Sunday, April 30, 2017

Fathers and sons

Let's give him the benefit of the doubt, for just a second. Let's say LaVar Ball -- a ridiculous man of whom the Blob has said little because too many have already said too much -- really does think he has the best interests of his sons at heart.

And so all the nonsense about how his oldest, college freshman Lonzo, is already better than Steph Curry. And how he could have mopped the hardwood with Michael Jordan back in the (mythical) day. And how he's going to build an athletic apparel empire around his three sons.

That's fine. That's just Dad inviting public scrutiny to himself and not his boys, which is actually kind of shrewd. And it indicates he does intensely love his sons, and wants them to succeed beyond their wildest dreams -- or, in this case, his wildest delusions.

He's the latest upgrade of the Sports Dad From Hell, and we've seen a few of them. Some, like the fathers of golfer Sean O'Hair and tennis player Mary Pierce, have been true Sports Dads From Hell, letting proxy ambition curdle into obsession and abuse.  Some, like the father of former NFL quarterback Todd Marinovich, have just been flat-out weirdos. And some have been completely delusional -- like, yes, LaVar Ball, and also Earl Woods, who once famously his golfer son was going to change the world like no one in history had changed the world.

Instead, his son became the greatest golfer in history, perhaps. The Gandhi part we're still waiting for.

Here's the thing about Sports Dads From Hell: Their kids eventually grow up. And there is almost always that moment when Dad has to acknowledge that. And with few exceptions -- Earl Woods being one -- they never do so willingly.

Maybe you missed it the other day, but three big-hitters in the athletic apparel industry announced they would not be doing a deal with Lonzo Ball when he's drafted into the NBA in June. Nike, Adidas and Under Armour are all giving Ball a pass, an unusual course of action when you're talking about a lottery pick, which Lonzo is.

So why are they passing on him?

Because Dad screwed it up for him.

He walked (swaggered?) into meetings with all three companies insisting that they license his fledgling Big Baller Brand, one of LaVar's many pipe dreams he's built around his sons. He wasn't asking for an endorsement; he was asking for three of the largest apparel companies in the world to enter into a co-branding arrangement with a guy who was basically running a startup out of his garage.

 It's not hard to imagine the reaction he got.

Polite demurrals to his face, no doubt. Outright guffaws once he left the room.

In any case, all three companies turned him down. So Lonzo has no chunky deal to go with the chunky contract he's going to sign. And if he didn't come right out and say "Dad, what the hell are you doing?" just yet, that day is no doubt coming soon.

Because, listen, once Lonzo has his money, Lonzo becomes his own man. And if it's not a dead certainty, it's clearly a distinct possibility that sooner or later he's going to want to cut the cord all children eventually cut with their parents. And it take no imagination at all to see how that will play out.

There will be a come-to-Jesus meeting. Lonzo will thank his dad for everything he's done for him. But it's time he hired an agent. It's time he put a professional in charge of his dealings, because this isn't playtime anymore, this is the real world and it's time, as the Bible says, to put childish things away.

Such as, for instance, LaVar's gaudy dreams of a sports empire built around his sons. And which he, of course, would run.

"We've said from the beginning, we aren't looking for an endorsement deal," LaVar told ESPN the other day. "We're looking for co-branding, a true partner. But they're not ready for that because they're not used to that model. But hey, the taxi industry wasn't ready for Uber, either."

Or maybe LaVar Ball just isn't ready for reality.

Friday, April 28, 2017

ESP-Not Anymore

I didn't watch the first round of the NFL draft last night, on account of I think it's boring TV, and also unnecessary TV. Everything I needed to know (What? The Bears took a QB with a 13-game sample size with the second pick?), I got online.

Which is why The Worldwide Bleeder let Andy Katz go the other day.

OK, so that's a cognitive leap right there. But not much of one. The point is, the bloodletting in Bristol -- 100 people let go, most of whom were veteran reporters at the top of their games who'd been with the network for years -- happened precisely because I didn't have to watch ESPN's coverage to keep abreast of what was going on. Truth is, no one does anymore.

That's because ESPN is a cable entity in a world that's moved beyond cable, and that's why it's The Worldwide Bleeder -- as in, bleeding subscribers. More and more people out there are bailing on cable because A), it's an out-of-control gougefest, and B) it's an out-of-control gougefest. We dumped it ourselves a couple of years ago. And, with a few exceptions, we don't miss it.

Live streaming gives us all the entertainment choices we need, and (at least right now) it's cheaper than cable by miles and miles. Life changes also played into this; since I'm no longer part of the full-time sportswriting fraternity, access to ESPN is no longer of as much value to me. And, again, I can get what it provides as a news source from other platforms now, and just as quickly.

Case in point: Remember that big Notre Dame-Florida State showdown a couple years ago?

It was an ESPN broadcast, so it wasn't on my TV. No problem. I watched it on my laptop. Watching it on TV would have been better, but it wasn't necessary.

Which is exactly what ESPN implied by targeting primarily news-gatherers the other day.

We could all gasp at the breadth of talent shown the street, the Katzes and Ed Werders and Jayson Starks and Johnette Howards. And what ESPN saved by ditching them won't really relieve the budget crunch all that much.

But the message was clear: We value our entertainers, because we are now largely an entertainment vehicle, not a hard-news source. And that's because advancing technology has created a zillion other sources that disseminate news as fast if not faster.

Not as well, of course. Not with the skill and craft and depth the Katzes and Werders and Starks bring to the job. And if that's a reality that augurs little good for the future of journalism, it's also a reality that further advances in technology will no doubt alter again -- and hopefully this time in favor of the news-gatherers.

In the meantime, happily, there will always be room for skill and craft and depth in this business. Which is why a lot of those people let go this week won't be out of work for long.

If there's a ray of light in any of this, that's it.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A dream with no borders

Once upon a time, the dream was purely an American one, or at best hemispherical. It was a taped-together ball and a nailed-together bat on some dusty plot in Puerto Rico or the Dominican. It was a stiff new glove and a crisp uniform bearing the name of a local hardware store on some green paradise diamond in the suburbs.

It was a white kid, a black kid, a brown kid. It was baseball in full regalia on a hot afternoon somewhere, anywhere, in America or the Caribbean; it was a right-field-is-out sandlot aberration  when you couldn't scrounge up enough players for a real game.

Heck. You'd even take the scrawny kid with the motor skills of a tree stump if things got desperate enough.

That kid was me, and I had the dream, too, even if for me it was more along the lines of an hallucination. We were all gonna be playing in Yankee Stadium someday, in Fenway or Wrigley or Tiger Stadium. We were all gonna hit the walk-off home run that won the World Series. We were Mickey Mantle, Johnny Bench, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson.

Baseball was the American game, and we were American boys. That was the name of that tune.

And now?

Now it's a global world, not just an American one, no matter how delusional our leaders have become in their pining for an unrecoverable past. And so what happened last night in Pittsburgh was as inevitable as it was wonderful.

What happened, in the second inning, was Pirates' manager Clint Hurdle pulled a double switch. And he put a guy at second base who'd never played in a major-league game.

His name was Gift Ngoepe. He'd spent 8 1/2 years riding buses in the minors, chasing a dream that seemed to recede with every trip from Nowhere to Unknown. And he was from South Africa.

Which meant that when Gift Ngoepe stepped to the plate, it wasn't just his first major league at-bat. It was the first major league at-bat for any African in the history of the game.

You know what happened next. You saw it in the back of your mind a million times as a kid.

In his first at-bat, the first African ever to play in a major league game got a base hit.

Later he drew a walk.

Later he turned a crucial double play, and the Pirates beat the defending World Series champion Cubs 6-5.

The dream lives. And, gloriously, it lives everywhere now.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Feeling a draft

Longtime Blob enthusiasts (i.e., mythical creatures not unlike the unicorn) know this is not where you come to find out who the Colts are going to pick in the third round of the NFL Draft. Sorry, folks, but no. Can't help you there.

I can, however, give you the latest lowdown on Mel Kiper Jr.'s indestructible Helmet O' Hair.

Also how far a player will rise or fall because of the fabled Tight Skin Factor. Also how absurd it is that the NFL Draft became a thing, anyway.

(I put it down to the overwhelming presence of the NFL itself in our national culture. Everything, it seems, is at least tangentially about the NFL now. It's why the annual release of the league schedule has become breathless breaking news. It's why, last year, they  opened the Draft by playing the national anthem, as if it were an actual sporting event and not just the mundane mechanism by which the NFL distributes its latest collection of prime rib).

Anyway ... let me first say, as a public service, that the Browns and the 49ers could lead off the  draft by picking two defensive ends (Myles Garrett of Texas A&M and Solomon Thomas of Stanford). Leonard Fournette could be the first running back taken, and Mitch Trubisky the first quarterback taken. And the Colts, who desperately need an edge rusher, could take some guy from UCLA named Takkarist McKinley with the 15th pick.

Or, you know, not. I honestly don't know. Neither, it should be noted, does anyone else, no matter what they tell you.

What I do know is I probably won't be watching.

The excellent reason for this is I don't care, and I find the draft excruciatingly boring and useless TV. If you spend more than a few minutes watching, my condolences on your lack of a meaningful life. You could be doing something worthwhile, like watching old "Seinfeld" reruns.

Seriously, people. This not appointment TV, even if the NFL implies that it is by putting it in prime time. To start with, anyone who wants to keep up with the draft can check in on it periodically via any number of social media platforms. So what, exactly, is there to watch?

Mel and Todd McShay babbling on? The pleasing spectacle of Roger Goodell shaking hands with  guys way bigger than he is? Some first-round pick's eye-watering duds?

(Actually, that might be it. I mean, who doesn't live for the moment when you can point at the TV screen and exclaim "What the HELL is he wearing?")

I suppose if you're a huge football nerd or a hopeless fan of a certain team, you might be glued to the TV. But, again, you're not going to see anything you can't get almost as instantaneously on social media.

So the conclusion is pretty obvious.

You're watching because it's another excuse to drink beer and eat pizza.

Works for me.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Retirement blues

These are hardly the palmy days for NASCAR, which is going through the sort of pains you go through when you're transitioning from Completely Unsustainable Success to Still-A-Success-But- Not-Like-Before Success.

That it's also transitioning, retirement by retirement, from one generation to the next isn't helping any.

And so the move from organic to inorganic racing, i.e., from 400-mile races to contrived three-130-or-so-mile-races-in-one. Stage racing is NASCAR's way of keeping Generation OCD interested, as if Generation OCD is going to stop looking at their phones, anyway. Besides, it's too much like math. By the time you get done distinguishing between stage points and race points, your buddy's distracting you with a text  -- OMG Danica just signed my shirt (smiley emoji) -- and you're saying, "Ah, whatever. Let's go finish off the beer."

That's bad enough. But you're also losing the attention of the previous generation, what with all the aforementioned generational transitioning.

It's not enough, after all, that the last two years have seen Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart hang it up. Now the transition is commencing in earnest, with the news today that Dale Earnhardt Jr. his ownself will be retiring at the end of this season.

Gordon and Stewart walking away took out a couple of significant fan bases. But Junior's is the fan base in NASCAR, and there'll be no replacing it. He's the last prominent link, after all, to Dale Earnhardt Sr., the most iconic driver in NASCAR history and the man who built the sport into a national brand. Now his kid, a possible Hall of Fame racer in his own right, is getting out, too.

So what's left? Jimmie Johnson, the Busch boys and a bunch of kids?

Maybe Chase Elliott or Kyle Larson blow up into something big, or Joey Logano or Brad Keselowski become icons in their own right. But is Martin Truex Jr. ever going to be Dale Jr.? Will the Dillon boys, Ty and Austin, become the next Busches? Will an Erik Jones or a Daniel Suarez ever reach the stature of a Gordon or Stewart or JJ?

Someone surely will, because someone always does. But it's not going to happen tomorrow.

This is the problem NASCAR faces now, and it's not helped by the fact it should  have been ready for Junior's bombshell. He is, after all, 42 years old, not 32. He also sat out a good chunk of last year with a concussion, his third in four years. So maybe NASCAR should been looking at that, and then looking at what's happening in the NFL, where more and more players are started to hang it up in their 20s. And maybe a few alarm bells should have begun to ring, albeit softly.

In any case, today is not the day of days for NASCAR. As very few have been lately.

MMA 1, Civilization 0

The Blob is not, never has been, and never will be a passionate Mixed Martial Arts zone. This is because the Blob doesn't understand what it's seeing, on those rare moments when an MMA fight has flitted across its radar. This is also because, as a consequence, every MMA fight looks the same to it.

Two guys (or women) trade a few punches. They trade a few more. Then one tackles the other, and they roll around on the mat for awhile, trading a few more punches, until one forces the other to submit.

Repeat, like, a million times.

(A confession: The Blob also harbors a grudge against MMA that goes back to the night it went to a sports bar to watch a big college football game, and the sports bar wasn't showing it because it was airing some pay-per-view MMA fight instead. On every one its TV screens. So instead of putting on an actual big-time sporting event, the way a sports bar worth the name should, it was airing whatever MMA is. So ... yeah. There's that).

At any rate: Not an MMA fan. And not likely to be after seeing this, which, I don't know, seems vaguely disturbing to me.

OK. So more than vaguely disturbing.

I mean, seriously? A 24-year-old fighting a 12-year-old? How does that not qualify as, you know, child abuse?

And amateur bout or not, what sort of sleazebag sanctions it?

The decline of civilization proceeds apace.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Analysis made easy

In the end, you could throw the Xs-and-Os away, ditch the what-ifs and if-onlys, and boil it down to this:

LeBron James is LeBron James. And you're not.

That means you, Indiana Pacers, who got swept out of the playoffs Sunday by James and the Cavaliers because they don't have LeBron James. They've got Paul George, a great player but, in comparison to LeBron, simply a wanna-be. And so they lost, putting up a fight again but not enough of one when the best player in the world has the kind of playoff series he had.

Which was, LeBron-like. In four games, he averaged a double-double and nearly a triple-double. Sunday he went for 33 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. With this latest sweep, teams for which he has played -- the Cavaliers and the Heat -- have not lost a first-round game since 2012.

Think about that: Not only has LeBron not lost a first-round playoff series in five years, he hasn't lost a first-round game.  The streak is now at 21 straight first-round wins, an NBA record.

And, yes, Nate McMillan could have made some better coaching moves. Yes, the Pacers could have played harder at the defensive end at times. And, yes, George could have just a little more LeBron-ish -- although he did average 28 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists in the series, so how much more he could have done is a very good question.

And it wouldn't have mattered, anyway. Ultimately, this had the feel of LeBron and the Cavaliers playing only as hard as they had to against an inferior opponent. And now it's on bigger fish.

And the Pacers?

Well, now the Paul George Watch begins in earnest. Which likely won't be much more fun than the last week was.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Injured reserve(d)

For, it appears, hardly anyone at Indiana University.

Pretty damaging stuff here about the IU athletic medical staff and the culture of denying, soft-pedaling and stigmatizing injuries that seems to have been more than just the province of deposed football coach Kevin Wilson's program. Apparently, there's a lot of that going around in B-town.

Or so says rower Katlin Beck, who says she futzed around with three IU athletc medical personnel -- including the director of athletic medicine, Andy Hipskind -- before finally going outside the system to deal with chronic back pain. Beck claims the three docs in Bloomington all gave wildly divergent diagnoses, including muscular issues and a hamstring problem. None of them, Beck says, suggested she stop rowing altogether.

That didn't happen until she finally went off the rez to a spine specialist in Indianapolis, who told her categorically she shouldn't be rowing. That's because he discovered her upper body was basically connected to her lower body only by scar tissue. Which, yeah, seems like a pretty good reason to get the hell out of the boat.

I'm no doctor (I don't even play one on TV). But if all this is true, I do have what I consider legitimate questions here.

Like, how do you examine someone who's got those kind of spinal issues and conclude it's a hamstring problem?

Or a muscular issue, as Hipskind diagnosed?

And how do you square those two diagnoses with the one given by the third IU doctor, who Beck claims told her she had three bulging discs, two spinal fractures and bone deterioration?

And how do you diagnose that but recommend only that Beck spend the summer in a back brace before returning to the rowing team in the fall?

Unless, you know, your job is not to protect the welfare of the athletes, but simply to keep them on the field, court or in the boat.

That may be unfair. But -- again, if this is all true -- what other conclusions can you draw, unless it's that these people are simply incompetent?

Friday, April 21, 2017

Yeah, but ...

Time now for yet another new Blob feature, Yeah, But ..., in which the Blob takes the contrarian view (or perhaps just the broader view) of things upon which everyone agrees.

For instance: Did you see what happened in Game 3 of the Pacers-Cavaliers series last night?

The Pacers lost. Epically. And by "epically," I mean, "blew a 25-point halftime lead at home" epically. So now LeBron 'n' them are up 3-0 in the series, and there isn't a single person not currently living outside the Pacers locker room who doesn't know the boys in blue-and-gold are about to get swept.

All together now: Yeah, but ...

Yeah, but it's not like they were going to win this series, anyway. The Cavs are just better. Like, by a factor of ten better. Their three best players are all better, by pretty much the same factor, than anyone the Pacers have outside of Paul George. No one guards LeBron, but they have no one who can guard Kyrie and no one who can guard Kevin Love.  If that weren't true, they wouldn't have squeaked into playoffs by the skin of their teeth. So, yeah, it was a bad loss. But in this case, that's just details.

OK. One more.

Did you see what happened to the Chicago Blackhawks last night?

They got swept in a playoff series for the first time since 1993. Not only that, they got swept by a Nashville Predators team that finished 15 points behind them in the regular season. Not only that, they scored three goals in four games. And not only that, but they were the best team in the Western Conference in the regular season, winning 50 games and putting up 109 points.

Yeah, but ...

Yeah, but, this is the Stanley Cup playoffs, where stuff happens. Nashville's style just happened to be a style designed to give the Blackhawks fits. Plus, the Predators had a hot goalie, and in the compressed environment of a seven-game series, a hot goalie is everything. Plus, again, it's the Stanley Cup playoffs. Stuff happening that no one can figure out is why they're the best of all playoffs.

OK. That's enough for now. Tune in for future episodes.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Women's work

It's only April, but voting is closed for the athletic feat of the year. It doesn't matter what happens from here on out. Michael Jordan can play another flu game, Willis Reed can limp into Madison Square Garden again on one good wheel,  Hacksaw Reynolds can play another playoff game on a broken leg.

Meh. That's nothin'.

Did you hear what Serena Williams did?

She just announced to the world that she's 20 weeks pregnant. Which means she won the Australian Open while in the first trimester of her pregnancy.

Nothing tops that, because, as my wife instructed me last night, the first trimester is the worst. You're always exhausted.  You're throwing up every morning (and, sometimes, every afternoon). You certainly aren't in any shape to play a major tennis tournament in the searing January heat of Australia.

So, of course, Serena did just that. Not only played in it, but won it. And you didn't even know about it, because only men make a big deal about overcoming physical adversity.

Hand that woman her trophy. Now.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A million small tragedies

Aaron Hernandez died by his own hand in the skinny hours this morning, hanging himself in his prison cell on the day the football team for which he played in another life was scheduled to visit the White House.

The juxtaposition isn't as stark as it sounds. First of all, any connection Hernandez had with the New England Patriots ended a long time ago. Secondly, it was never that hard-wired anyway, except for the numbers he put up for them.

Aaron Hernandez, after all, was one scary dude. Even in the testosterone factory that is an NFL locker room, he scared people. A lot of his teammates, it's been reported more than once, steered clear of him.

They had good reason, because Hernandez was a bad man who did bad things. He killed a man named Odin Lloyd for no reason that makes sense to rational humans. And he was just acquitted of killing two more men in a dispute over, of all things, a spilled drink.

A man who would do that -- and there are plenty of people who still think he did it, despite the acquittal -- is not the sort of man upon whom you waste tears. And yet maybe in some context you should.

Not for Aaron Hernandez, mind you. For the fact that we'll frame his dark story as a tragedy without acknowledging the million other small tragedies that happen every day, and of which we never hear.

Hernandez' descent from innocent childhood to a fate of his own making will get some run because he was once a fabulously skilled tight end, and sports -- football in particular -- have an outsized place in our national consciousness. But he is hardly the only man doing a life stretch for murder who's decided to cut the sentence short with a knotted bedsheet. There are dozens of others who've done the same thing, and thousands more who once had the same promise we all have as human beings, and who chose the dark pathways instead.

The prisons, after all, are full of them. Like Hernandez himself, it's unlikely they set out to be bad people. Like Hernandez, they were at one time children with the same potential for good all children own as their birthright.

And yet if that's true, it's also true some of those children never get a chance to fulfill that potential. Only the lucky ones do, the ones who are born into loving families or who find, at some crucial point, someone who sees something in them and shows them the way.

The unlucky ones become Aaron Hernandez.

Who at least was a superb athlete. And who, in that sense, was still far more lucky than all of those who were never quite as good at catching footballs.

You want to talk about tragedies today?

Start with those.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The sky is not falling!

The world champion Chicago Cubs lost at home to the WTH? Milwaukee Brewers last night, 6-3, which dropped the Cubs to 6-7 on the new season and left them two games behind the WTH? Cincinnati Reds and a game-and-a-half behind the WTH? Brewers.

Which means what, sports fans?

Panic time on the north side!

Word out of Wrigleyville is the Cubs bullpen is awful, and Kris Bryant hasn't broken out yet -- 13 whole games, and he hasn't broken out yet! -- and, well, the streets are running whatever color angst is with angst. Or ...

Or, you know, not.

Not, because 13 whole games played means there are still 149 whole games to play. And the two teams at the top of the division, the WTHs, are not going to stay there because, well, they're the Reds and the Brewers. And the other two presumably decent teams in the division, the Pirates and Cardinals, are either plodding along just below .500 (the Pirates) or off to their worst start in decades.

In other words: The NL Central is not shaping up to be your basic powerhouse division. Which means the Cubs, even if their bullpen stinks, should still win it going away.

I mean, come on. It's not like they're the Blackhawks and down 3-0 to the Predators or anything.

Speaking of, you know, panic time.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Storyline fail

Sometimes (most times, if you get down to the bare wood of it) fairy tales are just tales. Reality and perfect endings simply don't make bedfellows every often, strange or otherwise.

Which brings us to Boston yesterday, and Game 1 of the Eastern Conference series between the Celtics and Bulls.

The perfect ending here, on a tragically imperfect Easter weekend, would have had the Celtics' pocket dynamo, Isaiah Thomas, going for 33 points in a victory in front of a raucous home crowd that held him close in perhaps the way only fans can manage. It is the most trite of pronouncements to say some things (hell, most things) transcend the sporting arena, but yesterday did; the day after Thomas' younger sister was killed in an automobile accident out in Washington state, basketball became simply a child's game from the moment he stepped onto the floor, his anguish evident.

He wept. The Boston fans, some of them, wept with him, and held up signs assuring him they had his back. And then ...

Well. And then, Thomas played the game off its feet, scoring those aforementioned 33 points with six assists and five rebounds, putting his team on his back as he has so often this year.

And the final score?

Bulls 106. Celtics 102.

Which is to say, life has no script. And endings aren't always, or even often, perfect.

As if everything else hadn't made that clear already.  

Triumph of the ordinary

What makes the Stanley Cup playoffs the best of all playoffs was on glorious display yesterday afternoon, as Full Metal Jacket spring wafted in through the open windows. There on my TV screen were the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues, coming at me live from St. Louis. And there in goal for the Blues was this guy named Jake Allen, doing the sort of things Patrick Roy and Marty Brodeur used to do.

Which is, absolutely stoning the Wild, the second-highest scoring team in the NHL this season.

In the end, the Blues won 3-1 to take a 3-0 lead in the series, and Allen stopped 40 of 41 shots. In three games, he's given up three goals, stopping 114 of 117 shots. That's a .974 save percentage if you're keeping score at home, and a microscopic 0.91 goals-against.

What's wondrous about that, and what makes the Stanley Cup playoffs No. 1 with a bullet, is that Jake Allen is not really that good a goaltender.

His 2.42 goals-against in the regular season ranked 16th in the league, and his .915 save percentage ranked 20th. Those are profoundly average numbers. But suddenly he's Roy, he's Brodeur, he's Ken Freaking Dryden.

And therein lies the Stanley Cup playoffs' special secret.

It is not extraordinary men doing extraordinary things that sets them apart. It's ordinary men doing extraordinary things.

It's Jake Allen turning into some superhuman wall in the compressed narrative of a seven-game series, lifting a team that is not much better than ordinary itself to the brink of what most analysts would consider an upset. The Blues were not supposed to win this series; now they're on the verge not only of winning it, but sweeping it.

You'll find that sort of unpredictability virtually nowhere else in playoff sports, or at least not nearly as often. Yet it happens all the time in playoff hockey, and it's usually because some Jake Allen, for a magical space of time, is transported beyond himself.

Goalies, after all, impact playoff hockey to a degree no single player impacts any other playoff. It's  why the Stanley Cup playoffs are the most deliciously un-chartable, and why they are the best.

Because, sometimes, a Jake Allen happens. Ain't it cool?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A great idea whose time will not come

So, apparently, the Columbus Dispatch's plan to distribute crying Sidney Crosby masks for Game 3 of the Blue Jackets' NHL playoff series with Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins has been scrubbed.

No word on whether or not that's because it's Easter and taunting might be considered inappropriate to the occasion, or because the Penguins lead the series two-game-to-none.

In any case, I'm guessing there are few hockey fans in Columbus, and various other places not overserved with Sid love, who are saying "Well, darn," right now. Or, you know, something stronger.

The mouth of Manhattan

Maybe it's the age. You know, you get up there in your 70s, it's like they take your regular AARP card, hand you a platinum one, and say, "Have at it, old-timer. You can say anything you want, even if it's really cranky and stupid and no one wants to hear it."

Let it be noted here that Phil Jackson is 71 years old.

And so, yes, maybe that's why he won't shut up about Carmelo Anthony, even if it's really cranky and stupid and no one wants to hear it.

In case you missed it, here's what the Knicks president said about Carmelo the other day: “We have not been able to win with him on the court at this time.  I think the direction of our team is that he is a player who would be better off somewhere else, using his talents where he can win or chase that championship.”

Then he said some other stuff about what a terrible player Melo is. This after just hinting that he'd be willing to trade him.

Which suggests that Phil's load is now shy about three bricks, or his picnic basket is missing a couple of sandwiches, or various other metaphors of a similar nature. Why would you publicly trash Carmelo if you're going to try to trade him, except for the fact that (again) Phil's an old man who finds it impossible to shut up? Why would you continue to antagonize the other members of your team, who are heartily sick of listening to the Old Man bash Melo?

That would include the 21-year-old future of the franchise, Kristaps Porzingis, who is apparently so tired of Phil's drama that he skipped out on his season exit interview with Jackson.

Nice move there, Phil. Drive away the guy you need by continuing to bash the guy you don't think you need, even though you handed the latter guy a five-year, $124-million extension.

You know something, old-timer?

You're 71. And I hear the NBA's got a swell retirement package.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The dimming of the light

I met Dan Rooney one time, briefly, on a December day in the lee of Christmas. I was in Pittsburgh to interview Rod Woodson for an extensive profile -- it was 1994, I think, or maybe 1995 -- and we were sitting in an office at Three Rivers Stadium that was being used to store the company Christmas gifts.

And so there we were, Rod on one side of a desk and me on the other, brightly-wrapped packages stacked up around us. And then the door opened.

Santa Claus, aka Dan Rooney, stuck his head in the room.

"Hey, Rod," Rooney said. "How's it goin'?"

"Fine, Mr. Rooney, thank you," Woodson said.

Mr. Rooney. Two small words; a million layers of respect.

The respect spread out from that small office into the locker room, and then into the film room where then-coach Bill Cowher and his coaches holed up, and then out and out in concentric circles into the football world proper. It sprung not only from Rooney's stature as an owner -- on his watch, a franchise that had never won a playoff game won six Super Bowls, four of them with perhaps the greatest team ever assembled -- but from his stature as a human being.

The dignity with which he treated everyone, no matter how humble his station. The level head and concern for the greater good  with which he approached league business. The small kindnesses and common touch he learned from his father, Art, the great Steelers patriarch, and which made him the last of the great owners who built the modern NFL -- and who were therefore fiercely protective of its image.

That image has taken some hits over the last decade, virtually all of them self-inflicted. But not because of Dan Rooney.

Upon his death yesterday at 84, the tributes unfurled, and with them came a sense of loss that went beyond simply the loss of the man himself.  His passing leaves a vacancy that draws a line between what was and what is, and there will be no going back. There was the NFL of the Rooneys,  a family heirloom presided over by patriarchs benevolent and otherwise; there is the NFL going forward, an immense corporate edifice lacking in great measure the Rooney warmth and human connection.

Protecting the brand is everything now, even as the league's increasingly cold pragmatism does damage to it. If the NFL has become the No-Fun League, it's earned that distinction honestly. And the manner in which the league has turned its back on long-time markets -- San Diego, Oakland, St. Louis -- does it no credit, either.

Who needs the Oakland Raiders, after all, when the Las Vegas Raiders can make you a bigger pile? Tradition, schmadition.

It is true, of course, that these sentiments have always been there, even in the old patriarchal days. And it is true that the Rooneys went along with all the recent cash grabs. But it's just as true that Dan Rooney was very often a voice of conscience and perspective.

That voice is stilled now.

We search in vain for its equal.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A bouquet for May

They say it began as a joke, a  provenance that has launched more than one great idea. And this is indisputably a great one.

For the first time since the 1960s, near as anyone can tell, an active Formula 1 driver is coming to Indianapolis in May. And he's bringing an iconic name with him.

The driver is Fernando Alonso, a two-time F1 champion. The iconic name is McLaren, the sleek rocket ships Roger Penske first mad famous at Indy, and which won the 500 three times in the 1970s.

It was a McLaren -- that winged, navy-and-yellow No. 66 Sunoco marvel you can find in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame museum these days -- that Mark Donohue drove beneath the checkers in 1972, the first Indy win among many for Roger Penske. Johnny Rutherford put a McLaren in the winner's circle in 1974 and '76, charging up through the field from 25th starting position in the former. And a man named Peter Revson stuck a McLaren on the pole in 1971, shattering the track record by more than 7 mph after it hadn't budged in three years.

And so this is Throwback Indy, as the 500 turns the page to a new century. This is a return to what so many consider its golden days, when the names were Foyt and Unser and Andretti and Gurney -- and also Clark and Hill and Stewart.

Because the presence of Alonso, too, is a momentous thing. Don't think for a second it isn't.

All sorts of theories have been advanced over the years for why the 500 isn't, you know, the 500  anymore, why IndyCar was eclipsed by NASCAR in the 1990s and remains eclipsed. Hardly any of those theories credit circumstances over which IndyCar has no control (the explosion of entertainment options ushered in by cable and now digital media, for instance), and that the measure for success in motorsports in America was outlandishly skewed out of round by NASCAR's unsustainable boom in the late '90s.

In truth, the 500 remains the largest single-day sporting event on the planet by miles and miles. Yet the notion persists, in many quarters, that it's Not What Is Used To Be -- and that one of the reasons it isn't is because too many of IndyCar's leading lights are not Americans.

A half-truth. At best.

It's true there are not the outsized domestic names there used to be, and that most of the star power these days comes from Aussies and New Zealanders and South Americans. But that in itself is a throwback proposition, too.

The 500, after all, has always had an international flavor, and a large portion of its appeal has derived from that. It wasn't just the Foyts and Unsers and Andrettis who made the alleged the golden age the golden age. It was the presence in the field, beginning in the early 1960s, of  a slew of drivers from Formula 1.

Jack Brabham. Jim Clark, who won in 1965.  Graham Hill, who won in '66. Jackie Stewart and Denis Hulme and Jochen Rindt.

All of them were as much a part of the Indy tradition as anyone; it is, after all, an event that drew international drivers and machines from the very beginning, and that was won by two Frenchmen and two Italians in its first six years of existence.

Now comes Alonso, and McLaren to continue that tradition, and to usher in the second 100 years.

Could there be anything more true to the nature of May in Indy? Or more indicative of the fact that, yes, the 500 still is the 500?

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A splendid idea

You know those times when someone hits on an idea so obvious, so slap-the-forehead well-duh perfect, that you kind of hate that someone a little because they came up with it and you didn't?

This is one of those times.

This is the time to recognize a former Fort Wayne Komets massage therapist, who wrote a letter to one of the local papers wondering, if you can put a statue of Harry Caray outside Wrigley Field, why there shouldn't be one of Bob Chase outside the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum.

An excellent question.

Because, listen, if Harry was Wrigley and Chicago to a lot of folks out in the rest of America, Bob Chase was the Coliseum and Fort Wayne. Yes, he was the voice of Komets hockey to that great swatch of America and Canada reached by WOWO radio's booming 50,000 watts, but he was just as surely the voice of  Fort Wayne, Indiana. So many of us discovered this when we ourselves were out in the rest of America; for me it happened in a hotel bar one night in Gettysburg, Pa., a story I've told numerous times.

I mentioned where I was from; the other patrons of the bar came back with "Bob Chase!" and "Komet hockey!" None of them had ever met Bob, or seen a Komets game or Fort Wayne or, indeed, the inside of Memorial Coliseum. But, because of him, they imagined they had.  He was the voice not just of our winters here in northeast Indiana, but of an entire mid-sized Midwestern city.

And so, yes, surely, he deserves a statue somewhere in or outside the Coliseum. If the place was built as a tribute to our veterans, well, Bob was one of those, too, serving in the Navy. And, like, Harry in Chicago, he was not just the voice of the Coliseum, he was its very embodiment.

Of course, because this is Fort Wayne, the question would be who would pay for it. But the answer to that is as obvious as everything else about this.

Who wouldn't pay for it?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Fortune favors the downtrodden

Or: Eventually, the athletic gods smile on everyone, even the ink-stained wretches of the sporting press.

There were a million ways Sunday could have gone at Augusta, but the way it went suggested  someone up there liked the chroniclers. No story truly writes itself -- those of us who write them would laugh you out of the room for suggesting such twaddle -- but when Sergio Garcia's birdie putt on the first playoff hole did half a victory lap and then dropped, the writing got a whole lot easier.

I mean, the man once seen as Tiger's great rival, and one of the most accomplished golfers of his era, finally winning a major after almost two decades? In a playoff? In the Masters?

This was true outlined-against-a-blue-gray-sky stuff, a moment tailor-made for sitting down at the laptop and committing literature.  The storyline was perfect, and so did the way it unfolded, with Justin Rose looking unflappable and inevitable all day, and Sergio looking again like the valiant runnerup.

But he saved that par at 13, keeping himself from falling out of it. He tied for the lead with the eagle at 15, then lost it when Rose came back with a birdie. Then, when Rose opened the door on 18 by missing his birdie putt, Sergio missed his shot again by sliding his own birdie putt just wide.

I can't say, because I wasn't there, but I imagine a few of the wretches were crafting their Justin Rose ledes right about then. Who likes Garcia in a playoff with the guy who'd been pretty much flawless all day long?

Ah, but then, of course, the gods smiled. Rose's tee shot fetched up in a place where his only option was to bail out. Sergio's was perfect. And so to the final green, with Rose missing a long par putt and Sergio looking at two putts from 10 feet for the win.

It only took one. And here was maybe the best it-writes-itself Masters story since Jack Nicklaus, at 46, becoming the oldest Masters winner 31 years ago: Another great Spanish golfer winning on what would have been the 60th birthday of the great Spanish golfer, Seve Ballesteros.

How do you tell that story wrong?

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Why people watch golf

The Blob will be straight about this: It's not a golf watcher.

I have never spent an afternoon on my couch, watching the Greater Velveeta Open. I have never been riveted by that stirring duel between Billy Bob Logo Cap and Jimbo Other Logo Cap for the right to lift the Geico Electrolux Wendy's Baconator Cup at Pesticide Hills Country Club in Where The Heck Are We, Iowa. Given a choice, I'll watch Jimmie Johnson instead of Rickie Fowler almost any day -- and that's saying something, considering NASCAR isn't really my thing, either.

But today?

Today I'll watch.

Today I'll watch, because if there's a lot of things like the Greater Velveeta Open, there's almost nothing like the last round of the Masters (and, especially, the last nine holes). And this year might top them all.

I mean, the storylines are stepping all over themselves, aren't they?

Up there at the top of the leaderboard you've got Olympic champ Justin Rose tied with Sergio Garcia, who's never won a major and has been pursuing one for so long his five-o'clock shadow is now flecked with gray. You've got Jordan Spieth, who in three Masters starts has never finished lower than second, looming two strokes back despite his disastrous first round. You've got Fowler one stroke back, and Adam Scott three strokes back, and the likes of Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy, Paul Casey, Matt Kuchar and Charl Schwartzel all within striking distance if it goes south on the leaders.

In other words, the top of the leaderboard is stuffed with somebodies. There's even a Billy Bob Logo Cap (Charley Hoffman) in there just for seasoning, and also for steadfast believers in fairy tales.

So, yeah, I'll watch -- mainly because all sorts of bizarre stuff happens in the last round of a Masters, and I'm a big fan of bizarre stuff. Unpredictability is what makes sports worth the watching, after all. And hardly anything is more unpredictable than the last round of the Masters.

Especially this year. Especially today.

"It's gonna be fun," an acquaintance acknowledged last night.

 That's the only thing you can accurately predict about today. Ain't it glorious?

Friday, April 7, 2017

Paging Roy Hobbs. OK, so not.

It was a moment straight out of "The Natural," but only if you squinted and didn't look real hard.

Roy Hobbs, bleeding internally, blasting a home run that exploded in the lights and showered the field with tiny magical sparks!

Tim Tebow, his baseball dream bleeding internally, blasting a home run in his first at-bat for the Class A Columbia (S.C.) Fireflies, prompting roars of TE-BOW!, TE-BOW! from the thrilled assemblage!

Two, two, two mints in one!

Or ...

Or, you know, not.

Couple of things to keep in mind about Tebow's shot, which was wondrous but not, it turns out, Roy Hobbs wondrous:

1. It was "A" ball.

2. Tebow had a 25-mph wind at his back.

3. It was "A" ball.

And so don't expect to see the guy up in New York with the big club anytime soon. After all, fairy tales are fairy tales precisely because they don't happen very often,

Not to bum everyone out or anything.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Your questions for today

... all concern the mystery back injury to Dustin Johnson, the world's No. 1 golfer and an odds-on favorite to win the Masters until he apparently screwed up his back yesterday by apparently falling down a flight of stairs.

Questions abound. Among them:

1. Is this a more bizarre athlete injury than former St. Louis Cardinal Vince Coleman getting eaten by that infamous tarp roller?

2. Is it more bizarre than Yankees pitcher Carl Pavano (another baseball player) rupturing his spleen while shoveling snow?

3. Is it more bizarre than Padres pitcher Adam Eaton (ANOTHER baseball player!) stabbing himself  while trying to open a DVD?

4. And what is it with baseball players, anyway?

5. Are they the most hapless people on earth, except when they're playing baseball?

6. And could Dustin Johnson, who also once tweaked his back lifting a jet ski, have chosen the wrong sport?

7. I mean, he sounds like a baseball player to me.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Ghosts of Augusta

The ghosts are everywhere in this place, accompanied by the hushed voice of Jim Nantz and the saccharine tinkling of ivories. At Augusta National, you hear that familiar theme music start up, it's like hearing that brooding bass line from "Jaws." You start looking for the shark.

And, no, not the Shark, Greg Norman. Though he's likely one of the ghosts.

His younger self is surely still out there somewhere, stumping mournfully through the Cathedral of Pines with his game unraveling around him. So is a younger Rory McIlroy, still looking for the ball he hit over by the cabins during his own unraveling. And so, presumably, is last year's version of Jordan Spieth -- a pale specter still visible late at night, some say, around the 12th green.

Listen closely. Is that a moan you hear, or just the wind?

Could be just the wind, but it's Masters week again, and so everyone is revisiting Spieth's haunted moment at the 12th hole a year ago. At 22, he was closing in on his second straight green jacket when he came to 12 on Sunday afternoon. And then disaster struck.

Two balls went swimming on him. Another landed on the beach. By the time Spieth limped away toward the 13th tee, he'd taken quadruple-bogey and someone named Danny Willett wound up wearing his green jacket.

And so, yes, Spieth has his own Augusta ghost now.

Or, again, maybe not.

Maybe not, because when he came to the 12th hole in a practice round yesterday, he damn near stuck it in the hole. His tee shot fetched up 14 inches or so from the cup, and he tapped it in.

So maybe there are no ghosts or gremlins or demons that haunt him here. Maybe he's mentally strong enough that the 12th will be just another hole for him this week.

If so, then it will be yet more proof that golf is a thing of the mind, and that the Masters more than any other event reveals as much. Or exposes as much.

A big swing helps here, a rapier short game helps more, but most of all it's the ability to get out of one's own head that wins for you here -- especially when things begin to go south, which to an alarming degree they seem to at Augusta.

It's a golf course that's not notably sinister until the leaders make that final turn into Amen Corner on Sunday afternoon, and then weird stuff commences happening. So much horror has descended there on Sundays that macabre jokes have grown up around it:

Q: Why do they have all those flowers?

A: To cover the graves.

And there are a lot of them, particularly on that back nine. Which, of course, conventional wisdom says is where the tournament actually begins on Sunday afternoon -- and where it's ended for so many.

Hence all those ghosts. So who'll be the next to join the pantheon?

Finding out is why we watch.         

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Cheaters prosper, blah-blah

Not much to say this morning about last night's One Shiner Moment, except that the Blob drifted off at halftime and missed the worst part of it, which happened when the stripes took the game hostage and turned the second half into a butt-ugly whistlefest.

Glad I missed it. Glad, too, I didn't have to watch North Carolina cut down the nets, because  cheaters prospering has never been appointment TV for me.

And so yay, Tar Heels, who cares, and on to other things.

Patrick Ewing getting the Georgetown job, firstly. Tony Romo deciding he's had enough of getting various pieces of him broken, secondly.

The Ewing thing was a no-brainer, Georgetown keeping it in the most insular family in college buckets. Romo deciding to hang it up seems like a no-brainer, too, even though abundant evidence exists he could still probably play a little.

Some would say he could still play a lot, but the Blob has never been one of those. He's only a soon-to-be 37, but it's a very old 37, having played in parts of just five games the last two seasons because of collarbone and -- red alert here -- back injuries. And he was about to get released by the Cowboys, for whom he's the franchise leader in career passing yards (34,183), touchdowns (248) and QBR (97.1).

All of that is in the rearview, however. Even if he got picked up by another team, what was going to be left for an aging, beat-up star? Yes, it worked for Peyton Manning, but Romo, good as he used to be, is not Peyton Manning. And even for Peyton, it only lasted about three years before the tread started coming off for good.

Professional football has always been a balancing act between rewards and diminishing returns, and Romo obviously looked at the scales and saw them seriously tilted toward the latter. He's had a great career, but the prospects of him significantly adding to it at this point were minimal -- especially, again, coming off back surgery.

Back issues, after all, tend to be chronic. Just ask Tiger Woods, who isn't even getting hit periodically by 280-pound defensive ends.

And so, off Romo will go into broadcasting, the assisted living quarters for ex-jocks. Three networks are already lining up to hire him. And I'm sure all three can come up with a nice comfy chair for him to sit in.

What else does a 37-year-old with a bum back need?

Monday, April 3, 2017

Snoop dogs

We all know golf is kind of a bizarre sport anyway, what with John Daly's retina-searing pants, and the occasional tendency for even the best players to lapse inexplicably into weekend hacker mode, and all the evil gremlins who lie in wait to grab your ball and throw it in the water, or the sand, or the deep, deep woods.

But the notion that some guy living in his mom's basement can report a rules violation that changes the course of a tournament truly takes the game to Wack City.

There is no analogy for this in any other sport, which golfers somehow take as a point of pride but which actually is an indictment of their sport's innate weirdness. And it doesn't get much weirder than what happened Sunday to Lexi Thompson.

What happened was, Mom's Basement Guy likely cost her a major.

An e-mail from some sad-sack TV viewer compelled rules officials to review something that happened not on Sunday but on the day before. What happened was, Thompson marked her ball an inch or so incorrectly on one hole. Sad Sack apparently noticed in this, and, not having a life of his own, ratted her out.

And so a two-shot lead for Thompson magically became a two-shot deficit after officials docked her a four-stroke penalty -- again, for something that happened in the preceding round. And she lost in a playoff.

Which is pure unadulterated bull you-know-what.

The Blob has said this before, and it will say it again: There is no way, none, that some clown sitting at home watching on TV should be able to impact a golf tournament in this way. Frankly, it makes your sport a joke. And both the PGA and LPGA should forthwith make it illegal.

Here's the deal: The ruling bodies of golf have rules officials on the course to detect just these kinds of violations (and this one, frankly, was picayunish even by golf standards). It's their job to see these things and rule accordingly. It is not the job of Mom's Basement Guy -- and it's especially not the job of Mom's Basement Guy to report something from a round that's already official.

Sorry, but if the rules officials miss something, they miss something. That's how it works everywhere else, and that's how it should work in golf. Especially in cases, like this one, where no one can definitively say that Thompson mis-marking her ball by a fingernail on a tap-in accorded her an unfair advantage.

If you can't say that, you shouldn't be able to go back after the fact and enact a penalty on the say-so of some anonymous viewer. You missed the call. Move on.

There are no do-overs in life. There shouldn't be in golf, either.

That old Opening Day angst

It was Opening Day in baseball yesterday, which for the Blob meant the ceremonial Donning Of The Roberto Clemente Jersey, and for fans of the Chicago Cubs a moment of wrenching dismay when they realized they weren't going to go 162-0 this year just because of all that ending-the-jinx nonsense.

Final score last night: The Evil St. Louis Cardinals 4, Our Brave Lads 3.

Possible fan reactions: I KNEW it! Last year was just an elaborate setup for THE MOST SOUL-CRUSHING LETDOWN OF THEM ALL!

Also, Kris Bryant went hitless and struck out three times.

Possible fan reaction: I KNEW it! We brought him up too early! He should have STAYED IN THE MINORS FOR MORE SEASONING!

And so on. And so on.

One shin(er) moment

So now the only thing that stands between America and the exposure of What Mom Used To Say  is a (relatively) small Jesuit school from Spokane, Wash.

That would be Gonzaga, maligned as an imposter all season, now playing for the national championship tomorrow night. The Zags did it by matching grit with grit against a South Carolina team that never quits and makes you crawl over 10 miles of broken glass to beat it. Gonzaga did that, but only after the Gamecocks once again expended their last available breath.

And so on to Monday night, and the aforementioned collision with Mom's homilies.

One of which was always "Cheaters never prosper."

Prepare for that one to go up in flames.

That's because North Carolina survived Oregon's furious last-minute rush last night, twice collecting offensive rebounds after twice missing both ends of a two-shot foul in the dying seconds. The final was 77-76, and Oregon fans will forever point to Carolina's 17 offensive boards and the double-double of Kennedy Meeks, and wonder if injured big man Chris Boucher might have turned that around.

And so now we get Gonzaga against North Carolina, a school whose attorneys might well be the Tar Heels' MVP. That's because they've successfully lawyered the NCAA to a standstill in its attempt to get to the bottom of (and levy judgment on) an academic scandal widely regarded as the most egregious in NCAA history.

It's been two years now since the NCAA informed UNC it was investigating the scandal, which involved steering alleged "student-athletes" in mostly the money sports (football and basketball) into imaginary courses. Incredibly, this went on 18 years, during which the "student-athletes" were allegedly allowed to plagiarize freely on papers for which they received inflated grades, and to employ tutors to write papers for them.

And, of course, to get credit for courses that didn't exist.

Carolina has spent $18 million in legal fees to roadblock the investigation of that, and it's about to reap the benefits: Another NCAA title for its men's basketball team.

If you're with the NCAA, you've got to be the biggest Gonzaga fan walking right now. Even if you can't say so.

A Carolina win, after all, would once again expose big-ticket college athletics for what it is, a business venture that has little to do with a university's academic mission. At bottom, basketball at North Carolina is an industry with a corporate culture indistinguishable from that of any other industry. The school serves merely to provide it with a marketable identity.

But this is old news. A Tar Heels victory would only make it more glaringly obvious.

One Shining Moment?

If you're the NCAA, more like One Shiner Moment.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

April Fool's from college hoops

And now your April Fool's joke for this April Fool's Day, brought to you by the NCAA women's Final Four:

Mississippi State Beats UConn In OT!

No, really. The April Fool's joke, see, is that this is no April Fool's joke. It actually happened.

Now that's an April Fool's joke.