Archive for category Sports

First Impressions

Last night’s 1-0 Virginia win over Florida in the College World Series was, for me, anyway, an exercise in the power of first impressions, and the value of keeping score.

Florida’s offense had looked scary the whole post-season, winning games with 19, 11, 13, and 8 runs.  Their only close game was in the regionals, the 2-1 clincher over Florida Atlantic.

So when Brandon (don’t call me “Rube“) Waddell opened up with a 20-pitch first inning, including an opening out that was a couple of feet short of a home run, a walk, and a hit batter, it stayed with me the whole game.  The impression was one of a starting pitcher who got rattled by that first batter almost taking him deep, and took a while to settle down.  It was reinforced by a lead-off infield single in the second, and aided by the ungodly amount of time he was taking between pitches.

He was certainly throwing hard, but he wasn’t striking guys out.  And because Virginia only put up the one run, and because its pitching had been shaky (Waddell’s own stats this year haven’t been world-beating), and because college baseball is still shaking off its decades-long reputation of having beer-league softball scores, it didn’t feel dominant, it felt like Waddell was tiptoeing on the edge of disaster.

Had I been keeping score, I would have seen how much he was owning the Gators.  His line until the 8th – when he left with nobody out and runners at the corners – really was dominant.  From the 2nd through the 7th, Waddell faced only one batter over the minimum, and had only two baserunners in all.  He averaged something line 10 pitches an inning during that span, but it wasn’t until the 7th that I looked up and realized the Florida pitcher, Puk, had thrown 10 more pitches than Waddell had.  But because of that shaky first inning, where appeared not to have the confidence to pitch to the batters, I spent the better portion of the game not realizing that he had settled into a lineup-killing rhythm.

The lesson?  Bring a scorecard.


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Lacrosse Title Follows Me to Colorado

The University of Denver won its first NCAA Division I lacrosse title over the weekend, bringing the title west of the Mississippi for the first time since the tournament started in 1971.  I suspect coach Bill Tierney had more to do with the team’s success than I did.  Tierney earned my enmity and respect as coach of Princeton, where he turned that program into a national powerhouse in the 90s, winning 5 titles, a couple of them over Virginia in overtime.  Some are arguing that this win makes Tierney the greatest coach of all time, and certainly there’s a strong case to be made.

In some sense, Colorado was just waiting for a Bill Tierney to come out here and do this. The state is one of the few west of the Mississippi where lacrosse is popular, and both CU and CSU have done well in the club championships in past years.  CSU has won the club title 6 times, twice over Colorado, who also won in 2014 before losing in this year’s finals, so there’s a talent base out here.  Still, only seven of the team’s 45 players are from Colorado; Tierney’s also been able to recruit from all over the country.

This year, Tierney beat both Big 10 and ACC schools – Notre Dame and Maryland – on Championship Weekend.  Those of us over a certain age can’t quite get used to the fact that Maryland was the Big 10 school, and Notre Dame from the ACC.

In some sense, this could only have happened in a time of an expanded tournament.  Gone are the days when an 8-team tournament was dominated by Virginia, Maryland, Cornell, Carolina, Hopkins, and Syracuse (and later Princeton).  The sport has a much broader base, with Duke, Notre Dame, and Loyola having made appearances or won titles in recent years.  In some sense, that’s Tierney’s doing, too, since he broke Princeton into the top tier at a time when the ACC habitually held down three of eight tournament slots, and winning the Ivy League was his only realistic route to the Championship.

Tierney has built a serious program out here, and is likely to win more titles before he’s done.

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Last night was the last Big East Tournament Championship.

Louisville, which I still can’t think of as a Big East school, won the title for the 3rd time in the last 5 years, defeating a real Big East school, Syracuse.  After this year, about half the conference will have fled for the ACC, others will head to the Big 10.  Some will remain as sort of a rump conference, nicknamed the “Catholic 7.”  But it’s really the end of the conference.

One of the game announcers defied the conventions of his job and offered actual insight: conferences used to be regional associations of like-minded schools, usually of similar size, but not always.  So the SEC, the ACC, the Big East, the Big 10, and the Pac 8/10/12 all had personalities.  So did the smaller conferences.  Now, with all the shuffling to get TV money, they’re really just division of the NCAA.  There’s little regional about them (Maryland, enjoy that trip to Lincoln).  Syracuse looks nothing like Clemson, except for orange, and the longstanding rivalries have been diminished by not playing home games every year.

I’m not a conference luddite.  Adding Georgia Tech made sense for the ACC, and it always seemed like an ACC school.  Southern, reasonable size, good academics.

But I freely admit I’m a college sports reactionary.  I like the idea of conferences as being incubators for meaningful rivalries.  I like the conference tournaments to mean something.  In 1976, for example, Virginia won the ACC, and in the field of 32, the conference got two slots: U.Va. and UNC.  The Big got two teams: Indiana and Michigan, and they ended up meeting in the Championship.  Now, for better or worse, Duke or UNC loses the ACC final, and we’re told it won’t even cost them a No. 1 seed.  The conference tournaments are basically reduced to a second-chance lottery for the teams on the bubble, or even those on the outside looking in.  In 1976, UNC got in anyway, but Maryland, the #2 seed, probably got bounced by losing the Virginia.

If a conference chose not to pick its champion by having a tournament, that was their call.  For decades, the Big 10 and the Pac 8/10/12 didn’t have conference tournaments.  Growing up with the ACC, I thought that was weird, but ok, it was also their business.

Conferences also had distinctive styles of play, distinctive personalities.  The Big East was a tough, physical conference of big centers and tall front-courts.  For a while, they went to 6 fouls per player, and it probably ended up hurting them in the tournaments.  The ACC was about guard play and ball-handling.  They started the 3-point line experiment.  The hated Four Corners (keep-away, really, but it did still require serious ball-handling skills to pull off), could only have come out the ACC, and eventually led to the college shot clock.  The Pac-8/10/12 was UCLA, and then not much else for a long time.

Twenty years ago, when the independents started fleeing for cover – Florida State to the ACC, Penn State to the Big 10, Notre Dame to NBC, it should have been clear that something was afoot.  What was afoot was that, with the protection of a conference and its TV contracts, teams wouldn’t feel a need to schedule these teams, and lose to them for, well, nothing.  Eventually, the same logic extended to conferences.  When the “mid-majors” started getting better, the “power conferences” wouldn’t schedule them any more, since that easy payday was starting to look riskier to national title hopes.  All those extra NCAA bids which were supposed to go to the #3, #4, #5 power conference teams suddenly started going to the #2 and #3 teams from the mid-majors.

Rather than accept the more level playing field, the power conference solved their problem by luring away the best of the top mid-major teams and expanding.  Football was driving the bus on the major conference re-alignment, like sending Utah and Colorado to the Pac-8/10/12, but don’t think Big East basketball didn’t see the advantages of getting Marquette safely under its wing.

So now, in world that supposedly celebrates diversity, conferences, teams, and tournaments will all look more the same than ever.

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The Summer Game in Fall

The Saturday night movie was “Trouble With the Curve,” the latest Clint Eastwood offering.  A rom-com with professional complications and a baseball backdrop.  You can’t screw up baseball – the owners have proven that, try as they might – but you can make a predictable, formulaic rom-com, and that’s what they’ve done here.  It’s not exactly paint-by-numbers, but they’re not painting the corners, either.  The characters are, for the most part, barely one-dimensional and overplayed, at that.  Even the final, dramatic showdown between pitcher and catcher misses an obvious trick.

The movie aspires to be a sort of anti-“Moneyball,” with Clint playing an aging scout who thinks his eyes and ears can tell him stuff that the kids’ computers can’t.  That baseball is cruel and unfair won’t be news to fans.  But that it compounds the normal cruelty of high school athletes may come as a surprise to some.  The games are what they are, but the action for the scouts isn’t in the results, but the process.  The reason you need scouts for high school is that any major league prospect is going to so outclass his competition that the results at that level don’t suffice to distinguish between prospects and true star power.  But remember, in “Moneyball,” the whiz kids weren’t using SABRmetrics to scout high schoolers, but under-valued major- and minor-leaguers.  So the portrait of baseball resembles an Escher drawing – the details are right, but they’re placed in a world that doesn’t exist.

Clint and Amy Adams as his daughter turn in nice performances, as does Justin Timberlake, and while neither of the two younger actors has the resume of Eastwood, they can hold their own on the screen with him.  Eastwood is smart enough to know that actors bring their body of work with them to whatever new roles they play, and some skillful use of some footage of a younger Clint helps allude to the outside-the-rules Eastwood that we all remember.

Two, maybe two-and-a-half stars.  As usual, the real game is better.

Especially when your childhood team is finally playing meaningful ball in September.  In this case, that’s the Orioles.  September 2007 was magical here, and I was working a block away from Coors Field.  I got to see a couple of Rockies wins during that stretch, saw the play-in game against the Padres, and saw the two NLCS wins against Arizona, including the clincher that sent them to the Series.  But there’s nothing quite like seeing the team you rooted for as a kid go to the playoffs.

I subscribe to the radio broadcats at something like $15/year, and Joe Angel is back doing the games after a purgatory in Yankeeland.  In fact, even as I write this, I’m listening to the Orioles broadcast, and watching the Yankees play the A’s on TV.  Would that it were the other way around, but TBS seems to have some sort of contract that requires them to show Yankees games.

On the rare occasions that the Orioles have been on television it’s been fun to see Camden Yards full again,and the ads for local brands that I had forgotten about, like High’s Ice Cream.  Camden Yards was the first of the retro ballparks, and still one of the best, with the warehouse in right field, and the Bromoseltzer Tower in past center.  It replaced one of the other trendsetter parks, Memorial Stadium, which doubled for the Colts, and really long-time Orioles fans watched a lot of games there.

So one thing that’s been a little disheartening is the crowd cheers.  In Memorial Stadium, there was a guy name “Wild” Bill Hagy who used to lead a cheer from Section 34, spelling out “O-R-I-O-L-E-S” with his body as the crowd shouted out the letters.  There’s even a blog named for it.  Now, it’s basically the same soundtrack as here in Colorado, so it’s probably the same soundtrack as most parks these days.  I know “franchise” implies a certain uniformity of product, but I don’t think that means that the experience has to be the same at every ballpark.  You want to think there’s something different about your team, that just because the players are interchangeable these days, doesn’t mean the teams are.

You like to think that the team’s success is the payoff for all those old fans who’ve suffered through 15 years of losing seasons, and then you realize that by definition, there just aren’t that many who will stay interested through that kind of a spell.  And when you talk about a cheer they haven’t used in 20 years, you sound like the guy 20 years ago who was reminiscing about how hard it was to pick up the ball against the white shirts in center field in Memorial Stadium.

But you know, who cares?  O-R-I-O-L-E-S!

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Raider Nation

Let me be clear: I hate the Raiders.  I have hated the Raiders ever since I was a small child, rooting for the Redskins who had, at the time, no discernible rivalry with the Raiders. I couldn’t stand the Cowboys, but if ever faced with my personal football Armageddon, I would have rooted for them to beat the Raiders in any Super Bowl.

Yes, my AFC team was the Broncos (making the 1989 Super Bowl a bonanza), but then, I had relatively good feelings about pretty much every AFC West team.  They were fun, free-wheeling old AFL teams.  I knew of the Chiefs from the trickeration they used in Super Bowl IV.  The Chargers had those cool, powder-blues, played in the sun, and were sunny, Southern California.  The Broncos, of course, were the Wild West personified.

Except the Raiders.  I needn’t rehearse here the moral failings of the franchise or their owner.  They wore black, embraced their own evil, and who was I to argue?

So why am I rooting for them to win today?

Because, at little-to-no-cost to the Chiefs, the Raiders can make history by winning every division game and failing to make the playoffs.  They have taken care of the most basic of business – dominating their division – and even that will have bought them nothing.  Outside the division, they have beaten only the woeful Rams and the Seahawks, which was probably just for old times’ sake.

Football, with all its mythical story lines, rarely provides this sort of poetic opportunity.

I will root for the Raiders to win, so that the failure of their season will be all the more exquisitely perfect.

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Don’t Assume

I’m rooting as much as anyone (well, maybe not this guy) for the Lakers to win the series. But for those of you who don’t think you have to watch Thursday, that the series is over:

  • 1984 Game 3: Lakers 137, Celtics 104.  Champion: Celtics
  • 1985 Game 1: Celtics 148, Lakers 114.  Champion: Lakers
  • 1988 Game 5: Pistons 111, Lakers 86. Champion: Lakers
  • 2000 Game 5: Pacers 120, Lakers 87. Champion: Lakers

Look, each series is different, and these aren’t all parallels to the current series.  But the point is that momentum doesn’t really exist in championship series, and certainly isn’t created by one blowout game.

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How ‘Bout Them Rockies?

I should know by now.  After the Giants put two across in the top of the 14th, I turned off the broadcast.  It had been a nice game, but the Rocks had more or less tossed it away earlier on Tulowitzski’s baserunning error, and their inability to make anything of all their men on third.  That had made it 3-1, and I figured I needed to concentrate on the County website.

So naturally, when I go to check the scores, they’ve won 6-4.   Instead of being back where they started when the Giants came into town, they’ve opened up a 4 game lead for the Wild Card, and closed to within 3 of the Dodgers.  The Dodgers, by the way, are in town for a 3-game set starting tomorrow night, so it’s possible – although extraordinarily unlikely – that the Rockies could be tied for first by the weekend, and playing for home field in the NL playoffs.  They have played close to .700 ball since the beginning of June, come back from almost dead last in the league (the Nationals have had that pinned down since early April), and are now seriously thinking about playing in October again.

Apparently, the Colorado Rockies are simply a force of nature.

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Rockies Tumble

I never liked the intentional walk. I’ve always believed that the intentional walk messes up the pitcher’s rhythm. He’s trained and trained to throw pitches, and you’re asking him to interrupt that to play catch for four tosses. You’re also facing the next batter’s on-base percentage, as opposed to the first batter’s batting average.

But I especially don’t like the intentional walk when your pitcher nearly sends the first pitchout over the catcher’s head. If they guy’s that tired, and just hanging on, why on earth do you want him facing a power hitter – even a journeyman power hitter – with the bases loaded? Pretty much everything Jim Tracey has tries this season has worked, but he left Rincon in for exactly one pitch too long, and even I saw it coming.

CORRECTION: Franklin Morales came in to pitch, forcing the Mets to pinch-hit Tatis.  So Tracey didn’t leave Rincon in one pitch too long at all.  The hazards of multi-tasking.  That said, you’re still almost always making the odds against you worse by putting more men on base with the same number of outs.

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