map, and the death toll in Indiana was 137. It remains the deadliest tornado outbreak in the state's history.

The twister that wiped out Linn Grove churned through four miles south of my grandparents farm in Wells County, and so the day after (or maybe a couple days after) we drove down to see the sights. The trailer. A barn with one corner torn off, as if chewed away by some ravenous creature. And, yes, much later, deep in my granddad's woods, a rusting piece of sheet metal that looked as if it might have come from a mobile home, and that my cousin, uncle and I stumbled onto one afternoon.

Debris from that day may still be in those woods.  It's a fanciful notion after 50 years -- but then, I wouldn't put anything past Palm Sunday of 1965.

Some things are just eternal, you see. God help us.   


Friday, April 10, 2015

Your Old Guy Watch for today

It was cool and all yesterday to see 21-year-old Jordan Spieth surround Augusta National and make it come out with its hands up, shooting the lowest first round of the Masters (64) since 1996.

But if this really is A Tradition Unlike Any Other, tradition had its day, too. Specifically, the tradition that dictates that at least one geezer will make a little noise on Masters weekend, even if he does so while leaning hard on his cane and cupping a hand around his ear to catch the roars vibrating through the pines.

And so: Ernie Els, ladies and gentlemen.

He's 45-years-old. He's never won the Masters. And if anyone's ever uttered a bad word about him, it must have been late at night in a really loud place where no one could hear it.

Els shot a 5-under 67 on Thursday and is tied for second, amply qualifying him as this year's official Geezer Hope. As a man well north of the Cranky Old Guy line myself, I lift my glass of Metamucil to him. May he go out three more times and teach Augusta a thing or two about respecting one's elders, not to mention schooling all those young'uns surrounding him.

Not that I think it will happen, mind you. It never does (well, except for that one time when a certain J. Nicklaus pulled it off). But elderly folk cling hard to our fantasies, so please don't ruin it just yet by having Ernie blow up to a 75 today while Spieth and the rest of the kids run all over getting into stuff they're not supposed to, like more 64s and the like.

That's not too much to ask, is it?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The obligatory Tiger Woods post

Because, you know, Tiger is Golf and Golf is Tiger.

And so the radio yaks were all "What will Tiger do in the Masters this weekend?" yesterday, while mentioning the world's best player, Rory McIlroy, once, and no one else at all.  It's a continuing mystery to anyone who sees time as linear and fluid, and not an endless loop turning back on itself.

The Blob has said it once and it will say it until its voice gives out: Tiger is yesterday's news. He's a pushing-40 golfer trapped in a pushing-75 body. He's still got some game, but the day when he could be a consistent force on the PGA Tour is in the rearview and getting smaller every second.

And yet, he tees off today in the Masters.  And so the TVs and other assembled media will hang breathlessly, while ignoring 99 percent of the guys who actually have a chance to slip into something comfortable and green on Sunday evening.

But since the obsession with Tiger is not going away, here's what I think:.

I think Tiger plays well enough to make the cut and make it onto the leaderboard this weekend.

Or he unravels and starts throwing clubs and cursing like a merchant seaman, and is gone by Friday evening.

 I'm voting for "B", if only because if "A" happens, he'll be the Story and no one will ever remember what happened in the actual tournament. Bubba Watson could birdie six of the last seven holes, do the Dougie on the 18th green and then get punched in the face by all the guys on Tour who allegedly hate him, and all anyone will talk about is Tiger's amazing tie for 20th.

I'm also voting for "B" because the  theme yesterday was how Tiger was a changed man, how he actually would look you in the eye and engage you now, how, oh, look, he brought his kids to the par-3 tournament on Wednesday. What a human thing to do!

The even-handed journalist in me says, great, I hope that's true, and let's see how it goes from here.

Cynical Get Off My Lawn Guy sneers and says, "Yeah, we've heard all this before. Wait 'til he hits his first ball into Rae's Creek. He'll be testing the flight properties of his clubs and F-bombing the joint same as always. Once an asshat, always an asshat."

Anyway, it's on to the next four days -- the best in golf, if also the most saccharine for the way CBS fawns over Amen Corner, Magnolia Lane and the Cathedral of Pines as if they're holy relics and not, you know, a golf course.

God help us if Tiger actually wins and marches off to Butler Cabin with his kids in his arms. All of America will lapse into a sugar coma.

Man. Cynical Get Off My Lawn Guy just will not stay in his box today.

Target of opportunity

First Geno Auriemma, now Mark Cuban. Who lines up next to take a swing at men's college basketball?

James Naismith came back from the dead today to blast college basketball, saying "It looks like wrestling out there," and "What the hell happened to the peach baskets?"


Adolph Rupp came back from the dead today, watched the national championship game and said "How come they're letting all these black guys play?"

Meanwhile, Cuban called the college game "horrible," said there was too much standing around and too much physical play, said there was too much getting back on defense and passing it around on the perimeter and no transition game.

"If they want to keep kids in school and keep them from being pro players, they're doing it the exact right way by having the 35-second shot clock and having the game look and officiated the way it is," Cuban said.  "Just because kids don't know how to play a full game of basketball."

Two things wrong with this. OK, a bunch of things, but two things in particular.

One, what comprises a "full game of basketball"?  Offense, defense, rebounding, athletic play, right? Cuban's gonna tell us he didn't see that in the national championship game? Where was he when Grayson Allen was attacking the rim, flying to Aruba?

And the second thing that's wrong with what Cuban says?

It's assuming that the sole purpose of college basketball is to prepare kids to play in the pros. It's not, for the excellent reason that 90 percent of them aren't going to play in the pros. The NCAA has fostered that notion with its relentless drive to make its product ever more corporate, but that's not the reality. The reality is that most of the kids you see playing college hoops are financial planners, marketing execs or computer software designers in training. They're headed to 9-to-5 Land, not Madison Square Garden.

But Cuban is an NBA owner, and the mindset in the NBA has long been that the colleges exist as a de facto farm system for the NBA. That's become especially true since the NBA instituted its absurd ban on drafting players out of high school, which has compelled kids like Jahlil Okafor to turn the college game into a waiting room until the timer goes off and they turn 19.

(A brief interlude: If Mark Cuban wants to fix the college game, that's where he should start, because the one-and-done culture created by the NBA has done more to warp the college game than anything. It's disingenuous for Cuban to rip college buckets when he and his fellow owners are such a huge part of the problem. You want to fix college basketball? Fine. Get rid of the rule or start using your Developmental League as an actual Developmental League, decreeing that any kid drafted straight out of high school must spend his first season in the D-League).

Does the college game have issues?

Sure it does. The play has gotten too physical. There are too many timeouts, which certain coaches (hello, Tom Izzo) hoard and then use in the last three minutes, slowing the game to a crawl and erasing any semblance of flow it might have had. The NCAA has proposals on the table to address both those issues, and they're long overdue.

But the college game is not, and never was intended to be, the pro game. The irony in all this is that while Auriemma and Cuban are ripping the men's game for not being enough like the pro game, there's a competing school of thought that the colleges have become too much like the pros. The bumping, the banging, the hated Euro step (aka, traveling), the one-and-done: There's a litany of complaints.

Most of them have to do with the fact that college hoops is not as much a coach's game anymore. Frankly, I'm glad it's not. Too much of the spotlight has always been on the coaches in college basketball, and if the one-and-dones have had any upside, it's that they've managed to dim that spotlight a bit. Taking some timeouts away would do that as well, which is why I applaud it.

No one's coming to games to watch Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or Bo Ryan draw up plays on a greaseboard. The fewer chances they have to do that, the more appealing the game will be.

Even if it's not, and never should be, the NBA.




Wednesday, April 8, 2015

What's in a name

So here are a few things we know today, in no particular order:

1. You can now mention Geno Auriemma and John Wooden in the same breath.

2. An outbreak of tinkly music, "a tradition unlike any other" and references to Amen Corner, Tiger Woods, Magnolia Lane, Tiger Woods and Tiger Woods is imminent.

3. Fort Wayne has another Mr. Basketball (Take a bow, Caleb Swanigan).

4. Baseball!

Which, of course, brings us to what we'd really like to talk about this morning, as the fog lifts and the grass greens up and the mercury heads for the mid-60s, and perhaps the mythic lands beyond.

Call it, "Honors well-bestowed."

The particular honor we're referring to happens April 25, when Concordia High School does what probably should have been years ago, given that  it's so head-slapping obvious. On that day, it will officially dedicate its baseball field in honor of longtime coach Jack Massucci, who coached the Cadets for 34 years before retiring in 1996 with 520 career victories.

There are men (and women) whose names you can't utter without certain associations tagging along, and, in this town, Massucci's is one of them. If you can't think of high school basketball in Fort Wayne without thinking of Glenn Parrish or By Hey or various and sundry Mendenhalls, you can't think of baseball without thinking of Massucci.

Along with Chris Stavreti at Northrop and Bill Derbyshire at Elmhurst, among others, the name and the game are synonymous, and not just because of the 34 years and 520 Ws.  It's because, if Massucci had had an affinity for, say, pinochle instead of baseball, so much would be different here.

 Beyond Concordia High School -- where he won seven conference titles, five sectionals, four regionals and three semistates -- he's been a staunch advocate for baseball in the city in general. He sat on the Fort Wayne Baseball-Softball Commission for 25 years. And he's been involved in Wildcat Baseball for eons, currently serving as its vice-president.

So April 25 is not just about one school and a name going on one baseball diamond. It's about a whole city full of diamonds that wouldn't be as well-populated as they are without that name.

Concordia is a richer place because Massucci landed there, which is why April 25 is happening, and why Massucci's No. 24 is the only number the school has ever retired. But you know what?

So is Fort Wayne.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The (Big) Blueprint, confirmed

That was Duke out there last night, not Kentucky, even though Nike outfitted the Blue Devils in exactly the same uniforms the Wildcats wore on the night 40-0 turned into 38-1.

Fitting. Because they might as well have been the Kats.

Takeaway from Mike Krzyzewski's fifth national title last night: The Coach K Way and the Coach Cal Way are now as identical as their uniforms. Which is to say, you recruit blue-chip freshmen, you stick 'em in the lineup and you let 'em win titles for ya.

Sixty of Duke's 68 points in a 68-63 victory over Wisconsin came from freshmen, a number straight out of Lexington. And while the mortal lock one-and-done (Jahlil Okafor) got in foul trouble, two other freshmen (Grayson Allen and Tyus Jones) stepped up to save the Blue Devils after Wisconsin put them nine points down midway through the second half.

Allen and Jones gave Duke what all the smart guys said was its edge -- dominance in the backcourt -- and the Blue Devils rode them like Secretariat, thoroughly owning the last 10 minutes. Duke's guards were better, they got to the rim and drew the fouls in the second half that they failed to in the first half, and their ball pressure on the perimeter blunted Wisconsin's ability to take full advantage of Okafor's absence after Frank Kaminsky got the kid in foul trouble.

All of which was what everyone figured Duke would need to do to win. Add to that the crucial element of Sam Dekker's disappearance -- the Badgers' turbo-boost scored just 12 points and was 0-of-6 from behind the arc -- and the deal was sealed.

In the end, even with Okafor on the bench for long stretches, the Badgers only outrebounded Duke 35-33. They shot just 10 free throws. And if you bleed red and feel compelled to complain that the game was allowed to become entirely too physical ... well, keep in mind that it's the Badgers, a traditionally physical team, who should have benefited from that more than Duke.

They didn't. And so Coach K wins a third national title in Indy. At this rate, the guy will probably start taking his vacations there.

As for Wisconsin ...

Well. We all know what the solution is there.

More freshmen.


Monday, April 6, 2015

Here come the Cu--

Easter Sunday, and the day had spring on its breath.

The sun, warm on your neck. The smell of greening earth, filling your nostrils. Birdsong everywhere, waking you up, forming the background music to your life.

And what's this? Baseball?

You bet: Cardinals, Cubs, summer's on its way. Opening Night in the majors. A palpable edge to it this time, because the Cubs made all these moves in the offseason, and brought in this guy (Joe Maddon) who looks like your accountant but can actually manager the heck out of a baseball game. And out there on the bump, the prize of the winter: Jon Lester, poised to mow down those hated Birds once and for all.

And then the game started.

And, well, you know how it was gonna go. Lester got lit up, the Cardinals raking him for eight hits and three earned runs in 4 1/3. Meanwhile, Adam Wainwright did what Adam Wainwright always does, which is go six innings, give up five hits but zero runs and strike out six. And the Cardinals won 3-0.

Ah, well.

Wait 'til next year, right?


Da Prediction, Part Deux

OK, so I was wrong. But at least I'm eating right.

This in the wake of the Wisconsin Badgers sending the Kentucky Not Quite Perfectos to the sideline Saturday night, ending UK's quest for 40-0 and my own personal streak of never being wrong about anything, except perhaps that 1982 Ford Escort I once bought.

Cover it with peonies and it could have been in the Tournament of Roses parade that year when the theme was A Tribute To Rust. That was also the year beige-and-Bondo-yellow were all the rage.

Anyway ... yeah, I was wrong. I thought Notre Dame missed everyone's chance to take down the Wildcats, but I didn't count on Frank Kaminsky and the Arc-ival Assassin, Sam Dekker. I also didn't count on John Calipari deciding not to go inside to Karl-Anthony Towns for the last six minutes, instead choosing to let the Harrison twins shoot his team out of a date with history.

And so it's Wisky vs. Duke for the title tonight, and let me say right here that the best thing about that is I will not be eating my own words sometime next week. That was the bet when I rashly wrote four months ago in this space that I would print out a certain blog entry and eat it if Kentucky went undefeated. Well, now I don't have to. So thanks for that, Bucky.

Your reward is this: I am not picking you to win tonight.

This is has less to do with the fact Duke beat the Badgers by 10 points back in December than it does with what Wisky did Saturday night. Giving them less than 48 hours to reset after the biggest W of the college basketball season seems to me to be asking too much, even for a team as experienced and mature as this one. Throw in the fact that Duke is playing at such a high level itself right now -- the Blue Devils have barely been tested in this tournament, and flicked away Michigan State in the semis like a man flicking a bug off his sleeve -- and I can't see it happening again for Wisconsin.

So: Duke by five. It'll be the third time the Blue Devils have won the title in Indianapolis, leading to the alarming thought that Mike Krzyzewski might decide to move the entire program here, bringing with it all those insufferably entitled Duke students.  

And, yes, Wisky, you can thank me. Because, as I was reminded by friends and family all day yesterday, I am actually never right about these things. 

So you got that goin' for you, ya buncha cheese curds.

You're welcome.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

And now, Da Prediction

... in which I have been beaten thoroughly to the punch by a former colleague, the esteemed Sarah Trotto, who pretty much captures the zeitgeist of this weekend in just three  words.

"Duke? Kentucky? Gross."

Well ... yes.

We all wish it could be Bo Ryan against Tom Izzo for the title Monday night, Big Ten vs. Big Ten, Sparty vs. Bucky Badger. Frank Kaminsky and the king of the postgame transcript, Nigel Hayes, against Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson. Sam Dekker, assassin of the 3-point line, against Travis Trice, assassin of the 3-point line 2.0.

But if the Final Four is all about One Shining Moments, it's also about the death of dream. The ghost of one will still be rattling around Lucas Oil Stadium this weekend: Gordon Hayward's final shot, dead these five years, spins and shudders above the cylinder to this day. Then, as always, it falls away, depriving Butler of its fairy tale ending and every writer in the joint of the chance to tell it.

What that tells us is that The Luke doesn't do storybook. And so, reluctantly, the Blob is forced to conclude that this weekend's meme will indeed be Duke, Kentucky, Gross.

Everyone in America thinks Wisky is going to give the Wildcats everything they want and maybe more, a dangerous state of affairs for Wisky. All season long, as Kentucky chased perfection, it was never more lethal than when the country thought it was about to get it in the neck. And so it will be this time.

Wisky's got Kaminsky, but the Wildcats have Kaminsky times about four. Kats by 10.

And Duke vs. Michigan State?

You'd like to think the Wizard of March has something left in the bag for the Blue Devils. But one of the defining themes of this tournament always has been whether it's a Duke Year or A Not Duke Year. This is a Duke Year.

And so, great job, Tom Izzo, but it's time to step aside. The Spartans will put up a fight, but too much Jahlil Okafor sends the Spartans back up I-69. Duke by nine.

Duke. Kentucky. Gross.

And Monday night?

Kentucky. Forty-and-oh. And the Blob dines on a bit of ill-considered four-month-old newsprint at some point thereafter.

Speaking of gross.


Friday, April 3, 2015

Your seismic thought for today

So I see that Bob Knight -- last seen looking profoundly disinterested at an NIT game this week -- is leaving ESPN. He's been an analyst for the network since 2008.

I don't think I have to tell you what this means.

1. Tom Crean is toast.

2. Upon his departure (the VCU job is open now, so maybe Crean will land there), RMK will re-enter Bloomington driving a golden chariot. The Bobbyheads will shout loud hosannas ("The program is saved!"), and the non-Bobbyheads will vainly try to remind everyone that his last five years in Assembly Hall were, well, pretty damn ordinary.

Just doing my part to get the Blobophiles riled up.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Geno's World: A galaxy far, far away

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma has never been shy about opening his mouth, even when his mouth was in close proximity to one of his well-appointed loafers.

So no surprise that Geno opened his mouth again yesterday, and a lot of whole wheat hooey fell out. The subject was the state of college basketball on the men's side, which Geno labeled a "joke" because there's entirely too much defense being played and the offenses mostly stink because -- Cranky Old Man alert here -- players can't make the kind of shots they used to make.

This undoubtedly will come as a shock to those of us who've been watching Kentucky score virtually at will this season, or to those of us who caught any of the Notre Dame-UK game the other night. That might have been horrible basketball, by Geno's lights, but if it was they camouflaged it well. Perhaps there wasn't enough dunking for Geno's tastes.

Here's what I think any time I hear that stylish, intelligently played basketball at both ends of the floor is somehow a turnoff: It says more about the people who say it than the game they're watching. More than you might think, I understand that we live these days in an OCD society, where contentment means never having to wait longer than 12 seconds for anything.  And so I tend to chalk up opinions like Geno's (or radio foof Colin Cowherd, who doesn't like thinking man's hoops, either) to their apparent affinity for shiny things.

I also chalk it up, in this case, to the fact that Geno coaches the women's game, which is largely played below the rim and at three-quarters speed in comparison to the men's game. So there's an obvious agenda at work here, not to say a startling irony: The very things Geno decries in the men's game are the things that have made his own program successful.

Last I looked, after all, UConn was holding teams to 30 percent shooting and 48 points per game. And they've so outdistanced their competition by doing so that it's almost a pointless exercise to watch the women's tournament anymore. And so Geno's own team is perhaps a bigger detriment to the women's game than anything is to the men's game.

Listen. We have a tendency, those of us a certain age, to remember things the way we wish they were, not the way they actually were. Kentucky, the undefeated No. 1 in college basketball this season, has shot 46.8 percent this year and averaged 75 points per game. The 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers, the last undefeated national champions, shot just over 50 percent and averaged 82 points that season. That's a little higher, but not significantly so.

And if Geno thinks all the great shooters belong to the past, consider: Maybe the greatest pure scorer in NCAA history, Pete Maravich, averaged 44.1 points per game in his career at LSU. He shot 43.8 percent to do it. Of Kentucky's seven top scorers this year, only two shot worse.

So much for players not being able to make shots the way they used to.

Geno may be right that the men's game has suffered because it's been allowed to become too physical, and also because of the one-and-done rule. But the athletes playing the game today are far better almost across the board. And if offenses aren't what they used to be because of too much defense ... well, this isn't the first time defense has dominated the college game.

That Indiana team, for instance?

Opponents shot just 45 percent against it. Which was nearly eight percentage points better than another of the greatest teams of all time -- the UCLA Bruins from Lew Alcindor's senior year in 1968-69, who held opponents to 37.7 percent shooting.

Strange. No one thought college basketball was unwatchable then.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Swinging the big stick

And so, in honor of April 1, we bring you this nugget from the strange intersection of Poorly Concealed Political Agenda Avenue and Sorry Mike No One Fell For It Boulevard:

NASCAR has come out against RFRA!

You heard right. Even NASCAR -- bastion of right-wing politics, Republican stronghold, People Who Booed Michelle Obama -- thinks the notion that Indiana's RFRA law is actually about "religious freedom" is a crock, too.

And if you think this is part where I shout "April Fools!", think again. Because here's the real April Fool's joke: It's no joke.

NASCAR really did express its revulsion for Indiana's new RFRA law, joining a pile of other businesses and politicians on both sides of the aisle. Because, no, Pence and has cabal weren't fooling anyone. The superfluous bill he signed into superfluous law was crafted by and lobbied for by hard-right zealots whose rabid homophobia is on record. That's why the thing was signed behind closed doors, so we couldn't see 'em all lined up behind Pence.

So much for benign intent.

Now the cover's blown and money's sprinting away from Indiana like Usain Bolt, and Pence is backing up so fast you can hear the beep-beep-beep. Corporate money runs politics in America, surprise, surprise, and so Pence will try to walk this back just enough to calm the waters without alienating the yahoos he needs to get the Republican nomination for president.

That's what this is all about, of course, and, contrary to conventional wisdom, the furor over this hasn't wrecked his national political future. It's launched it. This is Pence's standing-in-the-schoolhouse-door moment; the original catapulted George Wallace into national prominence, and this one's done the same for Pence.

A week ago, no one outside of Indiana had heard of him. Now he's been on CNN, on ABC, on Fox, and everyone in America knows him. And while most of the country thinks he's a gay-bashing hayseed, the yahoos are undoubtedly sitting in front of their TVs shouting "Yeeaaah, Mike! Way to stand up for traditional American values!"

Or something like that.

We can all hope the backlash to the backlash (because RFRA is nothing more than a backlash to losing the same-sex marriage fight) leads to Indiana guaranteeing protection from discrimination for its gay citizens. But this is still Indiana, so probably not. What we can do is take the core message from this whole sorry mess.

The business of America remains business, and it drives even social agendas. And sports swings every bit as a big a stick in that arena as any other corporate entity.

If not more so. 

It's one thing for a business such as Angie's List or Lily or whoever to come out against RFRA. But nothing gets headlines like the ruling body for Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. coming out against it. Or the NCAA -- which, in a bitter stroke of irony, conducts the Final Four in Indianapolis this weekend -- coming out against it. Or the NFL, the monolith that rules the sports landscape in this country like none other, saying it was studying the new law carefully.

Lily and Angie's List actually had to denounce the law to land a headline. The NFL had only to say it was studying the law to do so. That tells you all you need to know about just how much influence professional (or in the NCAA's case, quasi-professional) sports wield in America these days.

No foolin'.