Friday, July 5, 2013

"The Year", The Pittsburgh Pirates, And The Truth.

The phrase has passed the lips of every fan of every team of every sport at one point or another: "This could be the year."  It's more talisman than utterance, more affirmation than statement.  It's saying the magic words, an incantation to the team and invocation of the Gods.  It's not an every-season thing, obviously, because sometimes the writing is just plain on the wall, and your team is not coming within a stone's throw of success, even if they're using a catapult.  But sometimes, we say it and we mean it.  With enough luck, if most of the team stays mostly healthy, if things break right at the perfect time or at least avoid breaking poorly and the worst possible moment, it becomes a truth and a hope and a dream.  "This could be the year."

And as fans, the meaning of that phrase is a given.  No one has to ask what "The Year" is, because it's the same thing for everyone: a championship.  Champagne and jubilation and your team riding on parade floats down your city's main avenue.  That's what you envision when you invoke the magic words.  "The Year" is this rosy, diaphanous thing in the lexicon of every fanbase.  Every fanbase, that is, save one. 

If you happen to root for the Pittsburgh Pirates, "The Year" is almost assuredly not concerned with the World Series.  You've probably heard, but the Bucs have a sustained track record of ineptitude to rival that of any organization in sports.  (Yes, I am aware that the Charlotte Bobcats exist.)  To wit: The Pirates have finished with a sub-.500 record every season for two decades.  That a team could miss the playoffs for twenty straight years seems statistically improbable; that a team could fail to win even half their games for twenty consecutive seasons defies belief, yet that's exactly what the Pirates have done.  Last time the Bucs won more games than they lost in a year, the first President Bush was in the Oval Office, Boyz II Men's "End Of The Road" was #1 on Billboard's Hot 100, and the term "email" had yet to be coined.  I imagine that, if any Pirates fan has used the phrase "this could be the year" in the two abysmal decades since, they weren't thinking about October glory so much as just a nice, pleasant season in which the team managed to win more than 81 games. 

To that end, it appears that this may in fact be "The Year" for the Pirates.  Here is a thing which is true: Pittsburgh has the best record in baseball right now.  Not the NL Central, or even the NL, period.  In all of baseball.  Again: Pittsburgh.  Best.  Record.  In baseball.  This is not a typographical error. 

Despite such an encouraging start, there is, of course, plenty of fretting among the Bucs faithful.  Cautious optimism is the only kind that fanbase has known for a long time, and even a first half as auspicious as this year's is no guarantee of anything.  (See: 2012.)  There are real baseball concerns like whether or not the pitching staff can continue their superlative performance through the stretch drive.  There is also, because it's the Pirates we're talking about after all, irrational, fatalistic dread. It's the sort of apprehension that comes from having watched a team repeatedly, completely, utterly wilt after (if not long before) the All-Star break.  They're waiting for the other shoe (injury? surging Reds team?  Inexplicable decline?) to drop.  Twenty years of abject misery will to that to a body.  Twenty years and one of the slowest, most perfectly mustachioed baserunners in the history of the game. 

Sid Bream's slide in 1992 effectively murdered baseball in Pittsburgh.  As a Braves fan, it was one of the great moments of my young sports-watching life, but I can see how, given everything that's happened to the Bucs since, that slide has come to embody the whole sorry mess of bad trades and worse luck and collapse after collapse after collapse.  (I was at Turner Field last year for the 20th Anniversary commemoration/bobblehead giveaway of the Sid Slid game, and there was a guy a few rows down from us wearing a Pirates cap and a homemade t-shirt that read: "Twenty years of lies.  Sid Bream was out.")  And I get it.  It's the same pathos that causes me to refer, to this day, to a long-retired Minnesota Twin as "Kent F****** Hrbek" or Red Sox fans to still call a 61-year-old man "Bucky F****** Dent" or Clevelanders to call pretty much everything "Awful, Demoralizing, Heartbreaking F****** Sports."  Some moments you just never let go of. 

Admittedly, I used to revel in the Pirates' failures.  They were the Braves' fiercest NL competition for two or three seasons, and a heated rivalry flared up during the incredible '91 and '92 NCLS.  Thing is, that rivalry was ultimately too short-lived, with too little history attached, to really hold water two decades removed from its inception.  I'll never stop hating, say, the Phillies, but I long ago discarded any real animosity for the Bucs.  Which brings me to a sentence and a sentiment that little-kid me who watched Sid Bream's slide could never have imagined writing.  I am rooting, actively and more than a little fervently, for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  And so should you, if you have a heart.  Root for them because not even Bills fans are this miserable and the Bucs faithful need something, anything, good to happen.  Root for them because it's a fun team miraculously playing over their heads and Clint Hurdle seems like a good guy.  Root for them because watching a team, finally, mercifully get off this kind of historical schneid is gratifying and even a little life-affirming.  Mostly, root for them because every fan should be able to say the magic words from time to time, with hope resting in the truth of possibility.  Root for them because, after all, this could be the year. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Brief Time Well Spent: Michael Turner And JoAnna James

A few days ago, the first reports surfaced on ESPN and other outlets that the Falcons were likely going to cut Michael Turner sometime this offseason.  A few brilliant playoff moments aside, our workhorse back has seen his production decline at a near-precipitous rate over the past few seasons.  You didn't even need to check the stats to recognize that The Burner was not really himself anymore.  He was right there on the TV screen, hitting the hole with zero force of impact, his legs no longer churning with the implacable force that once made him so difficult to bring down.  Of course, not all or even most of this is Turner's fault.  Former OC Mike Mularkey wore him out prematurely with a staggering amount of carries despite having the personnel to distribute the backfield workload far more equitably.  The loss of Ovie Mughelli, whose ability to clear a path for the ball carrier cannot be overstated, didn't help either.  It was inevitable, given the circumstances, that such a physical back would lose the explosiveness that made him special.  The overwhelming consensus seems to be that Turner's time in the ATL is at a close. 

There is a tendency among fans to slightly (or occasionally dramatically) overvalue our own.  Because we watch our teams with more frequency than any others, we see every contribution and every hustle play, regardless of whether or not they appear on a televised highlight reel.  During his peak, I thought Turner was criminally underrated by the national media, despite all evidence to the contrary, because I watched him absolutely pummel so many defenders every Sunday.  How could this man not be considered elite?  Aside from, you know, the fact that he wasn't actually one of the three or so best backs in the league.  We appreciate these players far more when they wear the home jersey than we ever would otherwise.  And so over the past few days, I've found myself grateful for Michael Turner's time here, and I've found myself thinking of a songwriter from Minnesota that, and pardon the indie-snob cliche here, you've probably never heard of. 

I probably would not have discovered JoAnna James had she not been a friend of a friend of a friend.  She wasn't exactly in my buddy Mike's musical wheelhouse, but he nonetheless threw on her second album, "Desire," in the car one sunny afternoon.  It's funny that I remember him being almost dismissive about it: "Hey, I saw this girl play the other night, you might enjoy her stuff."

I did.  What I heard glided effortlessly from ethereal pop to gritty twang to darkening soulfulness to some eerie, alchemical space off the map.  It wasn't perfect, mind you.  Some of the songs were overly direct and maybe even a little sophomoric, lyrically speaking.  But.  My God.  That voice.  Through a stereo, it was lovely and powerful and rich.  In person, it had roughly the same effect as that flash of light had on Saul on the road to Damascus. 

It is 2005.  There is a bar on 6th Street in Minneapolis called Gluek's, and JoAnna James has a permanent residency slot there on Tuesday nights.  When you meet her, she is slender and slight; she cannot be taller than 5'4" or so.  The first thing you notice is that she has the bluest eyes you've ever seen.  When her smile lights them up, which it does frequently, they are electric.  The second thing is that JoAnna James the person is sweet and humble and wryly self-deprecating and has almost nothing in common with JoAnna James, Force Of Nature, who will be reappearing on stage as soon as this set break is over.  She stands there at the mic, brandishing that gorgeous Rickenbacker 330 as the band slinks and struts through the intro.  Then she opens her mouth and ... well, you'll describe this as soon as your breath and some portion of your mental faculties return.  You have just been aurally gobsmacked by JoAnna James' pipes.  There is no way someone that tiny should have that voice.  It's a hurricane wrapped in a thermonuclear detonation.  Her range is phenomenal, her control perfect.  The depth of her feeling is astounding.  Whether she's tenderly cooing "Lucky Strike" or bouncing the raw fury of "Molasses" off the back wall, that voice envelops your world.  JoAnna James contains multitudes. 

Back in the present, I think about the fact that for two years I was fortunate enough to see JoAnna James live probably twenty or thirty times.  Every time, without fail, that voice left me deleriously, joyfully shell-shocked.  Then it was time for her to move on.  JoAnna went out to L.A. to pursue her dreams.  Were those nights at Gluek's or The Fine Line or 7th Street Entry the same as, say, seeing Mahalia Jackson in her prime?  Probably not.  But in the moment, with the thunder of that voice rolling out over you and all creation, they were surely incredible. 

That was Joanna James.  And, from 2008 to 2010, and occasionally thereafter, that's what watching Michael Turner run the rock was like.  Thanks for everything.  Both of you.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Notes On A Half Decade Of Found Objects and Strange Treasure.

I didn't realize it until I got home late last night, but Hardwood Paroxysm turned 5 years old yesterday.  Basketball, and particularly its NBA iteration, produces the highest across-the-board quality writing of any sport (this is technically a subjective opinion but also true), and f I were to list all the excellent basketball blogs available for your perusal on the internet, we'd be here a very, very long time.  That said, if you asked just about any hoops head to make such a list, I'd bet you all the money Antoine Walker no longer has that HP would be among the first sites mentioned.  So why am I about to dedicate a large swath of celebratory text to this anniversary, you ask?  What exactly is Hardwood Paroxysm?

In a literal sense, it's a basketball blog that was created five years and a day ago by Matt Moore and which has been home to a large number of extremely talented writers over that period, but HP's ethos has never been overly concerned with "literal."  Here you find a rare and unique confluence of detailed analysis and abstract thought.  There is wry humor if you want it, and heavy questions about life, and poetry, and nonsensical yet utterly engaging ramblings.  Here, statistics can have a quiet drink with alchemy, and the conversation will inevitably find its way to reasons why Kyle Lowry is criminally underrated.  Constructs are erected and torn down.  These people are not afraid of oblique angles.  They embrace them, in fact. 

Basketball, of course, is the nominal reason HP exists, but that seems reductive.  In the artisan hands of the writers, this game that we love so dearly becomes a prism, a means of refracting and reflecting our world and ourselves in new and interesting ways.  When I click on my bookmark to get here, I get excited in a way that I really don't about any other space on the internet.  OK, whaddaya have for me today?  I might learn about which Grizzlies lineups grab the most and least defensive rebounds, or how an undrafted backup point guard had a killer game at Summer League.  I might read about how watching a team got someone through a tough breakup.  I might stumble onto a rumination on Jarrett Jack's Twitter attacks of Ray Allen and Dwight Howard and how they remind someone of Andy Warhol's early work.  (This post hasn't actually been written, but it probably could be, and that's the beauty of the whole thing.) 

HP works in part because the people involved are scientists in that they want to figure out how and why things in basketball and life function the way they do; there is a true spirit of inquiry.  But far more importantly, it works because they aren't just colleagues, they're friends, with each other and with us, after a fashion.  They teach us, everyday, more about hoops, but in intensely personal ways.  We trade quips and observations with them on Daily Dime Live.  We come to know them through their work because it's never just about the game.  It's about us, and them, and shared adventures.  It's about joy and love and how we communicate those things to each other. 

HP has been a perpetual source of wonder and happiness for me since its inception.  It has been a sanctuary and a beacon, and just downright ineffably special.  And so I want to thank Matt Moore for this creation he birthed and the inspiration and beauty it's given us.  I want to thank everyone who has written on the site for their wit, opinions, and heart.  And I want to wish Jared and Amin the best of luck in continuing the work.  (Spoiler alert: they're going to do a phenomenal job.) 

Happy 5th birthday, Hardwood Paroxysm.   Many happy returns. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Taking My Mind Off Of Other Sports: Ten Teams To Enjoy This NBA Season.

I'll write the Chipper piece later.  Let me get some distance, chronological, emotional and otherwise, from Friday night's sad and ugly final punctuation mark on his career.  I'm depressed about the loss, pissed about that infield fly call, and embarrassed as hell by the fans.  Or rather, the portion of the fans who briefly lost their collective minds at Turner Field and started behaving like a bunch of depraved assholes.  We take a lot of guff, Atlanta fans do, for supposedly not being as passionate about our teams as other cities.  If that was a display of "passion", well f*** it, then.  I'd rather deal with a lifetime of insults from the neanderthals in Philly, New York, and Boston than be associated with the kind of hive-mind psychosis that leads to throwing batteries at players or games being literally called on account of riot.  (Cleveland Indians, 1974.  Look it up.)  I spent the entirety of that 20-minute bottle-chucking lapse of sanity standing in the stadium concourse with my best friend; both of us Atlanta sports diehards since birth.  In between long stretches of appalled silence, the one thing we kept repeating by way of conversation was some variant of: "I can't effing believe this is happening.  Atlanta fans never do this kind of stuff.  What the holy hell is going on?"  We were as outraged by that (egregious, awful, horrible) travesty of a call as anybody, but sweet jeebus, people, there is a line between normal anger and outright stupidity, and a chunk of the crowd crossed over the damn thing like it didn't exist or they didn't care or both.  Southern hospitality, my ass.

Sadly, that was only the start of of one long, slumping weekend for Georgia sports teams.  The Yellow Jackets put up a fight but were ultimately outplayed in all phases by a feisty Clemson squad in a loss that cost Tech's D-Coordinator Al Groh his job.  The Dawgs ... I don't want to talk about what happened in Columbia.  That wasn't a football game, it was a slow parade of visceral humiliation.  Or, to put it less poetically and far more accurately: Carolina kicked Georgia's asses up and down the field for four quarters.  End of story.

Two things salvaged the weekend: A phenomenal show by Grace Potter at The Tabernacle Saturday night (seriously, go see her live if you get a chance!!!), and the Falcons playing a sloppy first three quarters but ultimately pulling it together for a win over Washington to remain undefeated. 

Oh, and one other thing.  That bright burst of light flashing across the sky like a beacon of hope or the Bat Signal or some other damned explosion of heart and grace and purpose.  That's right, folks: Basketball!!!  Preseason is underway, and things tip off in earnest the day before Halloween.  For an outstanding season preview from the reigning HEAVY-WEIGHT CHAMMPPPEEEN OF THE WOOOOOOOORLLDDDDDD!!!! of basketball writers, skip on over to Grantland and soak up Zach Lowe's breakdown of all 30 teams.  I was contemplating a full-on NBA 2012-2013 preview, but frankly, Lowe dropped the mic and walked off stage with that piece (as if we expected anything less) and there's just no need for an inferior reproduction from me.  Instead, here's a list (in no particualr order) of the 10 teams I'm most excited about watching this year:

1. Miami.  For reasons that should be obvious.  A. Watching LeBron is always worthwhile.  B.  Will Wade stay on the court this season, or is his career going to be truncated by injuries?  C.  How will they function now that they've scaled Championship Mountain?  Can they maintain the drive towards sustained excellence of MJ's Bulls and Kobe's Lakers, or will the satisfaction of what they've achieved dull the gut-check propulsion necessary to repeat not one, not two, not three, not four...?
We'll see.

2.  OKC.  Did you spend a decent portion of the off-season wondering how the NBA Finals would have turned out if Eric Maynor had been healthy?   Me too.  Are you intrigued to see what kind of impact new draftee Percy Jones III has on an already exciting team?  Me too.  Are you ready to watch Russ to explosive, enigmatic Russ things?  To see if the Durantula continues to develop his game while assaulting another scoring title?  Me too!!!  Do you wonder if The Beard might, maybe, be less than the awesome force we all think he is?  Me too.  Gosh, we have a lot in common. 

3.  The Lakers.  Yeah, yeah, I hate them, you hate them, we all hate them.  And yes, I wrote a whole piece about how their acquisition of Dwight Howard made me much, much less inclined to watch them.  You know what?  Screw it.  They're running out four future Hall of Famers, including arguably the most devastating offensive backcourt of the past 15 years.  There frontcourt is downright terrifying.  Not even Mike Brown can screw this up.  As long as Father Time doesn't wrap his icy fingers around Nash's back or Kobe's knees, their floor is an almost certain trip the Western Conference Finals, with a ceiling that extends all the way to hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy.   

4.  Indiana.  The Pacers put the fear of God into Miami in last year's playoffs before LeBron went into full transcendental virtuoso mode, and they smartly retained the core responsible for that.  There's just something charming about this Indy squad.  They're a fun group of guys with complimentary styles of play and, when the key cogs are all in high gear simultaneously, capable of giving any team in the league a good battle. 

5.  My very own Atlanta Hawks.  If you think that's a shameless homer pick, hang on a second.  I'll put Horford and Smoove up against any starting frontcourt in the land, Devin Harris may be the best backup PG in the NBA (which is always a nice luxury) and, alternately, pairing him (at the two) with Jeff Teague will play havoc on opposing defenses.  We have a truckload of perimeter snipers (I see you, Lou Williams and Kyle Korver), Zaza, Anthony Tolliver (great acquisition), and everybody's favorite bench big Ivan Johnson should be sound rotation contributers.  Oh, and we're going to use this small, speedy assortment of cats to run like hell.  We're Nuggets East at this point.  Title contenders?  Not a chance, but I'm calling this team early (continuing the Denver analogy) for League Pass Darlings of the season.

6.  The Clippers.  Blake Griffin has moved from Must Watch Highlight-Making Slamma Jamma to OK, what else ya got? in near record time.  He can catch oops all day, but his shooting stroke and defense need serious refinement, and it's unclear whether he's willing to put the work in to become a more complete player.  (And he's on the short list for guys whose wallets get dinged the hardest by the NBA's new flopping policy.)  Which direction he chooses will have an immeasurable impact on L.A. not just because he's the ostensible franchise cornerstone, but because it will have a direct effect on how compelled CP3 might feel to stick around.  Also: Grant Hill!  I like Grant Hill. 

7.  The (hang on, I still have to get used to typing this ...) Brooklyn Nets.  The new Jay-Z designed uniforms, the dawning of an era, the potential clash of the Russian mob with the long-established Italian and Irish crime syndicates in New York ... uh ... Brook Lopez, I guess?  OK, there's not a lot of tangible reasons to watch this team, but it's a new team, the first professional sports franchise in Brooklyn since forever, and they have the potential, depending on how the Knicks' season unfolds, to usurp a decent enough portion of the Madison Square Garden crowd's affections to start a legitimate rivalry.  Let's all enjoy the ride. 

8.  Denver.  Even though I hope the Hawks usurp their League Pass Must-Watch crown, how can you not love this team?  Manimal and JaVale fo'eva!!!  'Nuff said.

9.  The Timberwolves.  Obviously, this mostly applies once Rubio returns, but there are a bevy of fine reasons why you should be tuning in from jump.  Kevin Love being Kevin Love.  AK-47 and Derrick Williams.  Free from the Darko Curse!!!  (Oh, Boston, I'm so sorry.)  And the biggest and best incentive of all: the potential redemption of Brandon Roy.  We all remember Roy going off in epic fashion against Dallas in the playoffs two seasons ago, and how we were so glad he could muster one more stellar effort before staggering of into the sunset on his ravaged knees.  If he can mount any sort of comeback, and especially if Rubio can come back at something close to 100% by February, this becomes the most lovable team in basketball.  Here's hoping that happens.

10.  New Orleans.  Fear the brow.  Fear The Brow.  FEAR THE BROW!!!!!!  Ahem, sorry.  But, you know, fear the brow. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Night In A Car Alone: A Brief Rumination On Irrational Fandom.

Being fans is a fascinatingly irrational part of our daily lives.  Whether it's a psychopathic overreaction to Kristen Stewart cheating on Robert Pattinson (and seriously, have we come to this, people?) or going near-catatonic over a humiliating playoff loss (like I did after the Falcons' atrocious showing against the Giants last year), the idea that we would emotionally invest in people and their exploits with virtually zero reciprocity is counterintuitive to the point of foolishness.  We cede certain territories of our souls to the objects of our fandom, and ask that they keep those fiefdoms in good repair.  Sometimes they're kind enough to oblige.  More often, those little geographical soul-areas are left with the weeds choking out all other flora and covering over the dilapidated buildings.  And yet, we keep going back to the well. 

We do this because, especially in this age of internet unilateral consciousness cum digitized isolation, we badly need real-world affirmation.  The nod to the person on the street wearing the same ball cap we're wearing.  The high fives with the random people in the stadium or the sports bar after a big play.  Fandom, even the long-suffering variety, is a balm for the countless bruises we sustain on our hearts and minds because we can share it.  Perhaps especially when it's also the cause of said bruises.  This paragraph is overwrought and a dead-horse-beaten reprisal of a thousand just like it, but it's that way because it is rooted in truth.  Fandom matters because it imparts a fundamental sense of belonging to the fan.    

Of course, there are also the contradictory tendencies that come with devotion.  Most common and identifiable is the "player you hate now but would adore if they were traded to your team."  (Copyright: Bill Simmons.)  I mean, I'm fairly certain Cole Hamels is an irredeemable d-bag, but if I woke up tomorrow and he was miraculously on the Braves' playoff roster, I would go buy his jersey immediately.  (Obviously, there are exceptions for people like John Rocker.)  It really is incredible how the name on the front of the uniform can eradicate any negatives associated with the name on the back.

But this kind of thing is mostly harmless, and also falls into the shared experience category.  It's when you isolate us, when the act of rooting becomes a solitary thing, that the emotions that find release and reflection among our fellow fans turn inwards and can lead to the more illogical extremes of rooting.  When you can't vent with or express you opinions to other people about what's going on in the game, things can take a bizarre turn.  

Last night, I had possibly the most viscerally irrational moment of my sports fan life, and that, folks, is saying something.  

Here I was, alone, in a dark car at night.  After a ten-hour work day, all I wanted was to get home, crack a beer, catch the end of the Braves game, watch the second half of Bears/Cowboys, and go to bed.  Unfortunately, I was stuck in a torrential downpour of the sort that grinds traffic to a crawl because no one can see out of their windshield for the rain, creeping down 400 South at eight miles an hour.  So I was already tense and cranky.  On the radio, Don Sutton and Jim Powell were narrating as the Braves struggled to stage a late-inning rally on the Pirates.  Since the Nationals were losing to Philly, we still had a shot at the division.  We win out, they lose out, presto: NL East title. 

Now, here's where things got strange in my interior fan dialogue.  (Or, you know, sad.)  Instead of getting upset at our anemic bats for failing to get anyone across the plate, I became absolutely furious at the Pirates.  Their season, after all, is over.  These last few games are a formality as they stagger to another sub-.500 finish, when even a month ago their playoff hopes were so vividly alive.  They don't have any dignity to play for.  Sid Bream took it with him when he left the visitors' clubhouse in Three Rivers Stadium in '92, and it hasn't been back since.  There was nothing in this game for Pittsburgh ... so why didn't the bastards have the decency to roll over and lose?  Why did they insist on fucking up our season?  Why?!?!?!  I started muttering snide and petulant asides every time a Pirates batter stepped into the box.  "I bet your OPS is terrible, Josh Harrison.  I've never even heard of you.  And you're probably lousy at Scrabble, too."  I was trying to be funny for the audience in my empty passenger seat, but I swear to Craig Kimbrel, there was real vitriol behind every thought and word.  For whatever reason, I simply could not fathom why the Bucs wouldn't lay down and die, and it incensed me with rage.

Two things about this: First, it is likely better for the Braves that we lost last night.  We can rest Chipper, Mac, Prado, and anyone else who needs a breather.  We can set the postseason rotation.  We can focus on scouting the Cardinals as fully as possible.  We can take a beat, let the kids on the bench get some time without it being critical, and see where they're at.  Tactically, this is a superior position to mad-sprinting and nail-biting our way towards an almost certainly unattainable division title.  And I knew that last night.  I knew losing that game would probably be better for the Braves in terms of the postseason, yet I still desperately wanted us to win that game.     

And second, why on earth should I want or expect the Pirates to just give up?  Truthfully, I'm afflicted by far more saccharine sentimentality than a proper 21st-Century sports writer ought to have.  I confess that to a great extent, I love all the "spirit of competition" and "majesty of sport" and "triumph of human will" jazz that gets spouted in the form of tacky aphorisms by certain ESPN personalities or in the pages of SI.  The thought of striving in the face of long odds or playing out the string for the love of the game fills me with warm fuzzies.  (Yes, I am a sap.)  In any other circumstance, I'm sure I would have thought the Pirates quite noble for playing hard even in the ashes and wreckage of another lousy September, made all the worse because things looked so promising for so long this year.  

But I didn't.  I was just pissed that these clowns were actually trying.  Again: I ascribed zero blame to the Braves' hitters who kept leaving runners stranded on base; it was all on the opposition for actually, well, opposing us.  And it occurred to me that I would never have felt this way if we were playing, say, the Brewers.  Because Milwaukee has been a pretty good ball club these past few seasons.  It was the notion of a lesser team, a weaker team, having the gall to step into our path.  In a brief moment of utter madness, I had become a bourgeois fan.  I felt entitled to my team stomping all over someone else purely because they were supposed to.  God help me, I'd turned into a Yankees fan.

I have no idea what possessed me.  Normally, I'm passionate but not irrational in my fandom, and not prone to these sorts of bile-fueled funks.  For whatever reason, last night set me off.  My neural pathways were shorted out, and temporarily replaced with idiocy.  Being a fan is strange that way, sometimes. 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Scattershot: Desultory Musings From Around College Football

Welcome to this week's edition of Scattershot, in which we delve into the Pac-12's logic puzzle, nonexistent defense, uber-existent offense, and the foundations of dominance showing the tiniest microfractures here and there.  As James Brown (the Godfather of Soul, not the NFL halftime personality) would say, "Let's get it on the good foot!!!"

And Speaking Of Good Feet ...

Middle Tennessee State did unspeakable things to Georgia Tech's defense, courtesy of one of the most dominant rushing performances I've ever witnessed.  Some kid name of Benny Cunningham, a senior who until yesterday had only racked up 91 yards and two scores all season, pummeled, dodged, juked, and smoked the Yellow Jackets to the tune of 217 yards and 5 touchdowns.  We tend talk about running styles like we talk about famous guitar players; usually guys have a distinctive signature in the way they operate.  Conversely, Cunningham was like a studio musician out there, adapting to whatever the situation demanded and playing the style necessary for success.  When he needed to hit the hole running north-south, he did it.  When he needed to change directions behind the line or make ankle-shattering cuts in space, he did it.  And when he needed to run to contact and pick up extra yards by lowering his shoulders and putting DB's on their asses, he did that too. 

Last week I wrote that Al Groh's position might be in danger after Tech's awful second-half defensive showing against Miami.  I brought the subject up to a die-hard Jackets fan at work and he vehemently disagreed, arguing that Groh's schemes were full of good ideas but the defensive front gets zero push and you can't expect the secondary to cover forever.  He's not wrong, but at some point you have to start scheming to fit your personnel.  Groh has seemed unwilling to change things up, and yesterday he again failed to make adjustments that might have helped.  (Like, oh I don't know, a novel concept such as stacking the box when you're getting run over like a raccoon on I-75 South.)  I can't entirely fault Tech's D for being exhausted since their offense coughed up four turnovers which swung some critical moments, but I still say the Al Groh hot seat watch is permanently in effect until further notice. 

The Parker Posey Game Of The Week

Here's everything you need to know about yesterday's West Virginia/Baylor game:

Geno Smith (WVU): 45/51, 656 yards, 8 TDs

Nick Florence (Baylor): 29/47, 581 yards, 5 TDs.

"All right you little freshmen bitches ... AIR RAID!!!" (it's at 0:53 in the clip.)

Also, last week I wrote the following about Old Dominion's Taylor Heinicke (55/79, 730 yards, 5 TDs): "I'm fairly certain no other signal caller will come close to topping that performance this year."  Whoops. 

Standardized Testing

After Washington pulled off a stunner on Thursday night and upset Stanford 17-13, the PAC-12 resembles nothing so much as one of those annoying logic questions they used to ask on the SAT.

Washington beat Standford.  Stanford beat USC.  All three teams have only one loss. 

Yet the AP Rankings have USC #13, Standford #18, and Washington #23 (despite the Huskies' only loss coming at the hands of LSU.)

To reiterate: the national rankings are the exact inverse of the who-beat-who hierarchy. 

Q. So who's the best team in the conference?

A. Oregon.  Duh.   

Scrappy Is The Watchword

Speaking of the Ducks, both they and the Crimson Tide got more than they bargained for yesterday. Relatively speaking, of course.  I mean as much as teams like that can bargain for anything besides absolute obliteration of their opponents.  But they did resemble the heavyweight champ taking a few good shots in round one from his lesser challenger, and realizing that he has to respect that right hook at the very least.  Up against Ole Miss and Washington State respectively, Oregon and 'Bama weathered physical and feisty first halves from clearly inferior teams.  The Rebs and Cougars didn't flinch in the face of the two best teams in the nation, playing with fervor and abandon, hoping to make up in reckless arrogance what they lacked in talent.  Of course, inevitably, they got stomped.  Oregon did their gonzo-blitzkrieg routine in the third quarter to put the game far out of reach for Wazzu, who trailed by only 3 at the half.  Alabama had a tougher row to hoe, as the Rebels' vicious defense limited them to a mere 6 second-half points.  Luckily for the Tide, their own D came up with three picks and held Mississippi to 14 total points, enough for a comfortable victory overall, despite the bumpy ride.  It wasn't exactly a red letter day for the Rebels and Cougars, but even causing us to think "hey, they could make a serious game out of this" for a half was impressive in itself.     

DEE-FENSE!!!  DEE-FENSE!!!  Dee ... oh. 

The SEC East's two juggernauts showed some flaws yesterday on D.  Georgia gave up a ridiculous 44 points to Tennessee, including 20 unanswered that gave the Vols a 2nd-quarter lead.  To be fair, there were some mitigating circumstances involved in this ugly, ugly win.  Tennessee is actually a decent team this year, and Tyler Bray is no slouch at QB.  Also, it appeared early on that Georgia had some slight difficulty adjusting to the return of defensive standouts Alec Ogletree and Bacari Rambo.  Though it seems counterintuitive, getting those two excellent players back threw Georgia off a little from their established defensive rhythm until they settled down.  Those caveats aside, the Dawgs' crystal football aspirations won't allow for this kind of defensive showing against anybody else for the rest of the season, especially next week at South Carolina. 

Speaking of the Gamecocks, 17 points doesn't seem like a terribly egregious tally to cough up ... unless it's against Kentucky.  Yes, Steve Spurrier's team clamped down when it mattered and pitched a shutout in the second half, but they were behind 17-7 to the pathetic Wildcats at intermission which, frankly, can't happen if they want a legit shot at the Georgia Dome in a few months.  We'll see which team can most effectively recalibrate over the week when they meet next Saturday.

Your Weekly Notre Dame And FSU Are Relevant Again! Update 

The Irish moved up a spot to #9 in the rankings despite not having played a game this week, thanks to Stanford's loss to Washington.  They'll have the opportunity to justify the move when they play the Cardinal in South Bend on October 13th.  

The 'Noles swapped places with LSU to wind up at #3 after a 30-17 victory over South Florida.  It was s good win, but their uptick in the rankings probably had more to do with the fact that the Tigers gave up 22 points to something called "Towson."  Presumably this is an institution of higher learning which also fields a football team, but I honestly had never heard of them.  Oh well, they gave Les Miles a good fight.  I salute you, random CAA school.

Enjoy the NFL games.  Happy Sunday.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Out Of Hand

I think maybe I ought to call it quits on this whole writing thing.  I'm obviously wading around in the shallow end of the talent pool.  They say brevity is the soul of wit, but to adhere so closely to that axiom while simultaneously expressing the views of millions in a single tweet ... well, Brandon Spikes is clearly a superior wordsmith to this humble author.  After last night's debacle of a Patriots/Ravens game capped yet another comically horrible Sunday of scab NFL officiating, the Pats' linebacker managed to capture the feelings of players, coaches, media, and fans in just 137 eloquent characters:

"Can someone please tell these f****** zebras foot locker called and they're needed Back at work !!!! #BreakingPoint"

Breaking point, indeed.  You hear that, Roger Goodell?  The guys on the field are tired of it.  They are tired of milling around for five minutes, their muscles tightening up as their concept of flow and game pace disintegrates, while these pathetic officials parse out what exactly the hell just happened.  They are tired of obvious penalties being missed and phantom ones being called, and then walked off for arbitrary and incorrect amounts of yardage.  Mostly, they are tired of this game they play and love being warped into something uncertain, unrecognizable, and unpleasant.  Spikes wasn't the only one to violate the NFL's Gestapo "don't criticize the officials" edict, either.  Several other players, either obliquely or flat-out, voiced their increasing displeasure with the shoddy refereeing.  Which is fine so long as it remains that way.  They'll shoot off at the mouth or on their Twitter accounts and you'll fine them for it and life will go on.  But what happens when and if "breaking point" becomes something more than a Twitter hashtag? 

In 2004, I watched in horrified fascination as Ron Artest charged into the stands of The Palace at Aubrun Hills and punched a fan, the result of a game-long buildup of tension and frustration and a beer launched from the stands that showered Artest as he lay on the scorer's table.  It was one of the most appalling moments in sports history, and it did significant damage to the NBA, lending credence to every "thug" stereotype that, for whatever reason, people still bandy about today.  Now, Ron Artest is a certifiable crazy person, and it's a fair bet that most players in both the NBA and NFL would never, ever, do something legitimately violent no matter what the provocation.  But that was one bad game and a cup of beer.  Extrapolate the frustrations the players feel now, compounded game after game after game, then couple that with the mental and physical toll of an NFL season.  Is it so hard to imagine a player in week 15, his body aching and his nerves shot, fed up with too many bad calls and longer-than-necessary games, finally snapping?  If this situation doesn't get fixed, sooner or later a scab ref is going to blow a big call in a crucial game, and someone on the field is going to haul off and deck him for it.  Then where will your precious "integrity of the game" be?    

If the players are about ready to lose it, the coaches aren't far behind.  Bill Belichick was the one who actually grabbed an official at the end of the game yesterday, but it could easily have been any of the other coaches whose teams suffered under the incompetence of the scab refs.  If, for instance, the Vikings had lost yesterday, Leslie Frazier could have waylaid official Ken Roan for those two (TWO!!!) illegal challenges he went ahead and granted to Jim Harbaugh's 49ers.  Truthfully, it could have been every coach in the league, because all of them had egregiously horrible calls go against their teams at one point or another.  I'm no Belichick fan, and I even feel like yesterday was a little bit of karmic payback for every 50/50 call the Pats have gotten over the past decade.  And yeah, grabbing an official, especially when the league issued a perfectly clear warning about such behavior, was not the brightest move.  That being said, the man wanted to know whether the game deciding play was going to be reviewed, and the officials ignored him.  They were told by the league to walk away whenever they were being hassled, even if that hassle was a simple inquiry as to the process which determined the outcome of a game against a division rival.  To my way of thinking, Belichick didn't go far enough.  He should have cornered the guy and demanded an explanation.  If Roger Goodell doesn't want the refs questioned, he should bring back refs that no one (most of the time) needs to question.  Frankly, I don't care anymore about "respecting" the officials, who have done nothing to deserve it.  They have no mandate or authority whatsoever.  Understand, I don't blame them; they were simply unprepared to cope with the game at the highest level, but the league is clearly uninterested in policing them, and somebody's got to.  Bill Belichick will probably be fined and possibly be suspended, but he was entirely justified.  This isn't the last time something like this will happen, either.  If Jim Schwartz can get this worked up over a handshake, Lord only knows how furious he'll be over a bogus pass interference call. 

And then there are the fans.  Staying with the Baltimore/New England game, last night featured a full minute of this from the crowd at M & T Bank Stadium.  If you've ever been at a sporting event where the home team was the victim of a dubious officiating call, then you know there are graduated levels of fan reaction:

1. Scattered boos: A called third strike or a questionable off sides penalty, etc. in non-crucial situations.  Low-level disgruntlement and general homerism.  

2. Scattered boos + profanity and epithets aimed at the official in question: An iffy call in a more critical situation, or in a game against a traditional rival.  Your team got seriously hosed.  Mere boos aren't enough and you need to lob some invective and shockingly specific sentiments at the people responsible.

3. Coordinated chants in the spirit of the game.  Sometimes, you need to call out an official for a particularly atrocious penalty, but you do this acknowledging that these things happen to every team from time to time.  As such, you perform a spirited (yet ultimately fueled by bleak and grudging humor) group rendition of either: the rhythmic "REF YOU SUCK" chant, or the sing-song  "BUUUUULLSH****T!" chant (the latter of which is sung to the interval of a doorbell ringing, a minor third.  Just sing it out in your head like a doorbell and you'll know what I mean.)  This is designed to voice your frustration while alleviating any real anger through collective release and the understanding that everyone else in the arena is upset too. 

4. Soccer Hooliganism/Last night.  Listen to that audio again.  Those fans aren't commiserating with one another; there's no wink-wink, it's-all-part-of-the-game joyous indignation in that sound.  That's a minute-plus of "BULL-SH*T!!!!" chanted fervently and with a primal edge.  There is real malice behind it; a pathological sense of anger and indignation.  This is mob mentality, and it's scary stuff, and the league should be worried about it.  Can you imagine if last night's game had been played in, oh, say, Philly?  Yeah, that would have gone well.  This is the kind of thing that is one step away from a drunk fan rushing onto the field and assaulting a referee.

All of which doesn't even mention the gamblers.  A pissed-off fan is nothing compared to a guy who bets a few grand on Dallas covering the spread and then must watch that money evaporate into the ether via a bad officiating call that negates a touchdown.  Mark my words, there is at least one person out there who routinely lays heavy timber on the outcomes of NFL games who might become unhinged after a few weeks of this abject nonsense screwing with his cash flow.  Will this push them to do something drastic?  I'd like to think otherwise, but I wouldn't bet on it.

#BreakingPoint.  It's not just the tag line to an isolated tweet, it's a brief and accurate summation of how everyone involved with the NFL who isn't an owner or league official feels today.  As Jackie MacMullan wrote earlier today: "Enough.  Enough, enough, enough."

Just as I was finishing this post up, the Monday night Packers/Seahawks game was also decided on a horrific call.  Seattle's Golden Tate just "caught" a last-second touchdown heave to give the Seahwaks the win.  Problem: Packers' safety M.D. Jennings clearly came down with the ball.  The review, which the officials saw from multiple angles, somehow failed to overturn the obviously erroneous call.  (Not only did Green Bay make the interception, but Tate clearly commited offensive pass interference on the replay.)  Everything is in disarray.  Tirico and Gruden are sitting here killing the refs, who for some reason are still trying to figure out if an extra point needs to be kicked.  The Packers, rightfully disgusted by this whole travesty, have left the field, as have most of the officials who now seem disinterested in the whole affair.  Oh, wait, here come the Packers, putting eleven men on the field for the extra point, dutifully playing out the end of this farce.  This is horrible.  I feel dirty even watching it, but it's a morbidly appropriate end to this pathetic weekend.  

The difficulty is that, like millions of Americans, I'm still watching.  Steve Young told us last week, in no uncertain terms, what we instinctively knew but didn't really want to hear or believe: that so long as our eyes are on the TV and our wallets are emptying for RG3 jerseys, the NFL could care less about any of this.  Sadly, he was not wrong.  They don't care.  At all.  

One final incident worth noting.  We have heard for the better part of two seasons about how player safety is paramount.  If you make illegal hits, if you endanger your fellow players, the consequences will be steep and swift.  The players' health matters; the integrity of the game is oh so very, very important.  This is what we've been told.  And yet.  Yesterday Oakland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey ran a crossing route through the end zone and got absolutely, illegally speared by Steelers safety Ryan Mundy as he attempted to haul in a pass.  On the replay, Heyward-Bey was clearly unconscious before he even hit the turf.  He was immobilized and rushed to the hospital, from whence he was released today with a concussion and a strained neck. 

No flag was thrown on the play, nor have we heard anything from the league about fining or suspending Mundy.

To reprise that Baltimore crowd last night: BULLSH*T!!!!