Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The end. Or not.

This is where the lights go out, if your patriotic fervor does not pass muster. The American women's soccer team, which can't find the net with a GPS and search planes, gets Germany next. Germany is not China or Colombia or Nigeria. Germany will score.

And if that happens, the Americans are done.

A team that's scored only five even-strength goals in the entire tournament has survived largely because its defense has been impenetrable and its psycho goalkeeper has been unbeatable, affording the Americans the opportunity of playing from ahead. But if Germany cracks the code first tonight, the dynamic shifts. And it won't be a pleasant shift for the U.S.

Or so goes one school of thought.

The other, an emerging storyline fueled at least in part by the aforementioned fervor, is that the U.S. found its groove against China in the quarters. That it was much more aggressive on the attack. That it comes to tonight brimming with confidence that it will crack Germany's code first, and sail into the final.

Which is a whole lot of gold to spin from the straw of a 1-0 victory in which the U.S. managed all of four shots on goal.

On the other hand, the Americans took 17 shots and controlled possession, which is what fuels the more-aggression meme. That will have to continue tonight, or they'll be going home. Retreating to a purely defensive posture will be inviting disaster against the Germans, who are as stout defensively as the Americans and skilled enough on the attack to make them pay.

The Blob's prediction?

Oh, heck. U.S. wins on PKs. Why not.

Patriotic fervor made me do it.


Monday, June 29, 2015

False alarms

Sometimes headlines are misleading. Shocker.

And so here's one that would bring the blogo/Twitter/Outrage-o-sphere to full boil, leaving internet scorch marks all over a certain professional basketball player: LeBron Opts Out Of Deal, Will Become Free Agent.

You can imagine the reaction, can't you?

Jerk ... tool ... can't believe he'd ... someone call Hollywood and get the deal started for Jilted II: The (Bleep) Does It Again. Stat.

Weeell ...

Notice I said would bring the blogo/Twitter/Outrage-o-sphere to full boil.

That's because if the headline might make Clevelanders want to jump off a bridge into the fiery Cuyahoga, the details will spare them such an unfortunate end. LeBron opting out of his deal was apparently expected by all parties, including the Cavaliers. It's a formality intended to restart negotiations with the Cavaliers over a new deal.

LeBron isn't going anywhere, in other words. He'll re-sign with Cleveland -- though an unrestricted free agent, he's not talking to any other teams -- but in order to restructure his deal, he apparently had to opt out of it first.

So calm down, people. And you boys out there in Hollywood?

Never mind.      

Sunday, June 28, 2015

No longer their nation

This Southern thing, it's as dead as Rockingham. As dead as Darlington on Labor Day weekend was for a time. As dead as North Wilkesboro, which is just down the road from Junior Johnson's place -- Junior Johnson, who turns 84 today and won 50 NASCAR races back when NASCAR was a bunch of gone-straight moonshiners makin' up for Gettysburg at the Rock and Wilkesboro and a pile of other vanished places.

Now it's 2015 and NASCAR's as hot as everyone else about the Confederate flag, and it must be some shock to the wild boys for whom the Stars and Bars was the official wallpaper of their sport. What the hell'd the Confederacy ever do to piss anybody off?

The answer to that has been obvious to most of the country for 150 years, but most of the country wasn't in thrall to the cult of Lost Cause/Southern remembrance. Its power to make irrational even the most rational of men has always been underestimated by those outside its sphere. But then nine black men and women died in a Southern church in an atrocity that took the country right back to four dead Sunday school girls and three civil rights workers buried in an earthen dam, and the scales finally fell from a whole lot of eyes -- not all of them belonging to damn Yankees.

Which is to say, this isn't 1863 anymore. It's not even 1963, no matter how resonant Dylann Roof's alleged slaughter and the wrapping it came in seemed to be.

That wrapping being the Confederate flag, among others.

A funeral procession of murdered African-Americans rolling past that flag proudly flying at full staff was too much for even the most oblivious, finally. And so South Carolina took it down and Alabama took it down and a bunch of others took it down, while the usual caterwauling rose up about political correctness and blah-blah-blah.

But it wasn't political correctness that moved those states to act. It was, finally, simple common decency, a belated awareness that to a whole segment of America whose ancestors got dragged here against their will and sold as property, flying the Confederate flag on official government ground was like salt in a wound that never heals. You might as well run a swastika up a pole outside the Knesset in Tel Aviv.  

And now NASCAR, bastion of Southern remembrance itself, has recognized that, too.

Its relationship with its Southern roots has been complicated for a long time, of course. As the sport exploded in the 1990s, all that yee-ha moonshiner business became an embarrassment, not to say a lousy sell to a rapidly expanding fan base. The prerogatives of the marketplace compelled the sport to flee those roots, figuratively as well as literally.

And so storied venues like Rockingham and North Wilkesboro went away so NASCAR could head to Phoenix and Vegas and the Napa valley. The Southern 500 at Darlington, once the second jewel in the NASCAR crown after Daytona, first vanished completely and then reappeared, but only eventually returned to its traditional Labor Day date.

And the Confederate flag, the Official Wallpaper, was Officially banished. And Brian France, who regards it as "personally offensive," now wants to erase it entirely in the wake of the Charleston shootings.

"That's what we're working on -- working on how far can we go," he said the other day. "If there's more we can do to disassociate ourselves with that flag at our events than we've already done, then we want to do it. We are going to be as aggressive as we can to disassociate ourselves with that flag."

The problem, of course, is how much more aggressive he can be without getting slapped around by the courts. The political correctness watchdogs, never ones to miss the train to Hysteria Junction, may be ranting that the goldang gummint will be coming for their guns next. But the fact is, no one's telling Billy Bob he can't hang 12 Confederate flags on his own property if he wants to. Even the President of the United States said so the other day in his moving eulogy to state senator and pastor Clementa Pinckney, one of the slain.

So it will be instructive to see how it plays if France tries to lean on NASCAR's venues to ban Confederate flags from the premises. The venues (or at least the ones NASCAR doesn't already own) aren't government facilities. They're privately owned. And even their reach is limited; will the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, for instance, ban Confederate flags from the Coke lot along 25th Street? And if it tries, how many stories will get churned out about violated freedom of expression and defiance in the face of tyranny -- because you know some in that crowd will unfurl the biggest Stars and Bars they can find, and dare someone to take it down.

After which one of two things will happen: The officials will just ignore it (the smart and likely move), or the cops will come. And then it will become a thing, and the right-wing media will have more red meat to gnaw on ... and, well, how far down that particular road does NASCAR really want to go?

We shall see. In the meantime, we'll give the last word on this to another NASCAR figure, a son of the South who was born and raised in North Carolina and has seen up close NASCAR's flight from its Southern roots.   

"It is offensive to an entire race," this individual said the other day about the former Official Wallpaper. "It really does nothing for anybody to be there flying. It belongs in the history books, and that's about it."

The person who said that?

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Most popular driver in NASCAR. Darling of the yee-ha crowd. Son of the quintessential Southern icon.

Welcome to modern times.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Dads from hell

We all know about sports dads.  Most of the time they're reasonable people with reasonable expectations about their progeny -- which is to say, they don't think he's the next Kobe or LeBron because he schlepped around and scored a bunch of points when he was knee-high to a bunch of other knee-high kids.

And then there's Sean "P Diddy" Combs, the ultimate sports dad from hell.

Who took offense to a UCLA strength coach disciplining his son, Justin, and attacked him with a weight-room kettle bell when a heated exchange of words got out of hand.

Diddy got himself arrested for that, and suddenly he's gone from mere celebrity to Celebrity Wacko Sports Dad. His fame makes him unique in that regard, but only in that regard. Because the sad truth is, what happened at UCLA this week gets played out on a smaller stage far too many times.

I tend to blame the culture of youth sports for that, which dictates that if your child is going to make something of him or herself in an athletic endeavor, his or her career path must begin about the time they shed their Garanimals. If not before.

And so soccer-for-tots becomes travel soccer becomes thousands upon thousands of dollars bet on the usually delusional notion that Lionel Messi grows somewhere in that kid holding a melting Popsicle in the backseat. Or that the next Mike Trout is back there. Or that Duke and then the NBA surely await if only Popsicle Boy plays enough AAU games -- which is to say, plays basketball year-round without a break.

That leaves no time for Little League baseball or Pop Warner football or youth soccer. But, hey, who cares about being well-rounded when Coach K comes calling, amiright?

The problems with this are many, not the least of which is that it proceeds from a flawed premise to begin with. I could sit here all day and list athletes who made it big who grew up playing not just their sport of choice but EVERY sport. I could sit here all day today and tomorrow, too, in fact.

For instance: Once upon a time I covered an Indiana Mr. Basketball named Troy Lewis, out of Anderson High School. He went on to become one of Purdue University's all-time leading scorers. And he had a secret: In addition to being a premier hoops guy, he was also a lights-out baseball player. And that's what he played every spring for the Indians.

Specialization as the golden path, in other words, is a myth. It always has been. Yet the specialization myth is a powerful one, if for no other reason than those aforementioned thousands upon thousands of dollars. After awhile, you come to think of your child not merely as your child but as a marketable asset. You come to think of him or her as an investment -- the investment usually being an all-expenses-paid college education down the road somewhere.

That's not a bad thing to want for your kid. But it too often creates a sense of entitlement that inevitably leads to clashes with coaches who don't see what you see -- and, minus your vested interest, are usually much more clear-eyed about it.

Throw in the celebrity factor, and that sense of entitlement grows exponentially. Here's the thing about Justin Combs: He's by all accounts a good kid and an OK defensive back. But he's also at UCLA at least partly because of who his dad is, The coach who recruited him, Rick Neuheisel, admits as much.

All you have to do to verify  that is look at the photo of Justin that accompanies this story. To put it bluntly, he's tiny. How many kids his size land full schollys to  major Division I football schools like UCLA?

Answer: Not many who aren't P Diddy's offspring.

Yet here P Diddy is, attacking a coach for doing what coaches do, instead of thanking the good Lord every day that his kid is even a scholarship player. Just another Wacko Sports Dad, indulging in the same Wacko Sports Dad delusions.

Bigger stage or not.



Thursday, June 25, 2015

The nil set

Look, the Blob's as big a homer as you are. You chant "U!", I'll add the "S!A!"

Which doesn't mean I like what I'm seeing so far from the U.S. women in the World Cup.

What I'm seeing is false advertising, in the sense that all we heard in the run-up to the tournament was how much firepower this team had, and what we've seen so far is not the 3rd Armored Division but the  Lichtenstein navy. They simply can't score. Were it not for Tonya Harding back there in goal, they'd likely be out of the tournament already.

I don't know enough about soccer to determine if this is because the pre-tournament analysis was wildly off, or if  it's a scheme issue. I suspect the latter.

What I do know is they're in big trouble if Tonya ever lets in a goal. This is  not a team that appears capable of playing from behind. They don't even look like a  team that's comfortable playing when it's not behind, at least on the attack.

A nil-nil tie with Sweden after the Swedish coach trash-talked them to a fare-thee-well said nothing good about either the U.S. team's ability to pressure opponents, or (and I hate to say this) the fire in its belly. And the women were headed for more nil-nil hilarity against Colombia until Alex Morgan was tripped on a breakaway by the Colombian goalie ... which led to a red card ... which meant the U.S. got to play a woman up for most of the second half.

Given that advantage, they put two goals behind the backup keeper and won 2-0.

But now they're shorthanded themselves, with  midfielders Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe out for Friday's game against China after picking up their second yellow cards of the tournament.  This bodes extremely ill for a team struggling to find the net already. And it puts even more pressure on Tonya to keep her own net clean.

I'm not yet enough of a non-homer to pick against the U.S. women. In a perfect world, I'd have them winning the final 3-2, with Tonya (who shouldn't even be playing, in my estimation) giving up two really bad goals.

But if you're a bettin' man or woman and you put some coin down on China in this one, it might not be the dumbest wager you've ever made. Just sayin'.     


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Flag days

So now they are all rallying around That Flag, the better to haul it down and give it a proper burial. Even NASCAR, rooted in the segregationist South and queasy about that to this day, has been  compelled this week to say it strongly discourages the flying of any and all flags of the Confederacy at its events, and that no Confederate flag will ever fly in any official capacity at any NASCAR event.

And all because some people were compelled to point out what's been obvious forever, which is that a flag of sedition shouldn't be flying on the statehouse grounds of a nation against which those who followed that flag rebelled.

Why that was not obvious before nine African-Americans were butchered by a spiritual son of that flag is a question grounded in history that will not stay dead, no matter how many stakes we drive through its aorta. As historian Barbara Fields so aptly put it at the end of Ken Burns' Civil War opus, we're still fighting the Civil War. Appomattox only shifted its paradigm.

And so Bull Run begat Shiloh begat Antietam begat Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, on and on. Men in gray fell in windrows to give birth not to a new nation, but to a catechism of Southern remembrance that was its stillborn remnant. And within that remembrance grew a measure of willful forgetting that leads us right back to that flag and what it means or should mean.

Here's what I know: What it means is what it's always meant.

Which is to say, the men who marched behind that flag did so to maintain a society sustained by the blood and sweat of enslaved human beings. If most of them didn't own slaves, or in some cases didn't even hold with slavery ... well, hardly any Americans who went off to Iraq owned oil wells or were big fans of oil fat cats, either. But they found themselves dodging IEDs and RPG fire in Fallujah and Baghdad, anyway, despite how they felt.

And so if Johnny Reb fought to defend his home from the invader who was not actually an invader,  he also fought so those farther up the economic ladder could protect what they deemed their property. There is no getting around that. You can bellow from the rooftops about states' rights and the tyranny of the federal government and all the usual treatises of neo-Confederate thought, but the bare wood of it is slavery was the only states' right that could have plunged the country into four years of wanton bloodshed.

No one marches across a mile of open ground into a hurricane of double canister because of some philosophical difference over the role of the federal government. They do it because the federal government was deemed to be threatening their way of life in some way. And in the Confederacy's case, slavery was the bedrock foundation of that way of life.

Yes, brave and honorable men fought and died for that flag, but even if they wouldn't acknowledge it, they knew what they were fighting for. And many of them knew, on some level, how evil it was.

It's chic right now to say the various flags of the Confederacy no longer mean what they once meant, that racists and white supremacists have co-opted them and turned them into symbols of hate and repression. But that's what they always were. The racists and white supremacists get that in a way the neo-Confederate scholars do not, or perhaps refuse to. Otherwise, why would they choose Confederate symbols as standards for their sick fantasies?

Skinheads don't wave swastikas, after all, because they're big fans of Hitler's economic policies. They do it because he tried to exterminate the Jews.

That's why the Confederate flag needs to be removed from any and all statehouse grounds.  No one who understands America will tell anyone he can't fly a Confederate flag on his own property, but get if off government property. It's inappropriate on any number of levels.

And a stain on our nation that it took nine dead Americans for so many of us to figure that out.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Pants on fire

 Now we know there are things Pete Rose cannot hit, even if a baseball isn't one of them.

The man hit a baseball safely 4,192 times in his career. He can't hit the truth even once, apparently.

This upon the news that not even when he supposedly came clean in 2004, hoping that would pry open the doors to Cooperstown, he didn't come clean. After 15 years of denying he ever bet on baseball, he admitted he bet on baseball. But he continued to deny he ever bet on the game while he was a player.

Now documents have come to light, via ESPN's Outside The Lines, that verify he bet extensively on the Reds in 1986, when he was penciling himself into the lineup every day as player/manager. In other words, he bet on baseball while he was playing. In other words, he's still lying, an affliction he seems no more able to control than his gambling.

And with that, his shot at ever getting back into baseball is gone, as is his shot at getting into Cooperstown while he's still drawing breath. If he gets in (and I still think he will, at some distant point in time), it won't be while he can enjoy it. That will be his punishment for lying and continuing to lie.

I wish I could say I feel sorry for him. I wish I could say, as his champions frequently do, that there is some moral equivalency between PEDs and betting on the game, that if the former doesn't incur a lifetime ban then the latter shouldn't.

What I'll say about that is gambling never flourished with the unspoken consent of baseball's hierarchy the way PEDs did. I'll say that, left unchecked, it corrupts the legitimacy of the game itself and not just the legitimacy of its numbers. And I'll say that, unlike PEDs, it has been the third rail of the game for nearly a century.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis,  sour racist coot that he was, established that precedent on the heels of the Black Sox scandal, and that's why a stern sign admonishes players against it in every clubhouse in Major League Baseball. If Landis perhaps overreached by banning eight White Sox from the game forever, it remains the precedent. And baseball is nothing if not servant to its precedents.

And so, Rose was cast out, just as Shoeless Joe Jackson was -- and probably with more cause. And he'll remain cast out now, because even with the Hall of Fame on the line, he couldn't bring himself to tell the truth. Lying is his natural state, and so he returns to it again and again, helplessly.

And if his champions will now say "Well, but he never bet against the Reds," how do we know that? A man who'd duck the truth as many times as Rose as has will continue to duck it. Why at this point would we believe anything the man says, up to and including what color the sky is on a cloudless day?

The bottom line is, he knowingly engaged in the one activity that is most expressly forbidden by baseball, and he did it again and again. He did it even though nothing -- not PEDs, not anything -- can more quickly turn a sport into hollow farce, can more quickly reduce it from honest enterprise to something along the lines of professional wrestling.

Where Pete Rose, it turns out, is venerated as a member of the WWE Hall of Fame.

I can't think of anything more fitting.


Monday, June 22, 2015

Chambers Bray

It's Monday morning now, and I'm still waiting. Still waiting for the wail. Still waiting for the fine whine. Still waiting for the shake of the fist, the dip of the head, the woe-is-me cant from Dustin Johnson, the answer to today's Blob question.

Q: Why do they call it the U.S. Open?

A: Because sometime during the playing of it, the ground Opens beneath Dustin Johnson's feet and swallows him.

Once upon a time his ball landed in a bunker that didn't look anything like a bunker (spectators were standing in it, for God's sake), and, because he didn't know it was a bunker and the USGA official standing right there didn't alert him to the fact, he grounded his club. Which cost him two strokes and likely the Open title.

Sunday he had a 12-footer for eagle and the Open title, and he three-putted and lost by a stroke to Jordan Spieth. That sound you heard about 10:15 last night was all of America shrieking, "Oh, no!" when his tiny birdie putt to force a playoff somehow missed the bottom of the cup.

Which is why I'm still waiting.

I'm still waiting for Johnson to unload on the greens at Chambers Bay, the way so many of his fellow golfers did. Apparently the greens were really bad -- in other words, they weren't the usual billiard tables these guys are used to. And so here were Ian Poulter and Billy Horschel last night, crabbing about the fact that, for heaven's sake, it's the U.S. Open, why shouldn't we expect greens you could one-putt with a lawn rake?

"It's just a very disappointing week to be here,'' Horschel told ESPN.com. "When you come to a championship tournament, obviously you are going to find out who the best player is, but when you neglect one of the skills or take away one of the skills from a player, and that be putting ... I'm a really good putter and I have not had a great week on the greens.

"And it's not due to the fact that my stroke is off or my speed is off. I've hit a lot of really good putts that have bounced all over the world. So it's just frustrating."

In other words: It's not me. It's the course. The course is why I missed all those putts.

Look. The Blob's on record here about the way the USGA tricks up Open courses so no one can score. It's dumb. It hurts the game. No one tunes in to watch the best players in the world play like muni hackers. They tune in to see the best players in the world take beautiful golf courses out behind the woodshed and cane them like they're Crazy Larry's Adventureland Golf.

So I'm not entirely disposed to dismiss Horschel and Poulter as well-dressed whiners, even though that's what they are. I honestly don't see how normal people can possibly have any fun playing Chambers Bay, a public course, when the U.S. Open champion shot only 5-under for 72 holes.

But somehow Rory McIlroy put up a 66 yesterday. Adam Scott shot 64. Louis Oosthuizen shot 29 on the back nine, an Open record for nine holes. I don't believe any of them did that without making a putt.

So spare me the these-greens-are-a-disgrace noise. As a public course player myself, it makes me laugh out loud. You think Chambers Bay's greens were tough, gentlemen? Try making a putt on a green that looks like it was cut with a pair of gardening shears. I know guys who can. I know guys who, in a putting contest, could probably bring your ass if you ever put 'em on one of the perfectly manicured greens to which pro golfers are accustomed.

If anyone had a right to vent about the greens, it was Johnson. But he said nothing. He simply scooped up his newborn baby and marched off into the sunset. The thing was all set up for him once again, and he blew it. And that didn't happen because of the greens or the gray-sand bunkers or because he has some profound weakness deep in his soul.

It's because golf is a cruel son of a (bleep) that hates you. And you, and you, and you, and, while we're at it, you over there, too.

Sure like to hear someone say that sometime.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Things passed along

We'll bring my father out to the house today, and do what you do on Father's Day. Pass out gifts. Kick back. Give some American meat a Viking funeral on an American grill.

Maybe my Dad will remember it all tomorrow. Maybe he won't. It doesn't really matter.

The most meticulous and responsible human I know lives in perpetual twilight now, with what has been diagnosed as Lewy-body dementia and attendant Parkinson's working on him to varying degrees depending on the day. He's had a run of good ones lately, days when his personal sun is higher in the sky and he can get up and down unassisted and has a firmer grasp on reality.  They make up for the bad days, when the daylight dims and he speaks of things that aren't there or aren't happening or perhaps happened, in some tangled way, years and years ago.

Doesn't matter. He's still Dad.

He's still the man who never taught his oldest to hit the cutoff man, never taught him to swing a golf club, never taught him how to find the open man or square up on a jump shot. Sports was never his thing, and I was never an athlete anyway. We never really played out that whole saccharine scene in "Field of Dreams," when Ray Kinsella and his dad are having a catch in the Iowa gloaming. Mostly that was because I couldn't catch a cold.

I would throw the ball to Dad. He would throw it back. Then he would stand there waiting while I chased after it, his throw having eluded my glove by some nautical miles.

Doesn't matter. He was still Dad.

He was still the man who taught me not to half-ass a job, that if it was worth doing it was worth doing right. He was the man who taught me reverence for old things -- Civil War bullets, lead soldiers from the 1930s, his father's hockey stick from the 1890s -- and for the past those things represented.

 Because of my Dad, I frequently mourn how little we learn from history these days, or even acknowledge that it has anything to teach. Because of my Dad, I grew up to attain some measure of success in my chosen field -- sportswriting, of all things, an irony that was never lost on either of us.

Those who can, do, I always told him. Those who can't, write about it.

I like to think I've done that right. I know, if I have, it's because my father would never let me not do it right, something I didn't appreciate when I was younger (because we never do) and which drove me to distraction even later.

Working with Dad on a project was always a clash of cultures. Dad was an electrician and a master woodworker, pursuits that suited his patient, meticulous soul.  His son was a sportswriter conditioned to deadlines and the urgency of getting it done and getting it done in a hurry.

And so one day up north in Michigan, where my parents lived on Lake Huron for 25 years, I found myself standing with my arms over my head, holding two 2x4s together while Dad measured and re-measured and re-measured. Time passed. My shoulders started to yowl. Dad fussed around, measuring one more time.

"We're an eighth of an inch off," he fumed.

"Oh, for God's sake!" I snapped. "It's close enough! Just drive the damn nail!"

Finally he did. But I could tell he wasn't happy about it.

He  was Dad, after all. Still is.


Saturday, June 20, 2015

The incredible dimness of numbers

He could have been like the only other man to do this, had he chosen the brighter path. He could have been venerated, exalted, etched in bas relief in his profession's highest place of honor.

Yes, sir, America. Alex Rodriguez could have been Henry Aaron.

Instead, he is only Alex Rodriguez.

A-Rod. A-Fraud. A-What-The-Hell-Were-You-Thinkin'-Dude.

With a lack of ceremony that was especially painful given its context  -- baseball, a sport that worships its history, speaking of it in embarrassed whispers -- Rodriguez collected this 3,000th career hit last night. He now has 3,000 hits, 667 home runs and 2,0004 RBIs in his career, numbers matched in all the long echoing history of the game by only, yes, Henry Aaron.

And yet Henry Aaron is Henry Aaron. And A-Rod is only A-Rod.

And so there is a profound sadness today, as there is pretty much every day with Rodriguez. There is sadness because all those glowing numbers are a con, and it is Rodriguez himself who perpetrated it. It is Rodriguez himself who cheated the game, and his own legacy, for reasons that will always surpass understanding.

The great tragedy of the Steroids Era is not that everyone who played in it is guilty by association, even if they were not guilty in fact. It's that the people who most felt compelled to cut such a noxious corner were the people who least needed to. A-Rod, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, Rafael Palmeiro -- they would have been all-time greats had they never touched a needle or a cream or a clear, with the only difference being a few ultimately inconsequential numbers.

Baseball may be its numbers, but when weighed against a man's legacy, numbers are only numbers. Would Rodriguez be less great had had he done it clean and hit 557 home runs instead of 667? Or put up a couple hundred fewer hits and RBI? Or would those numbers have been substantially different at all, given the amount of games he's lost to suspension because he chose that darker path?

And that was, irony upon ironies, by far the harder path as well?

So much easier just to do it clean, and ultimately so much less damaging. Not to say so much more rewarding.

Alex Rodriguez could have been Henry Aaron, after all.

Instead, he is only Alex Rodriguez.

So much more the pity.   


Friday, June 19, 2015

History's stain

The past isn't dead. It isn't even past.
-- William Faulkner

And so time marches on, and it takes yet another mad spasm to reveal what we should have seen all along: That too much of the marching has mostly been in place.

A bomb goes off in a church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, and four African-American girls die.

A racial terrorist opens fire in another church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, and nine more African-Americans die.

Fifty-two years between the two, and yet here we are, prisoners of the same noxious loop. The same lunatic fantasies consume us ("You rape our women," Dylann Roof said before allegedly opening fire, reciting the weary catechism of Jim Crow).  The same deniers deny (FoxNews, whose working motto is "Racism? Nope, no racism here, by golly" declared against all rational thought that  Roof's target was Christians, not black people).  And the same protectionist jargon ("Lone wolf" "Mentally ill") gets trotted out to duck the home truth that, yes, this was an act of terrorism, even if the perpetrator was not, you know, Muslim.

It's true the man in South Carolina who'd sit with people for an hour and then pull out a gun and execute them is not right in the head. But neither is the man in the Middle East who'd strap a bomb to his chest and blow himself and a busload of women and children to shards. It's all of a piece -- and if both men wound up in roughly the same place, they did not get there alone.

Someone pointed the way down that dark road. Someone instilled the diseased ideologies they served. In the landscape of madness, there are no lone wolves.

Indisputably, we are a better nation now than we were in 1963. A black man is in the White House. A stretch of two-lane asphalt in Mississippi is dedicated to three civil rights workers murdered by Mississippi's sons in 1964. Blacks in that state are actually allowed to vote now.

But then something like this happens, and you wonder about that endless loop again. You see what flies on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse this day, and you marvel again at how well William Faulkner knew his South.

What flies there is the Confederate flag.

It flies there proudly.

It flies, proudly, at full staff, even as state and national flags atop the statehouse have been lowered.

It flies, proudly, as South Carolina's governor, Nikki Haley, justifies it with confused rhetoric about unoffended CEOs and how her state has put its dark, seditious past behind it because it elected her, an Indian-American.

It flies. Proudly.

And if there's a valid point to be made that lowering it would only confer legitimacy on what is, at bottom, a mere historical relic, it's equally valid to point out that common decency demands you do so, if only for awhile. Symbolism matters, and the symbolism here is powerful: The flag of a wanna-be racist nation flying proudly in the wake of a racist act of violence carried out by one of that wanna-be nation's spiritual descendants.

Symbolism matters. It certainly mattered to Dylann Roof, who picked his target with both malice and purpose aforethought. The church he chose is one of the most historic African-American churches in the nation. It was founded by Denmark Vesey, who led a slave revolt in the 1820s and got himself hanged for it. The descendants of those who did the hanging were the ones who gave birth to the Confederacy, established on the proposition that men like Vesey were not men at all, but beasts of burden whose enslavement was enshrined in the Confederate constitution.

A century of Confederate apologists trying to ennoble that proposition cannot change its essential truth. It cannot change the inescapable conclusion that when Roof struck out at Denmark Vesey's church, he was striking a blow for the idea that killed Vesey, and for the wanna-be nation that arose from that idea.

A hundred years ago, Dylann Roof would have marched proudly behind that nation's flag.

Today, it flies proudly outside the South Carolina statehouse.

I can't conceive, under the circumstances, of anything so egregiously tone-deaf.

And so, for once, to hell with the bruised sensibilities of neo-Confederates. Take the damn thing down. Take it down for decency's sake. Take it down for the sake of history. Take it down to break that lunatic loop the Dylann Roofs of the world seem so determined to inflict upon us forever, world without end, amen.

Take it down.



Thursday, June 18, 2015

A good stretch of the legs

And now we come to the U.S. Open, where the goal is always to make the best golfers in the world look like pathetic muni hackers, and the phrase "a true test of golf" gets dusted off every year to justify it.

Which is to say: Chambers Bay, perched on Puget Sound in the state of Washington, is either 18 holes of challenging golf or the logo-shirt equivalent of a beating on the soles of the feet with a rubber hose.

The sight of the 2015 Open, which begins this morning, is 7,700 yards of hilly links golf that has golfers actually talking about their cardio fitness, although I can't imagine why. Nearly 8,000 yards, hills and valleys and all, just seems a good stretch of the legs to this muni hacker, who's always lugged his own sticks and thinks the professionals are soft because all they have to do is walk unencumbered between shots.

At any rate ... the debate is on as to where the line lies between a true test of golf and the sort of torture the United States, with an extravagant wink, periodically disavows. I've always found it curious that the USGA thinks it's a good idea to discourage scoring on its Open courses, because it seems so counterproductive. Do they really think what viewers want to see is some money-list drone shoot 72-71-72-71?

That's what seems to happen more times than not. And it's boring as hell.

I guess there's a certain intrigue involved in watching Bubba Watson disappear into the Open rough, never to be heard from again. But give me an occasional big number -- a 64, say, or even a 65 -- any day. Brooks Koepka (or Charl Schwartzel, or Webb Simpson, or whoever) raising the trophy after shooting 1-under for tournament doesn't cut it for me.

I might tune in once in awhile to see if anyone's fallen into Puget Sound. But if I want to watch people play bogey golf, I'll go out to one our many fine local tracks.

Or just play myself.        

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

I spy

A moment, please, while we turn the page on the NBA Finals, in which a man who never started a game (Andre Iguodala) was named MVP over a man who had the greatest Finals in NBA history (LeBron James).

There have been bigger travesties in the world of games, like the existence of FIFA. But this one is respectably good-sized, given that Golden State still would have won in six games had Iguodala's parents never met, and the Cavaliers would have been swept in four, by 20 points a game, had the same been true of LeBron.

But enough about that. Let's talk about spying instead.

Let's talk about the St. Louis Cardinals hacking into the Houston Astros' database, and why the FBI is investigating it (Quick answer: Because it crossed state lines). Now let's talk about the Blob's reaction to it, and why it's struggling to understand why this is all that big a deal.

The reaction is multi-layered, and can be broken down thusly:

1. This would never have happened had the Astros' password not been "Password."

2. Somewhere the Patriots are saying "Why didn't we think of this?"

3. Somewhere else Gaylord Perry is saying "And I thought Vaseline on the bill of my cap was cutting edge."

4. Forget the Astros. This means Adam Wainwright could soon own our nuclear launch codes. Think about that, America.

Look. I get that Major League Baseball is big business, and therefore this is corporate espionage. And the authorities take corporate espionage very seriously.

So I understand why the FBI is involved. But I also can't see anyone doing major time in Shawshank for this.

I can't, because, at bottom, I can't help thinking this is just a souped-up version of stealing another team's signs, a time-honored baseball tradition. Baseball has a lot of time-honored traditions, many of which are founded on a certain ethical elasticity. In other words, if you can get away with it, it ain't really cheatin'.

And so the stealing of signs, Gaylord's Vaseline, rubbing out the back line of the batter's box. On and on. Baseball being baseball, there are apparently lines you don't cross; its unwritten rules, silly as they are, still carry a certain force of law. But, baseball being baseball, those lines tend to be remarkably indistinct.   

Hacking into another team's computer system probably crosses those lines, or at the very least establishes new ones for a new age. But by how much do they cross those lines?

That's the question here. And as much as you all come to the Blob for answers to life's big questions (When did Fort Wayne become Seattle? How does the TV remote always manage to get wedged so deeply in the couch cushions you have to take the whole couch apart to find it?), it has none in this case.

Sorry, folks. My bad.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


So I've been thinking about dynasties this morning, as Jonathan Toews parades the Stanley Cup around the United Center and Chicago reacts in some perfectly awesome ways. I've been thinking about how we keep moving the bar for what constitutes a dynasty ... or what used to ... or what might constitute one in the near future.

Once upon a time the Boston Celtics won 10 NBA titles in 11 years, and that, friends and neighbors, was a dynasty.

Now the Blackhawks win three Stanley Cups in six years, and suddenly people are using the "D" word to describe that.

One of these things, as they say, is not like the other. Except it is.

Largely that's because the landscape of professional sports is so profoundly different now, which means our concept of a dynasty is different. The Celtics of the 1960s were a dynasty because they won 10 in 11 years, but that wouldn't have happened at any other time in history because player movement in the '60s was so restricted that Red Auerbach essentially could put the same lineup on the floor not just night after night, but year after year. And that was true in baseball and football and hockey as well.

Which is why the Packers won three straight NFL titles in the '60s. And the Yankees won all those World Series in the '50s. And the Canadiens bench-pressed the Cup so often in the '50s they could have slapped the word "Nautilus" on it and installed it in their weight room.

Free agency (and expansion) knocked all of that into a cocked hat, however, because with free agency came salary caps, and with salary caps came the necessity to shift the chess pieces around far more frequently. Not just spare parts but established stars get moved now, and not just occasionally. And so teams find themselves in what amounts to a constant state of rebuilding.

It requires a nimble front office -- I've often wondered why teams even needed a front office back in the non-free agency days -- and the front offices that prove most nimble produce the teams that most often succeed. And yet no one succeeds completely all the time these days.

Which is why you hardly ever see back-to-back champions in any of the major sports, and almost never do you see back-to-back-to-back champs. The Shaq/Kobe Lakers of the NBA were the last team to pull that off, and that was 13 years ago. No one has so much as gone back-to-back in baseball or hockey since the Yankees won three straight World Series from 1998-2000 and the Red Wings won back-to-back Cups in 1997-98, and the last back-to-back Super Bowl champs were the Patriots in 2004-05.

A full decade has passed since.

And so, yes, three Cups in six years is what amounts to a dynasty these days. As do the three World Series in five years by the Giants. As do the four NBA titles and five Finals appearance in the 2000s by the Spurs, and the four Super Bowls by the Patriots.

Dynasties used to be teams that won every year. Now they're teams, like the Spurs and Patriots, that go deep into the playoffs every year, and win every so often.

It's not quite as sexy as 10 titles in 11 years, admittedly. But it'll have to do.      

Monday, June 15, 2015

Says him

So once upon a time, when the Blob was just a wee Blob and television was three channels and rabbit ears, there was this Western called "The Guns of Will Sonnett." It starred crotchety senior citizen Walter Brennan in the title role, and Walter Brennan's character had the habit of introducing himself by saying both his son and grandson were pretty good with a six-shooter, but "I'm better'n both of 'em."

Then he'd say this: "No brag. Just fact."

Which of course brings us to LeBron James this morning.

Who again last night was a force of nature, going for 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists even though his Cavaliers lost by 13 to Golden State in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

Who is averaging 36.6 points, 12.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists in the Finals and is only the second player in history to record a 40-point triple-double in the championship round.

Who, with the Cavs down 3-2 now, was asked last night if he remained confident.

His answer: Yes. Because "I'm the best player in the world."

No doubt some people will be upset with him for this.

I'm not, because I remember Walter Brennan as Will Sonnett, and I remember the essential truth of his homey Western gunslinger-ism. No brag, just fact is what LeBron gave the assembled media last night, and it was refreshing to hear.

I've never been a fan of false modesty or TranscriptSpeak, mainly because it's about all we get these days when the minicams and cellphone vids go on. And that's how we like it. Everyone says we want honesty from our public figures, but we're lying. We want TranscriptSpeak. And so that's what we get.

But now comes LeBron, who was asked a simple question and gave a simple, honest answer. It looks like arrogance on the page, but it didn't sound like it. It just sounded like ... well, a simple, honest answer to a simple question.

I'm sure he does remain confident.  And he is the best player in the world. What's the problem here?

I see none. I see "no brag, just fact." And, as a journalist, I kind of like fact.

Here's another: The only other player in NBA history to record a 40-point triple-double in the Finals was Jerry West in 1969. West that year averaged 38 points in the Finals and became the only player from a losing team ever to be named MVP.

If the Cavs can't rally, LeBron will be the second whether the NBA says so or not. And if it doesn't, it'll be (to borrow from John McEnroe) the all-time you-cannot-be-serious moment.

No brag. Just fact.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Banner day

Social media is a mystical creature. On the one hand, it can shed light and heat where light and heat are most needed but have rarely penetrated. On the other ...

Well. On the other, it has this amazing (and annoying) power to make a thing out of something that's not a thing and never has been.

And so now comes all this blather about the Indianapolis Colts raising a banner in Lucas Oil Stadium that says "2014 AFC Finalist," even though they were rogered 45-7 by the Patriots in the AFC title game. Someone tweeted or Facebooked or otherwise internet-ed a photo of that banner, and suddenly people were tsk-tsking about how absurd it was to be celebrating such a colossal failure.

One teensy, tiny problem with that.

According to Colts COO Pete Ward, the Colts have been hanging those sorts of banners since, um, 1987, the first year they made the playoffs in Indianapolis. As a matter of fact, two AFC Finalist banners celebrating their 1995 and 2003 appearances already hang in the Luke.

Why no one never noticed that before is a mystery, except that people tend to be inattentive to detail. But now photos of the offending banner are everywhere, and so is the sneering. A good deal of it, as you might imagine, is coming from New England.

Where the Patriots won the Super Bowl again this year.

And where they also raise banners.

And where they raised a "16-0 Regular Season Record" banner to commemorate the 2007 season, even though the Pats got beat in the Super Bowl that year.

Yo, pot. Meet kettle.

Friday, June 12, 2015

A class not to be dismissed

Tom Isch was a champion fretter. It comes with the territory when you're the promoter of a racing venue without which there would be no NASCAR or IndyCar or maybe even the Indianapolis 500 itself, but which are devilishly hard to keep afloat and always have been.

And so Isch, the track promoter at Baer Field Speedway for some 20 years, would sit on his tractor and watch the Guard jets boom and zoom off toward the southwest a few hundred feet away, and he would fret. About car counts. About the weather. About the price of gas. About how to keep 'em coming out on those nights when the traveling series weren't in town, and it was just the local guys banging around Baer Field's fast, treacherous half-mile (or 3/8-mile).

And yet there was joy in what he did, as there would have to be in earning such a hard dollar. There was joy in it, because Isch understood, the way everyone understood who ran under those smoky Saturday night lights, that without that hard dollar there wouldn't be the big money. American motorsports drew its lifeblood from all those mean little bullrings scattered across its landscape; they were the grassroots incubators for the men (and women) who would one day run Indy and Daytona and every bright-light place between.

It's what kept Isch going, I like to think, even when he got sick. It's what kept Don Jones and Steve Minich Sr. and Steve Christman and Blaine Miller and Larry Harpe going.

That's your 2015 Baer Field Hall of Fame class, which will be inducted this weekend. There have been more than a few great classes, but this might be the one that best embodies everything that keeps small-track racing in America whole and vital and indispensable, hard dollar be damned.

Jones was a driver, builder and innovator who made Baer Field a better, more competitive place in the 1960s and '70s.

Christman was the direct local conduit between Baer Field and the big time, the man who used those aforementioned  grass roots to finish third in the rookie points in NASCAR in 1987.

Miller, another superior car builder, won more than 300 events and left an almighty big hole when he was struck and killed on I-69 in 2013 while helping a trucker with his broken-down rig.

Harpe was a multi-time crew chief of the year in ARCA, a stellar wrench whose mechanical gifts were behind an awful lot of winners at Baer Field across the years.

And Minich ... well, hell, who doesn't know Steve Minich? He was Christman's crew chief in his 1987 NASCAR run, and his talents as a builder, owner and fabricator have produced more than 650 feature wins and 69 track championships all over the tri-states.

As much as the Coes and the Millers and any number of others, he's an example of the strength of racing deep in the grassroots: family. I once spent a combustible Saturday afternoon hanging around Minich's operation, and it was a family deal from top to bottom. It was also no outlier. I could have stopped in on  any number of others in the pit area and found the same thing.

So you've got him and you've got Christman, and you've got Harpe, Miller, Jones and Isch, who passed in 2013 as well. And you've got every bedrock truth about small-track racing -- including, yes, the joy of its hard dollar.

You know that business about Tom Isch being a fretter?

I remember once in early spring I gave him a ring out at the track, and of course he was there. The new season was looming, there were preparations to be made, and there were all manner of things to fret about.

But the weather was gorgeous that spring day. You could believe, on that day, that everything was going to work out, that car counts would be up and crowds would be up and there would be an eternity of gloriously starry nights waiting just up the road.

And so, at one point in our conversation, Isch interrupted me mid-question.

"You know what?" he said, or words to that effect. "I gotta say, it's a beautiful day. I saw a robin out there awhile ago."

Joy wins again.



Thursday, June 11, 2015

Musical snares

So, about this singing business.

It was never supposed to end with me standing in the on-deck circle on a June evening in Parkview Field, praying that when I opened my mouth, something would come out that wasn't "Gaaack." It was never supposed to end with my heart trying to climb up into my throat ("Hey, look, guys! An escape hatch!") as the words to the National Anthem popped up on the videoboard, and me too zoned in/terrified to even notice they were there.

Not that I needed them, thank God.

Here's your tale: Some years ago, I thought it would be a  decent story idea to go through the audition process to sing the National Anthem at a TinCaps game. But the auditions were always in March, and March is the busiest month of the year for a sportswriter working the gig full time in Fort Wayne.

So, the idea went up on the shelf, where it sat collecting dust like Woody that time when his arm got ripped. (See: "Toy Story 2").

I took it down again last fall when I retired after 28 years at the Journal Gazette and 38 as a sportswriter in Indiana, the better to work on a couple of books I'd had percolating and to do some freelancing. I pitched it to Connie Haas Zuber at Fort Wayne Monthly, who thought as much of it as I did. And that was how I wound up at the 'View in early March, singing the Star-Spangled Banner in front of four judges and interviewing some others waiting to do the same.

Here's what came out of that.

The other thing that came out of it was an email from PJ Carr of the TinCaps, which popped up in my inbox on March 10. It thanked me for trying out -- and, oh, by the way, you've been selected to sing the National Anthem at the TinCaps-Kane County game June 10.

Two immediate reactions.

1. You've got to be kidding.

2. Great, I've three whole months to obsess now.

It wasn't that I couldn't sing. Once, long ago, before man discovered fire, I was a serviceable tenor in the best high school concert choir in the state. The year I was a senior at New Haven High School, we performed a Bach double motet (i.e., eight parts instead of four) at state contest. We got a perfect score, which apparently never happens. I contributed to that -- or, probably more accurately, didn't screw it up.

But there was safety in numbers then. This would be different. This would just be ... me.

And that is definitely not, you know, me.

It may sound disingenuous, given the public nature of my profession, but I've never been a center stage kind of guy. I'm a writer, and writing, at bottom, is a solitary pursuit. If aptitude guided me to it, it also suited my soul. Putting myself out there in print always provided me with an inherent distance I found comforting.

Now, however, I was going to be Putting Myself Out There in the most Out There way possible. For ninety seconds, give or take, I was going to be standing squarely on center stage, or at least the on-deck circle ("Now batting for the TinCaps, an utterly terrified human being. Enjoy!").

The only antidote to that, it seemed to me, was to be as prepared as I could. So I sang the National Anthem every chance I got. In the car. In the house when no one was home. In the car again. In the car, again.

Then came last night. And here was Tara Cahill of the TinCaps leading me to a back locker room -- it's where they keep all the gear for the between-innings contests -- so I could, as she put it, "warm up."

Yeah, I thought. Like I haven't been doing that FOR THE LAST THREE MONTHS.  

Because here's the thing about the National Anthem: As anyone who's ever had to perform it can tell you, it's the queen bitch from hell of vocal numbers. The low notes are too low. The high notes are too high.  And it veers from one to the other like a drunk negotiating a sidewalk.

If you start out in the wrong key, you're dead. So I concentrated on starting out in my most comfortable key.

That's what I was zoned in on as I stood in the on-deck circle, drew in a breath and began.

Up in the pressbox, I knew, the official scorers were conducting their nightly contest, How Long Will The National Anthem Last. Everyone ventures a guess, and whoever comes closest wins ... oh, I don't know. The respect and admiration of his peers, maybe.

I figured there was an additional aspect to this night's rendition. Something along the lines of What Will Ben Do?, a multiple-choice quiz with three possible answers:

1. Forget the words.

2. Run.

3. Wet himself.

Well. Turns out the answer was "None of the above."

I opened my mouth, and music happened, sort of. Banners streamed. Bombs burst. Rockets glared redly. I got down to the low notes, and I climbed on top of the high notes and punched them in the face. And I didn't blow any lines.

It was ... serviceable.

People tell me I got a respectable round of applause, but, honestly, I don't remember. The whole thing's a blur now. I got out there, I opened my mouth and something other than "Gaaaack" came out. For which I am profoundly grateful.

A few hours later, I arrived home and checked my Twitter feed. And here was John Nolan  of the TinCaps suggesting (jokingly, I hope) that for my next act I should perform with the Bad Apple Dancers and write a column about that.

The answer to that one is easy.

Oh. Hell. No.



Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The King ascendant

I never much liked the whole "King James" tag for LeBron James, because early on it sounded presumptuous and later it played into the false narrative of the haters, who saw in "King James" an outlandish self-regard which I have tried hard to see, but simply can't.

I like the guy. I think he's one of the two or three greatest basketball players of my lifetime, and a decent human being, besides.

And now I'm finally coming around on the regal aspect.

If you have missed what he's done in the last week -- and I wouldn't blame you if you did, this being June and no proper time to be playing basketball -- you have missed one of the great shows in NBA Finals history. Shouldering more burden than perhaps any player has in the Finals since Jerry West in the 1960s, LeBron has somehow hauled his flawed and broken team to a 2-1 lead over the fearsome Golden State Warriors.

Last night his Cavaliers dropped the Warriors 96-91 in front of a delirious home crowd in Cleveland, and once again it was mostly LeBron against the world. The numbers were 40 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, four steals and two blocks. In three Finals games, he's averaging 41 points, 12 rebounds and 8.3 assists -- in an inhuman 47.3 minutes per game.

It is, quite simply, the greatest individual performance in an NBA Finals in my memory. The man is almost literally putting an entire team on his back in an effort to bring home a title to his title-starved next-door-to-hometown. You can't believe he can keep doing this, and then he keeps doing it.

And, listen, it hasn't happened yet, and there's a good chance it won't. Golden State finally seemed to find its rhythm late in Game 3, an indication that the Warriors are far from finished. If they win Game 4, the ball's in their court again.

But if that happens, and the Warriors do go on to win the title, LeBron James will still be the Finals MVP, especially if it goes seven games. It would be laughable if it were otherwise.

Conventional wisdom says that's how it's going to play out. The Warriors are deeper, more talented, healthier. Sooner or later, the Cavs, shedding healthy players like October leaves, will simply wear out. Won't they?

Of course they will.

But it hasn't happened yet. And now we're down to four more games, tops. And so a wild, heretical notion is beginning to take form.

Conventional wisdom better hurry, it says.

Because it's running out of time.


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Solo standard

Let's play a game, this gloomy June morning. Let's play a game called Let's Imagine.

Let's imagine there's a professional athlete out there, a true star, perhaps the best in the world at a particular skill.

Let's imagine this professional athlete gets drunk, goes to a party and provokes an altercation in which said athlete slams a half-sister's head on the floor.

Let's imagine the police arrive to arrest said athlete, and the athlete gets belligerent, insults the arresting officers and eventually has to be restrained.

Let's imagine said athlete is male and plays in the National Football League. Now let's imagine said athlete is not male and plays soccer for the U.S. national team.

Say hello to Hope Solo, everyone.

Who did all of the above, according to ESPN's Outside The Lines. And who ultimately skated on a technicality. And who was brilliant in goal, as usual, in a 3-1 women's World Cup victory over Australia last night.

Say it again: And who was brilliant in goal, as usual, in a 3-1 women's World Cup victory over Australia.

Does that happen if she plays in the NFL?

And if it does happen, is it only after she has done significant time in Roger Goodell's hoosegow, ala Ray Rice and others?

You can hold Goodell's feet to the fire all you want for his league's limp (and ultimately self-serving) response to domestic violence. He and his league have earned that. They only got interested when that security video of Rice smacking around his then-fiancée surfaced, and they've been in frantic catch-up mode since -- a public relations play so pathetically obvious it would be laughable were it not for the seriousness of the issue it's allegedly addressing.

And yet, the NFL still has it all over the honchos at U.S. women's soccer.

Their response to the events in Kirkland, Wash., last summer has been no response at all, and that response has been driven by nothing but naked expedience. The plain truth of it is, they need Solo in goal right now. And so she's in goal.

Unlike the NFL, no one at U.S. soccer ever bothered to look into the incident in Kirkland, according to Nancy Armour of USA Today.  No one ever disciplined Solo for it. The only thing for which she was ever formally disciplined was an incident in which her husband, Jerramy Stephens, was arrested for driving drunk in a U.S. soccer van, with Solo alongside.

Solo got 30 days for that. But she got nothing for beating up her half-sister.

You'd hate to think that's because the people who run women's soccer in the U.S. -- women's soccer, for god's sake -- care less about domestic violence than the Neanderthals who run the NFL. Or that one of the reasons they do care less about it, aside from gross self-interest, is because the perpetrator was a woman and not a man.

You'd hate to think that. Instead, let's think about what the U.S. women's coach, Jill Ellis, said when asked about the OTL revelations about Solo.

"That was a long time ago," Ellis told Armour. "I'll be honest, we've moved on."

Imagine Roger Goodell saying that about Ray Rice or any of the NFL players who've subsequently been disciplined for domestic violence. Now imagine the public outrage.

Where is it here?



Monday, June 8, 2015

The thrill of not seeing it coming

This is why we watch, to see convention's knees buckle. To see the smart money go down like Frazier. To see what we all knew to be true transform into that-can't-be-right in a single immortal stride or painfully mortal swing of a club.

You want to know what happened this weekend?

Nothing anyone thought was going to happen.

American Pharoah won the Triple Crown pulling away, shattering the illusion that such a thing was no longer attainable here in the science fiction-y year of 2015.

Tiger Woods, who once was golf itself but is now just a guy playing golf, shot an 85 on Saturday and finished dead last at the Memorial, going off alone in the morning cool Sunday like some common schmuck.

Stan Wawrinka, an anonymous Swiss with an old timer's one-handed backhand, took down the regal Novak Djokovic in four sets in the French Open men's final, silencing all the presumptive talk about Djokovic's career Grand Slam.

And the Cleveland Cavaliers, who lost both Game 1 of the NBA Finals and their second-best player in one stroke, stole back homecourt with a gritty overtime win over the Golden State Warriors in Game 2.

You count out the Cavs at your peril, apparently, and lots of people were after Kyrie Irving went down with a shattered kneecap in Game 1. The talking heads all mourned, saying it was a shame the drama was now gone from what seemed a compelling Finals. Darn the luck, they all said. Here's hoping the Cavs at least put up a fight in Game 2.

Now it's all even going back to Cleveland, and don't think for a second the entire city won't be waiting to wade into a Warriors team that suddenly looks too rickety by half. Steph Curry shot 5-for-23 in Game 2, and that sound you hear is air being pumped into the meme that finesse jump-shooting teams can't win the big one. It's all about blue-collar values now -- defense and rebounding and plain old Midwestern work ethic -- and that's how it will remain until Curry and Klay Thompson go off on another of their otherworldly tears.

At which point the wise guys will say, "See, I told you the Cavs couldn't win it without Kyrie."

Of course, they're also the ones who think Tiger Woods still has five more majors in him, or who thought American Pharoah was just another mutt who'd get taken out by Belmont Park, or who looked at Stan Wawrinka and saw nothing but a stage prop in The Novak Show.

But Tiger, at 39, is turning out to be as mortal as any other 39-year-old. And Pharoah brayed in Belmont's face. And Wawrinka erased Djokovic 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 in the last three sets, disposing of him as easily as if he'd been some weekend warrior at the local racquet club.

Ain't it grand?


Sunday, June 7, 2015

Crown royalty

Thirty-seven years is a long time to wait for a horse to quit tripping over a Belmont Stake.

Until American Pharoah shifted into high and left a collection of mutts floundering in his majestic wake yesterday, we hadn't seen anything comparable since the late 1970s. Jimmy Carter was president. "Malaise" was a thing. So were the BeeGees, college students named Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson, shorts on major league baseball players and propping up a thief in Iran.

The last of which we're still paying dearly for, in one form or fashion.

So this was big, American Pharoah finally winning the Triple Crown again. We are a nation both forgetful of and fascinated by history, and when Pharoah drove toward the finish, America scooted its chairs closer to the TV.  In the bar where I watched the Belmont, people broke into applause when he crossed the finish line. I can't remember the last sporting event I watched in a public place eliciting that sort of reaction.

The only thing that marred it was how profoundly undramatic it all was, after 37 years. American Pharoah broke first from the gate and was never headed. He was never even really challenged. It left you with unavoidable questions about just how great a horse we were seeing here. Was he legendary, or was every other 3-year-old in the world this year Alpo?

I suspect it's a little of both, frankly. But if we're ranking Triple Crown winners, it's clear Pharoah is no Secretariat (because, after all, no other horse has ever been Secretariat). And he's not Affirmed, who had to survive three stirring duels with Alydar to win the Triple Crown.

Any other year, Alydar wins the Triple Crown himself. Ditto Sham, who was Secretariat's foil in 1973. You can't really say that about any of the horses Pharoah left in the wind.

On the other hand ... romping to victory in the Preakness in the slop the way he did and being as untouchable as he was yesterday suggests Pharoah is no average piece of horseflesh, either. It makes him pretty special in his own right.

And so: Applause, applause. At long last.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

And now, your kiss of death

I know better than this. Shoot, everyone with the IQ of sheetrock knows better than this.

You know that horse race they run today out in New York? The Belmont Stakes?

If there's some My Friend Flicka in it who has a chance to win the Triple Crown, you don't pick him. Ever. Ever, ever, ever ... ever.

Fourteen times since the Carter Administration, My Friend Flickas have come to the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown, and 14 times they've failed. And 14 times I thought for sure (and, come on, so did you) this was the year.

I thought Spectacular Bid was gonna do it and Big Brown  was gonna do it and Alysheba was gonna do it. I thought Funny Cide was a lock and Smarty Jones a cinch and Real Quiet a done deal. Bet loudly on Sunday Silence. Drop something shiny on California Chrome. All that.

All for nothing.

Bid lost and Big Brown lost and, well, all of them lost. But like the toddler irresistibly drawn to the hot stove, I never learn.

That's why I'm saying American Pharoah is gonna do it today.

He's the one. He's got the goods. I'm absolutely sure this time.

He fought off Firing Line in the Kentucky Derby and then destroyed everyone in the slop at the Preakness, and so I don't think those extra furlongs will faze him at all in the Belmont. Besides, who's gonna beat him? Frosted? Madefromlucky (because, look, he's got "lucky" in his name!)? Materiality?

Please. Francis the Talking Mule would have a better shot.

And, yes, I know, a lot of bettors are liking Frosted because he sat out the Preakness and he finished strong in the Derby. And a lot of them are liking Materiality because his owner is Todd Pletcher, and Pletcher has won the Belmont twice and been runnerup four times.

But, no. This is the year. I feel it. Get your coinage down now.

Whoa. Look at that sudden run on Frosted and Materiality. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

A few words on courage

I once saw a college student stand down a tank, armed with nothing but a knapsack.

That was 26 years ago today in Tiananmen Square, and the image is famous now, a period piece that at once defined a place, an event, a point in time and perhaps humanity itself. You looked at that image, and you did not need anyone to define courage for you. The image did that, and at the top of its lungs.

Not so, apparently, the picture of Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce, on the cover of Vanity Fair.

In the days since ESPN announced it would give the newly minted Caitlyn its Arthur Ashe Courage Award, the backlash has been intense, and back of it is the inevitable ugliness that seems to be our lot in America today. It seems hardly anyone can advocate for Lauren Hill -- the Indiana teenager who died of a rare pediatric brain tumor in April, and who spent the last months of her life giving of herself instead of indulging herself -- without also diminishing Jenner.

I happen to think Lauren Hill should have been the "well, duh" Ashe recipient, too. But the trashing of Jenner has to stop.

It has to stop because courage is not always as dramatic as that image from Tiananmen Square, nor even the life of a 19-year-old girl who got to play, and score, in a college basketball game last fall, fulfilling a lifetime dream as her lifetime grew short. If you can watch the YouTube clip of Lauren Hill doing that and not be moved to tears, you are a stronger human than I am. Or you're not really human at all.

That said ... what Jenner has done took enormous courage, too. I cannot imagine what it must have been like, having to live your entire life knowing it was a lie on the most basic level possible. Everything the former Bruce Jenner did in a very public life -- everything -- was designed to keep that lie, and the pain that came with it, at bay. And yet the lie and the pain were always there.

There is courage in soldiering on through that. There is. But instead of acknowledgment, Jenner has been called "mentally ill," been accused of a "publicity stunt," been told what he's faced in his life is no big deal because, after all, he's rich and famous, and wealth and fame takes care of everything.

Which is, of course, the most absurd notion of all.

Here's what I know: Courage does not come in one flavor. The most disturbing trend I've noticed in the last few days is an insistence that isn't so, that courage is somehow the sole province of Lauren Hill or firefighters or police officers or military personnel who find themselves in harm's way.

Or college students standing down tanks.

To hell with that. To hell with the idea that if you acknowledge one man's courage you somehow diminish someone else's. To hell with the idea that if you think favorably of Jenner, it's somehow a slap in the face to the Marines who found themselves 1,000 utterly exposed yards away from a spit of Central Pacific land called Betio, and somehow kept on wading toward shore, anyway.

Or kept on functioning through the hell of Iwo, Peleliu, Okinawa, Omaha Beach. Or rescued a buddy from the Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan. Or took a bullet for a fellow officer in a shootout.

One does not cancel out the other. And the reason one does not cancel out the other is because this isn't a contest. We all have our challenges, and we face them the best we can. Some of us fail. Some of us succeed. The latter should always be celebrated.

Or at the very least, not looked upon with contempt.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Black and white and gray all over

No one ever said Chip Kelly hasn't done some odd stuff, at least by the puny intellectual standards of mortal humans.

He brought in one quarterback (Sam Bradford) who's broken all the time. He brought in another (Tim Tebow) who's not really a quarterback. He got rid of Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy, and he kept Riley Cooper.

Which, of course, is the flash point for all this Chip-Kelly-is-a-racist talk right now.

It came from McCoy in the wake of his trade to Buffalo, and McCoy didn't back down from it the other day, saying, essentially, that he stands by his initial assessment.  I'm not going to question why he feels that way, although a lot of people will note that the fact he's now in Buffalo instead of Philly probably has a lot to do with it.

I don't know. He feels the way he feels. And there are a lot of black players still in Philly who aren't happy with Kelly's apparent attachment to Cooper, last seen spewing the n-word at a concert security guard and then begging forgiveness for it from his understandably skeptical teammates.

That said ... I seriously doubt Kelly has a white sheet hanging in his closet somewhere.

I doubt it because it's 2015 and this is the NFL, and that's not where Kelly would be if he made decisions based on pigmentation. That would be stupid. It would also mean Kelly would likely be coaching somewhere else, like the Hog Wallow, Idaho, youth league.

What is it the real estate guys always say? Location, location, location.

Kelly's location would seem to cut the legs out from under McCoy's allegations. This is not to say there aren't racists prowling the halls in the National Football League. It's only to say a man who attains the status Kelly has in a profession so dependent on men of color would by necessity have to value those men and connect with them on a pretty basic level.

An avowed racist couldn't do that. He couldn't even fake it, at least for very long.

Maybe that makes me naïve. But that's how I feel about it.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Dimming All-Stars

Time changes everything. If it didn't, you'd be reading this by gaslight.

And so when the news came down that two Indiana All-Stars, including Mr. Basketball Caleb Swanigan of Homestead, would be skipping the longstanding Indiana-Kentucky All-Star soiree, there was no surprise attached to the news, only a sad smile and a nod of recognition. Times change. Priorities change. What once had cache now only gets in the way.

For Swanigan, the All-Star series got in the way of tryouts for the U.S. National U-19 team, and, really, there was no choice there to be made. It's a chance to play for a national team vs. an All-Star event that, let's face it, is just going through the motions anymore. A no-brainer.

Ditto for Michigan City Marquette's Ryan Fazekas, another All-Star who won't be around. His classes at Providence are already starting, so off he'll go. Education, and the future, trump the past and mere trumpery every time.

Not there isn't a tinge of sadness that attends all this, or perhaps just nostalgia. Once upon a time, the Indiana-Kentucky series actually meant something, and making the Indiana All-Star team was the highest basketball honor a senior in either state could imagine. But that was before all the McDonald's All-American games, and the corporate swamp of AAU ball, and the altered landscape of recruiting, which now places more value on what a kid does in all those glorified pickup games in the summer than what he does playing for his high school team in the winter.

I suspect it's a good thing these days that the Indiana-Kentucky series is limited to seniors. Because if it weren't, you'd see a lot more defections among the underclassmen still being wooed by the Dukes and Kentuckys and Michigan States, and who'd doubtless consider Indiana-Kentucky two weeks of valuable time wasted.

  Which makes me wonder if maybe the entire event hasn't outlived itself. It hasn't drawn flies in Kentucky in years. I used to think that meant Kentucky just didn't care as much about a series that, after all, has by and large been dominated by Indiana. But now?

Now I wonder if Kentucky wasn't just ahead of the curve.  And of the times.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Fleeing the scene

So apparently Sepp "I'm The President of Everybody" Blatter is now only the president of Armageddonouttahere.

Just re-elected to his post by cheering voters who apparently thought corruption was a pretty neat deal (all things considered), Blatter resigned this afternoon as FIFA president. Which leaves one with a few conclusions/suspicions/crazy conspiracy theories, some of which are more inescapable than others.

In no particular order, here are a few:

1. Hey, it worked for Dr. Richard Kimble. Why not for me?

Or in other words: Sepp's takin' it on the lam before Loretta Lynch and the other U.S. authorities come a-knockin' on his door.

2.  The bribe market ain't what it used to be.

Or in other words: The Lynch investigation has dried up the cash flow to the point where Sepp and his cronies will no longer be able to enjoy the lifestyle to which they've become accustomed.

3. Vladimir Putin on line 1, sir.

Or in other words:  Russia's president, already highly displeased by the scandal and America's role in it, has decided the whole thing is ultimately Sepp's fault, and that it's time for him to go. And you know what happens to people when Putin decides it's time for them to go

4. It's just no fun anymore.

Or in other words: With the U.S. undoubtedly leaning hard on all those underlings to give up The President of Everybody, and the extreme stench surrounding Russia and Qatar as World Cup hosts, and all the stories about the hundreds of workers who've died as a direct result of the really odiferous Qatar deal ... well, shoot. You can't butter a guy's palm that much. Sooner or later it's just not worth it anymore,
And so, it's time to flee. Er, go.

And last but not least?

5. I'm doing this for the betterment of the game and all who love it.

Or in other words:

Yeah. Right.


And now, the NBA Finallys

Eventually they will play the NBA Finals, a statement very much akin these days to "Eventually, the pyramids will be finished" or "Eventually, our electoral process will stop being a clown car versus another clown car in a contest to see who is more shamelessly  willing to do the bidding of billionaires."

By that I mean, it's been six days since Golden State wrapped up the Western Conference title, and the Finals still haven't started.  Entire dynasties have risen and fallen. Children have grown to honorable adulthood. James Naismith has invented basketball, grown old and disowned the game because, dammit, they just won't call traveling anymore.

Silly as all that is, when the Finals begin this week or next month or in 2017, it will be the Warriors vs. the Cavaliers, and conventional wisdom says the Warriors are deeper and healthier and have more weapons. I agree. But there's one thing the Warriors don't have.

They don't have LeBron James.

He said the other day he might be playing the best basketball of his career, and it's hard to argue the point. With Kevin love and Anderson Varejao out and Kylie Irving limping from game-to-game on one good foot, the greatest basketball player on the planet has been, well, the greatest basketball player on the planet. In the Cavs' sweep of Atlanta in the Eastern finals, he nearly averaged a triple-double (30.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 9.0 assists), a bit of Oscar Robertson performance art that indicates you might not want to bet against him at the moment.

He's doing what all the great ones do, which is make everyone around him better. And he's doing it at a level unseen since the days of Magic and Bird.

(Please, Michael Jordan acolytes, no protesting here. Michael was a great player, maybe the greatest ever. But he never facilitated the way Magic and Bird did. Or the way LeBron does.)

So you're not crazy if you pick the Cavs. LeBron is, after all, playing well enough to buck the tide of history.

It's history that tells us it's almost always the better team and not the best player who wins these things, no matter how heroic that player might be. Jerry West was frequently the best player on the floor in the old Lakers-Celtics days, yet the Celtics always won. In 1977, the Philadelphia 76ers had the superstars (Dr. J and George McGinnis), but the Portland Trailblazers had the team, and the Blazers won. And last year, of course, it was LeBron vs. the team ethos of the San Antonio Spurs, and the Spurs won laughing.

The Warriors are not the Spurs, of course. They haven't been in the Finals in 40 years. But they clearly have that same ethos going for them, and that's why I'm picking them.

Steph Curry and them others in seven. Jerry West loses again.


Monday, June 1, 2015

Rep 1, Reality 0

So here's the bed Johnny Manziel has made for himself:  Even when he does nothing that should be a thing, it's still a thing.

This after Manziel had an altercation with an obnoxious fan at a charity golf tournament in Texas that wasn't actually an altercation. And that Manziel could have prevented by ... well, I don't know. I guess by summoning his magical powers and becoming invisible.

Here's what happened at poolside at the AT&T Byron Nelson tournament. Manziel was hanging out with friends at the event when some industrial-strength tool began bugging him for a photo. At least 10 times, according to witnesses, Manziel politely begged off, saying he was with his girlfriend and friends he hadn't seen in a while.

Let me repeat that: At least 10 times. 

Most normal people would have finally given up and left him alone. But Industrial-Strength Tool was not having any truck with normal this day. So he put his hands on Manziel.

To which Manziel replied, politely: "Could you please not do that?"

To which Industrial-Strength Tool responded by lobbing a stream of insults at Manziel.

To which Manziel finally responded (unwisely, but not at all without cause) by throwing a water bottle in the general direction of Industrial-Strength Tool. And by "general direction," I mean "at the ground."

A friend of Manziel's then stepped between them and shoved IST. Then, and only then, did hotel security and the police step in. And that was the end of it.

Or not, of course. Because it's Manziel, and because he's already established his bonafides as an NFL quarterback in desperate need of maturity (if not his bonafides as an NFL quarterback, period), it was all over social media before you could say "selfie."

I dare say that doesn't happen if it's anyone else. But, as noted, Manziel has made his bed. He'll lie in it probably forever now.

That's a shame, in a way, because this time he appears to have been largely blameless. I suppose he could have left the premises -- he eventually did -- or called security over before security finally (and much belatedly) responded on its own. Other than that, Manziel showed what I would consider to be remarkable restraint -- given, of course, that the bar for restraint is set remarkably low where Manziel is concerned.

So what's the lesson here?

I guess the lesson for Manziel is to hire his own security to deal with Industrial-Strength Tools. But of course, if and when they do, that will become a thing, too.

He can't win. And if that's his own fault, it still seems a little unfair.