Monday, August 21, 2017

Dying alone

Yesterday was Pocono day for the IndyCar crowd, and so there was I was, uncrowded. Sitting in the bar at Buffalo Wild Wings, watching the race. Only guy in the place doing so, even though they put it on, like, five screens at one point, which was kind of embarrassing because  (again, and I can't stress this enough) I was the only guy in the place watching the race.

It's old news now that IndyCar is little more than crickets and echoes away from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but sometimes you have to sit in lonely splendor in a public place for that reality to hit home. I watched alone, and so did the people who were actually there. Which, from the brief glimpses of the grandstands every time the cars flashed past, were pretty lonely souls themselves.

I don't know where IndyCar goes from here. I truly do not.

I can't see it totally going away, but when you throw a 500-mile race in an old-school IndyCar venue and nobody comes (or next to nobody), you come awfully close to seeing it. Pocono was a ghost town yesterday, and the fact IndyCar could put only 22 cars on its 2 1/2-mile expanse only gilded that impression. Wheeling around the place, they looked unnervingly like the Seventh Cavalry's survivors clustered atop Custer Hill. All that was missing was the whisper of a prairie breeze and the mournful echo of a last, desperate bugle call.

I know, that sounds a bit over the top. But it's hard not to see the glass as half-empty when you watch what I watched yesterday, and read what I've been reading this summer.

IndyCar has always had its share of teams that ran May in Indianapolis as a one-off. But now even the kingpins are cutting back their commitment.

The doggiest of the top dogs, Penske Racing, has made no secret of the fact it's planning on moving Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves to its new sports-car venture in 2018. And Chip Ganassi, having lost long-time sponsor Target, will not pick up Tony Kanaan's option next season.

Which means, unless Kanaan hooks another ride (and he always seems to), the circuit will be without two of its biggest draws next season. IndyCar can only hope it finds bankable stars to replace them.

Possibilities exist. Josef Newgarden -- just 26 years old, immensely talented and immensely personable -- seems likely to emerge as IndyCar's longed-for American superstar, particularly if he becomes only the third American in 15 years to win the IndyCar title. The same goes for 28-year-old Graham Rahal, every bit as talented and as personable as Newgarden. And defending IndyCar champ Simon Pagenaud seems poised to become the circuit's next great star.

The problem, of course, is that IndyCar has never been able to maximize the star power at its disposal. Two of its most successful drivers, Scott Dixon and Will Power, are great talents and perfectly congenial men, but are quiet public souls who simply don't excite anyone. Ditto Marco Andretti, who has that great American racing name but who, like Dixon and Power, is not overserved with flamboyance.

Power, by the way, won the race at Pocono, holding off Newgarden in closing laps in the kind of riveting finish IndyCar provides as often as not. He was the first IndyCar driver ever to repeat at Pocono, and he did it from a lap down after pitting early to change a damaged nosecone.

So there was some drama there. There were some storylines. And there was virtually no one there to see it.

So what's the answer?

Again, I don't know. Motorsports are and always have been niche properties, and much of that niche in America is occupied by NASCAR, itself a waning entity. So maybe there isn't an answer -- or at least one that's viable.

I'd love to think that's not the case. But I'm starting to think it is.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Look who's back

And now your It's Gonna Be A Great Day moment for today, because we all need those moments, especially on those occasions when it doesn't look as if there's ever going to be a great day again ...

This.

Good on ya, Jaylon Smith. May that tackle on Jack Doyle be the first of many.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Less is more

Mid-August now, and summer has grown old and weary. A million little tells are there now, dropping hints its hold is loosening: School buses rumbling again, high school football lighting up Friday nights, the very light in the sky taking on a different, bronzer cast as it rouses itself later in the mornings and flees earlier at night.

And then of course there's this: Two different universes of baseball showing us both the promise of the game, and perhaps its waning.

Every sports bar in America now has the somehow flawed finished product on one TV these days, and the somehow better, lesser version on another TV. On this particular night in this particular place, the finished product at one end of the bar is the Red Sox and the Yankees, renewing their endlessly renewed ancient beef from Fenway Park. And down at the other end?

Two groups of kids playing a game on national TV they've been playing all summer.

It's Little League World Series time again, and if once that was relatable to every American who ever picked up a bat and swung it during his or her summers, it is unfortunately less so now. If Little League baseball was the game unalloyed, the all-seeing eye of ESPN has transformed it into a Spectacle now, because that's the inevitable result when you turn the TV cameras on a thing. And now the TV cameras are everywhere, airing not just LL World Series games but regional qualifying games -- so many games, in fact, they've become so much late summer background noise.

The Blob has made its unease with this phenomenon known before, so we won't re-plow that ground here. Suffice it to say it still believes giving 12-year-olds the full ESPN treatment is something that should be viewed with a raised eyebrow at the very least. Proceed with caution, in other words.

Of course, that's not how TV does things. Less is not more; more is more. With the inevitable result that it winds up being less.

And yet ... you can understand why the teevees are so all in on this. Whether or not it's a byproduct of the Steroids Era, which has thrown a shadow over the game that exists to this day, baseball at the finished-product level has something empty at its core. It is not definable, and the Cubs winning the World Series last fall was a respite from that, but t's there. 

This summer, for instance, baseballs are flying out of ballparks again. There should always be magic in that act, but the Steroids Era now makes us innately suspicious if it happens too much, and that's where we are right now. Baseballs are flying out of ballparks, but they are going too far and it is happening too often. The magic has become the commonplace -- and after awhile, the commonplace elicits not wonder but a shrug, and more of the aforementioned raised eyebrows.

Oh, look. Giancarlo Stanton hit another homer. Wonder what HE'S on.

That sort of thing.

But the LL World Series, for all the corrupting influence of TV, remains untouched by this. Whatever is missing in the finished product, it remains found in the Little League product. There is something purer, more elemental in it, something more in tune with the game we all grew up playing. It is, yes, less, but it is more.

Even now. Even if it, too, is on the TV at the end of the bar every day now.

Background noise it may be, here in mid-August. But there is still music in it.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Your Old Man Shouting At Clouds Moment for today

In which we venture down to Tuscaloosa, where Alabama football coach Nick Saban is either 1) feeling the pressure of being the odds-on favorite to repeat as national champions, or 2) just being cranky because guys his age (65) tend to get cranky now and again.

Anyway, Saban was asked about redshirt sophomore linebacker Christian Miller's progress in practice yesterday, a seemingly innocuous question. And he ... well, went off.

"Oh, I don't know. You guys make all these predictions about everything, about guys who are going to be great players, that have been here for two years. Who's gonna win all the games? I don't even know why we play," Saban ranted. "Why do we even play? Why do we have practice? Why do we compete? Why do we coach guys? ...

"Sometimes I wonder ... why do we play? Why do we even have practice? Because you guys have got all these conclusions already drawn about who's what, how good they are, what they can do. So why would you ask me? That's what's puzzling to me. Why would you ask me?"

Oh, I don't know, Coach. Maybe so we can watch you get all mad and start spluttering stuff that doesn't make a whole lot of sense?

(Football preview stuff? You're mad about that? You're mad about stuff that's been a routine part of football coverage for eons? Wha--?)

In any case ... the spluttering was sort of entertaining. So thanks for that. I mean, we media types have to find something to amuse ourselves occasionally, right?

Not any given Sunday

Some things have no explanation, like what goes through Resident Donald "Donny" Trump's head besides refreshing breezes, and when America became a place where people fighting Nazis became as bad, in some people's minds, as the Nazis themselves.

And then there's this, just in from Atlanta.

Look. The Blob has no issue with Chick-fil-A's owner deciding his stores won't be open on Sundays. He's the owner. He can impose his religious beliefs on whomever he likes.

But why, then, would he put a Chick-fil-A stand in an NFL stadium, where your biggest sales day is almost always going to be Sunday? Does this make sense to anyone?

Because I don't get it. I just don't.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

In pursuit of the real

Giancarlo Stanton parked a baseball in the seats for the sixth straight game last night, for the 11th time in 12 games, for the 18th time since the All-Star break. He now has 23 home runs in his last 35 games, and now people are talking that he might hit 61, matching Roger Maris in 1961.

Which some people will tell you is the "real" home run record.

The Blob's annoying question about that: How do we know what's real and what isn't anymore?

And unless we can definitely say that what Stanton is doing is "real" (i.e., without the aid of illicit chemical enhancement), how is Barry Bonds' 73 home runs not the industry standard?

It's become chic in the last decade or so to de-legitimize what Bonds did, in part because it was Bonds -- a truly nasty person in those days -- and in part because tests in 2000 revealed traces of the fabled fabled Cream and Clear in his bloodstream. But the entire culture of the Steroids Era precludes the devaluing of his record, because so many others were chemically enhanced then, too -- including a number of the pitchers he was taking deep.

Those 73 home runs, in other words, were a product of their time, just as Maris' 61 were a product of their time. And just as what Stanton and his contemporaries are doing is a product of their time -- a time when no one knows for sure who's getting what sort of boost from what.

You'd like to think it's just fruits and vegetables and lots of milk, because if we're entering another Steroids Era, it means PED development has once again outstripped current testing procedures. And baseball is inordinately proud of those testing procedures.

In the meantime, big guys are launching baseballs into space again, just like they did 20 years ago. And Stanton?

His 23-jacks-in-35-games burst has been matched only by Sammy Sosa in 1998 (25-in-35), Bonds in 2001 (24) and Mark McGwire in 1999 (23).

In other words: Three of the biggest names of the Steroids Era, in the very heart of the Steroids Era.

So again the question: What's real? And what isn't?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Slow ride

The best of baseball happened last night, when a pitcher named Chad Bettis threw seven scoreless innings for the Colorado Rockies, scattering six hits while getting a no-decision.

What was significant about that is it was Bettis' first start since November. In the interim, he's undergone surgery and chemo for testicular cancer that spread to his lymph nodes.

So it was a triumph of no small measure, that no-decision. And the best of what baseball, and sport itself, has always given us.

And the worst?

The worst is that it was a 3-0 game that took almost three hours to play. And at 2 hours, 44 minutes, it still constituted what's considered a quick nine innings these days in Major League Baseball.

Maybe you missed it, but MLB commissioner Rob Manuel's crusade to speed up the pace of play in baseball is losing ground, after some initial success. The length of an average nine-inning game has jumped nine minutes in the last two seasons, including five minutes this summer alone. We're now up to 3 hours, 5 minutes for a nine-inning game, the longest average in baseball history.

This is not good news when you're trying to survive in a world in which technology has speeded up everything, and has turned all of us into creatures with the attention span of a gnat. It is also not what baseball was intended to be, as the Blob has pointed out ad nauseum.

Back when it first became the National Pastime, it was a fast-paced game that generally breezed through nine innings in two hours or fewer -- and sometimes, much fewer. Even taking into account the advent of modern TV commercial breaks, that still means the average nine-inning game in 1908, if played today, would run 35-40 minutes quicker.

But now the Pastime is the Passed Time, and even if attendance is up, interest among the demographic that will be the next generation of baseball fans is down. It's an old-timey game now, played at an old-timey pace suited to the oldtimers who constitute most of its audience.

And why not?  If baseball slogs around at a snail's pace these days, so do those oldtimers. They can relate.

But the rest of America?

Eh, not so much. Mostly, the rest of America is just waiting for pro and college football to fire up again.

Meanwhile ...

Well. This seems more relevant than ever.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Distract this

That Word came up again the other day, and the Blob was compelled once again to roll its metaphoric eyes and shake its metaphoric head. And then of course to shout angrily at the sky, because that's what Blobs do when they start getting up there in years.

That Word, just so you know, is "distraction."

Media in Sportsball World love this word, love to apply every time there's some controversy/suspension/other occurrence that doesn't have anything to do with normal Sportsball stuff. It's a contagion, they believe, that seeps into every clubhouse/locker room/organization on occasion, and when it does all those big, strong athletes, autocratic coaches and captains-of-industry owners are helpless against it.

Distraction happens when key players get suspended, the way Ezekiel Elliott just did. It's why Colin Kaepernick and other socially conscious athletes shouldn't express their beliefs on the sacred Sportsball field, and why Kaepernick suddenly can't find a job. Distraction interferes with winning, and winning is the bottom line in Sportsball World. It diminishes performance by making highly trained and conditioned athletes unable to function at peak capacity.

Why, just look how many catches Cowboys tight end Jason Witten will drop now that he's had to answer a few questions about Zeke Elliott's lack of maturity and focus.

That's what happened the other day, and Witten answered the questions, and then he likely headed out to practice. But I bet when he lined up for the snap, he was still thinking about Zeke. I bet he was thinking about Zeke so much he couldn't remember what his assignment was on a particular play.  I bet he ran the wrong route a zillion times because he was thinking about Zeke.

Excuse me? You say that's just silly?

Well, of course it is. Which is why it's the Blob's firm belief the whole "distraction" thing is a unicorn, a mythological beast that lives largely in the fevered imaginations of the Sportsball media.

Let's look at Kaepernick, for instance.

It's become chic for those who don't want to admit he's being punished for his political beliefs to say the reason teams won't sign him is because he'd be a "distraction." This despite the fact former 49ers coach Chip Kelly is on record saying Kaepernick wasn't a distraction at all.

Apparently he got up at the beginning of the season and explained what he was going to do, and that was the end of it. He didn't keep talking about it in the locker room. He didn't try to divide the team. And the rest of the Niners, accordingly, shrugged and went about their business.

"We heard from the outside about what a distraction it is,” Kelly said. "Except those people aren't in our locker room and it never was a distraction. And Kaep never brought that and never turned it into a circus ... came to work every day, extremely diligent in terms of his preparation, in terms of his work ethic in the weight room, in terms of his work ethic in the meeting room."

Well, of course. This is how these deals tend to work, after all, in a reality-based world. The idea that some issue or other is going to impact the performance of professional athletes simply because they have to answer a few questions about it is ludicrous.

Distractions?

Yeah, they surely exist. But the "distractions" the media and outside world like to talk about?

Bigfoot is more real.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The long shadow of Ray Rice

Well, they don't call the man Roger the Hammer for nothing. Even if it's frequently in the ironic sense.

No, Roger Goodell is dead serious about players who engage in domestic violence -- even if it's only alleged, and even if the corporate monolith he runs seems only to be sporadically dead serious about it.

Hence Ezekiel Elliott's six-game suspension for alleging knocking around his girlfriend, even if there are enough questions about the specific incident cited that the legal system chose not to charge him. The NFL, however, is not the legal system. Its standard for these things is different. And its action is based, apparently, not just on a specific incident but on a pattern of behavior that includes an incident during a St. Patrick's Day parade last March in which Elliott apparently pulled down a young woman's top and fondled her breast.

So, there's that.

There is also this: Ray Rice.

Whom the NFL wrist-tapped for two games after he slugged his now-wife in an elevator, then was embarrassed into upping the punishment after security footage of the incident surfaced. And so Rice was ultimately cast into outer darkness -- even after his wife apologized for her "role" in getting slugged in one of the saddest, strangest press conferences ever.

And the NFL?

It got slammed from all sides for its inconsistency, and for changing its disciplinary standard to reflect the level of public outrage. And even though Ray Rice is long gone from the league, the shadow of what he did in that elevator continues to inform the NFL's attitude toward domestic violence.

Which is: Optics are all.

The optic here is the NFL had to land on Elliott hard not because he violated the code of player conduct (of which there's abundant evidence he did, and serially), but because his alleged victim cooperated with the investigation by providing photos of her injuries.

Were those injuries inflicted by Elliott?

 It doesn't really matter, even though his pattern of behavior strongly suggests it.  What matters are the optics: A bruised-up woman vs. an NFL that seemed not to care a whole lot about Ray Rice slugging his significant other until video of him doing it turned up.

And so, Elliott gets a six-game ding. And there should be no surprise about that -- because, again, the NFL is a corporate monolith, and corporate monoliths act according to the sensibilities of the paying customers. And the paying customers weren't likely to be happy about it if the corporate monolith went easy in a domestic violence case in which it had visual evidence and a cooperative alleged victim.

This is especially true now, when league owners currently are blackballing an accomplished quarterback for his social activism. Going easy on Elliott would make it look as if the league had a bigger problem with a guy engaging in a peaceful act of symbolic protest than it did with players beating up women. Which, again, is not a good look.

Optics. It's all about optics.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Time out for perspective

I don't know if you can characterize what's likely to happen in Chicago this morning as Trubisky Fever. But you're likely to hear a lot fewer people griping about how dumb the Bears brain trust was to take a quarterback with a 13-game sample size  back in April.

This is because Mitch Trubisky was 18-of-25 passing for 166 yards and a touchdown against Denver last night, and didn't throw an interception in those 25 passes, and wasn't sacked.

This is also because his presumed placeholder, veteran Mike Glennon, was 2-of-8 and threw a pick.

Three observations about that:

1. It was a preseason game.

2. It was a preseason game.

3. It was a preseason game.

Not to pump the brakes with a little perspective or anything.

OK. So exactly that.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Here, kitty, kitty

And now ... your Wildlife Moment for the Day.

To summarize: Cat gets on field. Member of grounds crew picks up cat THE WRONG WAY. Cat scratches/bites grounds crew guy to remind him he was picking him up THE WRONG WAY.

Fans laugh. Yadier Molina laughs. Yadier Molina hits a grand slam.

Rally Cat!

The end.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

That athletic bubble

Josh Rosen is 20 years old, and he is a star football player at a Power 5 football school. And so put it down to simple youthful ignorance, not youthful arrogance, when he says some of the things he says.

What UCLA's junior quarterback said the other day, among other things, was that football and school are not compatible.

"They just don't (go together)," he said in an interview with Bleacher Report. "Trying to do both is like trying to do two full-time jobs. There are guys who have no business being in school, but they're here because this is the path to the NFL. There's no other way."

Rosen is right about the latter, of course. That there are those who are in college only to get to the NFL -- or the NBA -- is self-evident and has been for a long time, because that's the way the system is set up. Those aforementioned guys  didn't create it. They can only negotiate it to their perceived best advantage.

For that reason, Rosen is also right when he says the prerogatives of high-dollar college football do not line up very well with a university's traditional mission, which is to provide a high-end education. And so when he says if you raise the SAT requirements at, say, Alabama (currently the pre-eminent football factory), the product will be hurt. And the product is all. Academic rigor exists only so far as the product is required to acknowledge it.

Where Rosen is wrong is when he says individual student-athletes can't marry the two anyway. They do all the time. More to the point, students who aren't athletes do it all the time.

College campuses -- even UCLA -- are full of young people who are doing what Rosen says can't be done. Playing football and going to school are like trying to do two full-time jobs? There are students walking around who do far more than that. They're going to school, and they're also working -- sometimes more than one job. And they're doing that because it's the only way they can afford to do what Rosen gets for free.

Rosen misses that essential fact, which should come as no surprise. He is 20 years old, with the limited perspective that comes with that. And for most of his young life, he has lived inside an elite athletic bubble that distorts almost every reality.

What that means is he has no more in common with the general population at UCLA than a Wall Street hedge fund pirate has with the people who do the real work in this country. So how could we expect him to say anything but what he said?

Doggiest days

Remember about six weeks ago, when the Blob noted that the San Francisco Giants were already 22 1/2 games out of the divisional race and it was still June?

Well, now we're just a week into the dog days of August, and they're 35 1/5 games out.

The good news: Yesterday they were 36 1/2 out. So they're gaining, sort of.

The bad news: There's still almost two months left in the season.

Random observation: Yesterday I was at the grocery store, and the outdoor displays consisted of jack-o-lanterns and skeleton decorations. Like, three months before Halloween.

Which makes me wonder, weirdly, if the Giants aren't being similarly proactive and already have most of their gear packed up for the offseason. I mean, when you're 35 1/2 games out, it's not like you're going to need it or anything.

Besides, it gives them ammunition for that letter to MLB commish Rob Manuel the Blob wondered about six weeks ago.

Dear Commissioner:

Can we go home NOW?

Look, we've already got our bags packed and everything. So it would be no problem. Really. Really-really.

Yours in pointless hanging-aroundness,

The San Francisco Giants

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Diminishing legacy

Peter Edward Rose has never been the sharpest knife in the drawer, nor anyone you could trust to tell the truth when lying through his eyeteeth was an option.  But at least you might have assumed you could leave your teenaged daughter alone with him for five minutes or so.

Apparently not.

Apparently Rose had a thing for under-aged girls back in the day, which adds a fresh layer of sleaze to a human being who more and more reveals that his ability to hit a baseball was his only redeeming virtue. Certainly nothing about him outside the batter's box merits anything but scorn, and perhaps pity.

Comes now court documents alleging Rose had a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl back in the mid-1970s, which qualifies as statutory rape in the state of Ohio. Even more appalling, perhaps, is Rose's defense for this.

He doesn't deny it. All he says is he thought the girl was 16 (and therefore of legal age of consent). Which I guess in Pete's mind is supposed to make it OK, except for the fact that Pete himself was 34 years old at the time.

Uh ... no. Sorry. That just makes you icky, Pete. And gives the creeps to those of us with a working knowledge of common decency and civilized behavior.

So here we are. Not only is Pete a degenerate gambler who willfully violated baseball's third rail and continues to lie about it, he's now also a sicko with a taste for high school girls.

On the other hand, he used to run to first base when he drew a walk. That makes up for the rest of it, right?

Right?

Monday, August 7, 2017

The great experiment

Or, you know, not so great.

Which is to say, this is either some wild fling of the dice Dolphins coach Adam Gase is up to down there in Miami, or it is further proof that he is a genius in embryo. Certainly it's reasonable to question if he's stripped a mental gear, bringing in a man with Jay Cutler's taint simply because Gase once got along with him in Chicago. But it's also reasonable to question if some of the questioning is happening because so many people simply don't like Cutler personally.

The Blob's verdict: It's a little bit of both.

To be sure, this looks like a wackadoodle move on the surface. Bringing in any new quarterback at the last minute like this -- especially when you've rebuilt a positive locker room chemistry the way Gase did last year -- would raise an eyebrow. But to bring in someone with Cutler's sour rep as a player who doesn't care enough and can't lead? If he couldn't unite the guys who knew him in Chicago, how's he going to do it with a bunch of strangers?

Especially when there's already a backup QB in Miami (Matt Moore) who's enormously popular in the locker room, precisely because he's apparently Cutler's polar opposite?

This would seem to be asking for XXL trouble, but Gase thinks it's worth that trouble, and Gase is an up-and-coming coaching talent who got 10 wins out of the Dolphins last year. So maybe he believes the newly minted Dolphins Way will enable Cutler to fit in the way, say, Randy Moss did with the Patriots.

If so ... and if Cutler can stay healthy ... this could work.

It could work not only because the Gase-Cutler collaboration worked two years ago in Chicago, but because Cutler does have some considerable skills. In that aforementioned 2015 season, he completed 64 percent of his passes for 3,659 yards and 21 touchdowns, against just 11 interceptions. The year before, he completed 66 percent of his throws for 3,812 yards, 28 TDs and 18 picks.

Of course, Cutler played in 15 games both those seasons. He played in only five in 2016 because he got hurt (again!). And that is another problem: Cutler hasn't played a full 16-game season since 2009, when he threw 27 TDs and 26 interceptions.

Which of course is yet another problem.

Yes, he throws too many picks. Of course, he's not the only quarterback who's ever done that. Brett Favre threw too many. Jim McMahon, the quarterback of those fabled '85 Bears, threw too many as well -- was, in fact, more careless with the football than Cutler.

The difference, of course, is that Favre and McMahon were incomparable leaders, and Cutler is not. And so their pick-throwing was portrayed as a go-for-broke desire to win, while Cutler's is portrayed as simple recklessness.

Truth is, the man's got skills. And in the right environment, he could light it up. Gase is clearly betting he can provide the right environment, as he once did before.

We shall see.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The cost of glory

This is the weekend to celebrate what football gives, if you are lucky and gifted and determined enough. Six men went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton last night, from an owner (Jerry Jones) to a placekicker (Morten Anderson) to two running backs (Terrell Davis and LaDainian Tomlinson) -- one of whom, Tomlinson, so movingly implored America to rediscover its best self you were ready to print up LT for President bumper stickers.

But this is not about that. This is about what football taketh away.

This is about what another Hall of Famer, Jim Plunkett, said about his life the other day, which is not what anyone would wish for a man of 69. He has artificial knees and an artificial shoulder and, last year, he suffered from Bell's Palsy. He takes a minimum of 13 pills a day, suffers from crippling headaches and is in pretty much constant pain.

Yes, football gave him glory. But it left him broken beyond repair.

He is not alone, of course. I can never watch the Hall of Fame induction, for instance, without remembering what I saw the weekend I covered Rod Woodson's induction eight years ago.

One afternoon I sat in the lobby of a downtown hotel in Canton, and watched the heroes of  my childhood parade past me. There was Mel Renfro, walking with a cane. There was Joe "The Jet" Perry, no longer remotely jet-like. And there was Willie Davis, the great defensive end of the Green Bay Packers, hobbling gingerly through the lobby like a man walking barefoot over shards of glass.

Football gave them glory. And left them broken.

Plunkett, for one, has had 18 surgeries and, by his estimation, at least 10 concussions. What those concussions might lead to we have already seen too many times; even Davis, the newly minted Hall of Famer, admitted he worries about CTE these days, worries about what it has stolen from so many and what it might yet steal from him.

And, yes, this is undoubtedly where some reading this will say, "Well, what they knew were getting into." Or, "Well, it was their choice to play football." But neither is really true.

First of all, brain damage and early-onset dementia is not what anyone thought they were getting into, because the NFL went out of its way to tell Football America that brain damage and early-onset dementia weren't risks associated with playing football.  And second of all, talent very often effectively removes choice from the equation.

You choose to play the game when you're a kid, when you're 8 or 9 years old and it's just something fun to do. But if you show some aptitude for it, choosing not to play becomes less and less realistic. First you become a star in middle school. Then you become a bigger star in high school. And by the time the letters from the colleges start coming in the mail, choice is pretty much out of the equation.

The colleges, after all, are offering a free education in return for your willingness to use up your body. In many cases, they're offering it to parents who couldn't hope to afford that education otherwise, and who, like all parents, hold close the American dream of offering their children a better life. And so you either play college football, or you ... what?

Quit and go work three jobs to pay for school?

To be sure, a lot of people do it that way, but only because they have to. No one with the options available to a star football player is willingly going to spurn those options. And so where is the choice here?

And where is it when you get drafted in the first round and land that first outlandish contract?

"Ah, see," some of you will see about that. "They got paid a lot of money to play football. So they shouldn't be complaining now."

But sit in that hotel lobby, and watch the broken icons hobble past. Read about the brain damage, the dementia, the wrecked afterlives of those who give us our bread and circus every Sunday afternoon in the fall. And tell me any amount of money is worth all that.

Maybe you can still do it. I can't.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The usual suspects, unsuspected

Max Scherzer deserves a tip of the Blob's cap this a.m., even though it's not wearing one. He turned on a lightbulb the other night that should have been turned on awhile ago.

What Scherzer did was hit his first career home run, and it was no gasping shot that needed a ladder to clear the fence. It was a monster he hit 381 feet into the second deck.

A pitcher. Hitting one into the second deck.

Think about that for a second, and then think about what's happening in baseball generally, and then tell me your next thought doesn't travel back in time 20 years. To, I don't know, 1997 or '98. When suddenly there were all these muscle-y guys in baseball. When suddenly baseballs were flying out of parks -- way out of parks -- in unbecoming numbers.

Back then, the explanations were that the ball was juiced, and that players were spending more time in the weight room, and that they were simply swinging for the fences more than they used to.

Which is exactly what we're hearing now, as baseballs fly out of parks -- way out of parks -- at unbecoming rates again.

Some numbers: Since 2014, the number of home runs hit in the major leagues is up a staggering 38 percent. The number of homers tagged 450 feet or longer is up 31 percent in the last two years. And this year, the number of home runs per team per game is at an all-time high of 1.19.

We all know what that sort of trend augured 20 years ago. We've even got a name for it: the Steroids Era.

Yet now, somehow, hardly anyone is talking about PEDs in relation to the latest power surge. It's the ball. It's swinging for the fences. But it can't be PEDs, because that would mean MLB's stern drug policy was doing what all drug policies eventually do: Lag behind the development of new performance enhancements.

I don't want to be the buzzkill who says that's what's happening. I have no evidence that it is, other than the fact that the players getting busted for PEDs these days are all getting busted for using old-school steroids. Which, taken with the power surge and all the muscle-y guys showing up again, at the very least suggests the possibility there's new stuff out there baseball can't test for yet.

I hate the cynic in me who compels me to say that. But we've seen this before, haven't we? And heard the same things before?

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Defining presence

Permanence is the great unattainable for matters of the flesh, except when it is not. A man or woman can achieve great things in life, but few ever become synonymous with those things, ever transcend mortality to become carved in stone on, say, a mountain in South Dakota, or in some leafy glade on a college campus in northern Indiana.

And so we come to Ara Parseghian, gone now at 94, and Notre Dame football. Who were of one piece for an entire generation of us, a generation that will never think of Notre Dame football as anything but Ara and Terry Hanratty and Jim Seymour, and particular measures of time in a childhood now passed.

Ara, for instance, will for me always be that hour after church when I'd come home and turn on my TV, and there would be Navy unable to move the ball, so they punted to Notre Dame. Lindsey Nelson would forever be moving on to further action in the third quarter. And for some reason, instead of Hanratty or Theismann or Tom Clements, it was always Cliff Brown -- the first black quarterback ever to start at ND -- who was calling the signals.

Ara was that hour for me, even though I wasn't really a Notre Dame fan. He was a November afternoon in 1966 in East Lansing, Mich., when Bubba Smith knocked Hanratty out of the game and Coley O'Brien had to replace him, and the Irish and Michigan State played to a 10-10 tie in the first Game of the Century -- one which forever marked Ara, fairly or not, as the Guy Who Played For The Tie.

Of course, he was also that night in 1973 when the Guy Who Played For The Tie became a riverboat gambler instead, instructing Clements to throw out of his own end zone to tight end Robin Weber, thus preserving Notre Dame's 24-23 win over Alabama and Ara's second national title.

He left not long after that, at the still-young age of 51. Notre Dame football would go on with other men on the sideline, and some of them would win national titles, too. But with the possible exception of Lou Holtz, they would never define football at Notre Dame the way Ara did.

Perhaps that was a function of age, of our generation growing to adulthood and losing some of that child's wonder that makes things like football at Notre Dame seem so much larger than life. And perhaps some of it was also the fact that Ara never coached again anywhere, while Holtz went on to his strange afterlife at South Carolina.

Perhaps, too, it was Ara's own afterlife, which was noble and unbearably tragic at the same time. He lost three teenaged grandchildren to a rare disease. He lost one of his own children. And he was indefatigable in leading the fight to find a cure for the disease that killed his grandkids, becoming as synonymous with that as he had been with Notre Dame football.

And now he is gone, after the full measure of a rich and purposeful life. Cliff Brown is gone, too, passing in 2012. And of course Lindsey Nelson has been gone for 22 years.

Notre Dame football, on the other hand, starts up again in a month.

Or, you know, something vaguely like it.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Speaking Ray-ese

... in which the Blob tries, and fails, to decipher whatever the heck Ray Lewis said this time.

What Ray Lewis said this time, in the guise of fatherly advice to Colin Kaepernick, was this: "The football field is our sanctuary. If you do nothing else, young man, get back on the football field and let your play speak for itself. And what you do off the field, don't let too many people know, because they gonna judge you anyway, no matter what you do, no matter if it's good or bad."

Uhhh ... OK.

But does Ray not realize that Kaepernick is trying to get back on the football field, only no one in the league will let him?

And if you keep your activism quiet, as Ray suggests, is it actually activism?

And if people are going to judge you anyway, no matter what you do, what's the point of keeping your activism quiet?

Inquiring minds want to know. 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Welcome to the cesspool

Restraint has always been a watchword here at the Blob, except on those occasions when it's not. So it's not going to go all nuclear here and say AAU ball is the ruination of basketball as we know it, with its sketchy characters and misplaced priorities and the coddling of young players' already outsized sense of entitlement.

What it will say instead is it's a damn cesspool.

Witness what happened last week, when a "coach" with whom all of America is familiar was allowed to dictate the removal of a game official because she made a call he didn't like. The "coach," of course, was LaVar Ball, paterfamilias of the ballin' Balls. His youngest son, LaMelo, was the star of Dad's AAU team, and one of the tournament's top draws.

Keep the latter in mind. It's the most important factor in all of this.

It's important because Adidas put a lot of money into this particular tournament, and it didn't want one of its star attractions to flee the scene. So when the game official, who happened to be a woman, made the offending call, and LaVar (telling her to "stay in her lane" like the sexist pig he is) demanded she be replaced immediately or his team would leave, you know what happened.

Adidas caved and replaced her. In the middle of the game. Even though she was a respected NCAA Division I women's basketball official.

I'm not saying this alone makes AAU ball a complete joke. I'm saying it's one of many things that make AAU ball a complete joke.

The rules that govern the sport elsewhere are warped all out of round in the bizarre universe of AAU ball, where "coaches" (quote marks deliberate) wield more power than those charged with making sure the integrity of the game itself is protected. That Adidas allowed Ball to eventually yank his team off the floor after a subsequent call does not absolve it from failing to back its game officials.

If Adidas, or the enterprise it was bankrolling, cared at all about the legitimacy of that enterprise (or the game itself, for that matter), it would have told LaVar Ball he needed to stay in his lane, and that if he couldn't do that, he knew where the door was. And don't let it hit you in the hindparts on the way out.

Alas, Adidas didn't do that. But again, this wasn't really basketball.

It was AAU ball. Different animal altogether.

Cubs win! Part Deux

Well. I guess this really has morphed into the roll of all rolls, there on the north side of Chicago.

First the Cubs turn around their trudging season.

Then a Cubs fan baits New Jersey governor/national punchline/not terribly bright guy Chris Christie into further making an ass of himself.

And now ...

Steve Bartman gets a ring!

In the sort of magnanimous gesture we see too little of these days, the Cubs have given Bartman the ultimate payback for all the garbage he went through because of one night in 2003. They've given him a World Series ring.

Frankly, it was the least they could do for the guy, who the Blob has always maintained was blameless in the whole interfering-with-Moises-Alou thing, on account of Alou never would have caught the ball Bartman reached for anyway. One, it was already over the rail when Bartman touched it. Two, at least two other people can been seen reaching for it on the video. Three, it had nothing, zero, nada to do with the Cubs losing that night.

But Bartman was made the scapegoat. One sleazebag Chicago columnist outed him publicly. He had to go into hiding for awhile. And all because fans, and Cubs fans in particular, aren't rational creatures.

So good for him. And good for the vast majority of those Cubs fans, who have cheered the move as loudly as some of them once booed Bartman.

Nicely played, Cubbies. Nicely played.