The Guardians Of The ‘Land

Something pretty amazing happened yesterday. The Cleveland Guardians beat the Texas RAngers, 10-4, and clinched the American League Central division title. It’s Cleveland’s first division title since 2018, and it is a pretty amazing development because no one–except perhaps the Guardians themselves–thought they had even a remote chance of winning the division. Many pundits picked the Guardians to finish last, with a record below .500.

The reasoning of the baseball know-it-alls was easy to understand. During the off season, Cleveland didn’t really make any significant free agent signings or other big moves. Instead, the Guardians made the decision to give the kids in their farm system a chance, and came out of spring training with the youngest team in the majors and a roster filled with rookies. The Guardians’ management then wisely entrusted the team to the capable hands of Cleveland manager Terry (“Tito”) Francona–who has a rare talent for spotting a team’s strengths and playing baseball in a way that accentuates those strengths.

Francona recognized that the Guardians had a core of good starting pitching, and he has always been a wizard at putting together a good bullpen, fitting the pitchers into designated roles, and then employing the staff to minimize scoring by the opponent without exhausting and burning out his stars while building the bullpen’s collective confidence. Francona teams also traditionally play sound defense, to complement the pitching.

On offense, though, the challenge would be scoring runs. These Guardians don’t have players (other than stalwart Jose Ramirez) who bash home runs by the bushel. Instead, they developed into a team that, from rookie leadoff hitter Steven Kwan on down, plays a classic brand of small ball that emphasizes patience at the plate, stringing together singles, speed and theft on the basepaths, and constantly looking to put maximum pressure on the opposing defense. You’ll see an occasional home run, but what you’ll also see are Guardian players routinely going from first to third–and then perhaps scoring on an error due to a bad throw from an outfielder or catcher. It’s the kind of baseball that players like Tris Speaker or Honus Wagner from the early 1900s would have understood and appreciated.

Lately, as the Guardians have played their division rivals the Twins and the White Sox, the combination of pitching, speed, and stout defense has worked like a charm. The team has won 18 of its last 21 games and sprinted to the unexpected division title. And behind it all, Tito Francona must be feeling an immense sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in melding a young, rookie-filled roster into a pretty darned good team that seems to be peaking. Francona should win the American League manager of the year vote, hands down.

The playoffs loom ahead, and it will be interesting to see how the Guardians and their “small ball” approach fare against teams like the Astros, Rays, and Yankees, with rosters filled with well-known stars and lots of post-season experience. Cleveland has struggled against the better teams this year, in match-ups that came earlier this season. But regardless of how the playoffs come out, this year has been an amazing performance by an exuberant and energetic young team that is fun to watch, and their brilliant manager who has carefully put the pieces together to find a winning combination.

I’ll be rooting for them, as always. Go Guardians!

Hike Ohio: Conkle’s Hollow

The autumnal equinox has come and gone, the weather has cooled off, and the feel of fall is all around us. That means it’s time to don the thick socks, lace up the Oboz hiking shoes, and head out to one of the cool hiking trails you can find in and around central Ohio. Our destination yesterday was Conkle’s Hollow, a state nature preserve located in the Hocking Hills near Logan, Ohio.

The Hocking Hills region is a sprawling and beautiful area of woodlands and interesting rock formations that is home to many camps and hiking areas. Located about an hour and a half south of Columbus off Route 33, Conkle’s Hollow is one of the many potential destinations in the area for someone looking to get outdoors, enjoy some scenery, and breathe in some big gulps of fresh autumnal air. Not surprisingly, we weren’t the only ones who decided to visit Conkle’s Hollow yesterday.

When you arrive at Conkle’s Hollow, you’ve got a choice–you can take the gorge trail, which runs along the bottom of the hollow, beneath the canopy of the towering trees, or you can take the longer rim trail, which takes you up to the top of the rock walls that make up the gorge. The rim trail is apparently more rugged and also requires more care, as it winds past some spots where there are sheer falls in the event of a misstep. We decided to take the gorge trail to kick off our hiking season, and leave the rim trail for a later trip.

The gorge trail is an easy hike, and some of our fellow visitors were families with young kids. There is lots to see on the gorge trail, too. Almost immediately, you notice the sheer rock cliffs to each side, towering hundreds of feet overhead. The photo directly above, with the trail and the trail sign, gives you a sense of the immense scale of the rocky walls. Many of the trees growing from the bottom of the gorge were dwarfed by the cliff faces.

After a half a mile or so, the paved trail ends, and a dirt path takes you farther back into the gorge, where you see many of the most interesting rock formations. The air is decidedly cooler in the gorge, and you don’t get much direct sunlight in view of the towering rock outcroppings and tree cover. The filtered sunlight almost makes you feel like you are underwater as you follow the trail, and makes the green shades of the tree leaves, moss, and plant life seem a lot greener.

At many points along the trail there are small caves and grottos, as well as areas where water from above is falling to join the small stream running along the floor of the hollow. In the past, you apparently could explore more of these formations, but the damage done by hikers (and, sadly, some people who can’t resist carving their initials into rocks, as shown in the photo above) has caused the preserve to limit hikers to the trails. That’s okay with me: I’m willing to forgo an up close and personal look if it means that the pristine state of this beautiful area will be preserved for future generations to enjoy.

As you approach the end of the trail, the walls to each side close in, bringing you to the end point of the gorge. The middle of the floor features a small winding stream, with lots of rocks to hop on and felled trees. The kids in the family groups that were with us in this area had a riot leaping from rock to rock and balancing on the logs.

On this part of the trail, the contrast presented by dark shadows of the caverns make the green tree leaves and plants seem even brighter and greener. Whether you look forward, as in the picture above, or backward, as in the picture below, this part of Conkle’s Hollow was a study in black and different shades of green. Chartreuse, emerald, lime, fern, olive, seafoam, juniper–an artist would need a pretty loaded palette to do it justice.

The end of the trail takes you to the last cleft in the gorge, shown below. Water drips down from above into the pool that has accumulated below the cleft, and the dripping sound echoes against the rocky walls. A small ray of refracted sunlight illuminated the point at which the falling water hits the pool. It’s a beautiful scene, and it made us glad to choose the gorge trail for our first visit to Conkle’s Hollow. We wouldn’t have wanted to miss this serene little scene on a crisp early autumn day.

Hike Ohio: Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve

Hike Ohio: Kokosing Gap Trail

Hike Ohio: Dripping Rock Trail

The Long, Dark Night Of The Soul

If you are a Cleveland Browns fan, you know how I feel. If you are not a Cleveland Browns fan, imagine every happy thought, every sunny day, every warm, decent feeling you’ve ever experienced, ripped painfully away as you are thrown headlong into the blackest pits of unending despair.

The Browns continue to find new, unimaginable, impossible ways to lose. Today was, perhaps, the most ridiculous yet. And each time they do, their cadre of loyal, ever-hopeful fans go with them, thrust into hellish depths of failure. Even armored with the most resolute pessimism, Browns fans allow themselves to experience a glimmer of hope and a brief taste of potential victory, and inevitably, again, and again, and again, find their hopes crushed.

What can you say? It’s the Browns. The Browns are the dark side of sports fandom.

77

Ohio State played the Toledo Rockets, one of the best teams in the Mid-American Conference, last night. The Buckeyes were a heavy favorite, but this season many college football favorites have gone down to ignominious defeat at the hands of an underdog–and for a time, shifty and speedy Toledo quarterback Dequan Finn gave the Buckeyes’ defense fits. In a normal game, his playmaking ability would have been a cause of concern.

But this was no normal game. Finn’s heroics didn’t really matter, because the Ohio State offense played about as close to perfection as human beings can get. They scored 77 points against a pretty good team, and their offensive metrics were unbelievably gaudy. The team racked up more than 760 yards in total offense, including 482 yards passing and 281 yards rushing. The Buckeyes scored at least two touchdowns in every quarter–including four touchdowns in the first quarter and 42 points in the first half–and responded to every great play by the Rockets quarterback with another score.

If I recall correctly, the Men of the Scarlet and Gray scored on 10 of 12 possessions, with the 12th possession focused on running out the clock at the end of the game. None of the touchdowns were on fluke plays or short fields; the team repeatedly put together long drives and chunk plays that shredded the Toledo defenders. The offensive line opened big holes for Ohio State running backs, protected their quarterbacks, and had only a few modest penalties. The Buckeye starters looked great, the back-ups looked great, and the back-ups to the back-ups–including freshman running back TC Caffey, pictured above, who kept his legs moving, escaped the pile, and took a 49-yard carry to the house–looked great. Coaches always find some flaw, less-than-stellar blocking technique, or missed assignment to coach up, and I’m sure the Ohio State offensive coaches will, too–but they are going to have to truly scour the game film to find much to discuss.

The Wisconsin Badgers come to town next Saturday, and with that game the Big Ten season will begin. Playing sound defense will be a lot more important, touchdowns will no doubt be much harder to come by, and last night’s performance against Toledo will fade into the background. But while the memory is fresh, I hope Buckeye Nation pauses for a moment and appreciates just how amazing last night’s offensive performance was. It truly was a game for the record books.

The Elf, Himself

I was on the road yesterday and happened to catch some sports talk radio hosts making fun of the Cleveland Browns’ new midfield logo, shown above. They were laughing at the idea that a football team would feature a giant elf on the field. They compared Brownie the Elf unfavorably to one of the old Rice Krispies elves, arguing that he looks angrier and somewhat disturbed. And they professed not to understand why an elf would be associated with the Cleveland Browns, arguing that a logo of a dog–due to the Dawg Pound section of fans in the stadium–would be a much better logo. .

The sports radio hosts are not alone in dissing Brownie the Elf and the Browns’ field. One article even suggests that the Browns specifically picked the elf logo to gin up controversy and distract from the team’s on-field problems last year and its dubious off-season decision to go all in for Deshaun Watson, the quarterback who was obviously facing a long suspension due to multiple claims of sexual misconduct.

I’m a supporter of Brownie the Elf, and evidently so are lots of other Browns fans–which is why the running elf won the poll the Browns ran to select their new midfield logo. And while I wouldn’t expect sports radio hosts or sportswriters to actually do any research before voicing their ill-informed opinions, I think Brownie is a great choice. Why an elf? It’s obvious: the team has long been known to fans as the Brownies, and a brownie is a synonym for an elf–just like pixie and sprite. The elf has been associated with the franchise for decades, much longer than the Dawg Pound, which didn’t really start until the 1980s. And the elf is showing fierce determination because he’s running the football and getting ready to give a devastating elfin stiff-arm to a would-be tackler.

I also like the elf choice because it says a lot about Cleveland, which has always gone its own way and marched to the beat of a different drummer. Lots of people have disparaged Cleveland over the years, but in reality it’s a great city with a lot of heart, a blue-collar mentality, and a quirky sense of humor, besides. Picking an elf for the field is just another way for Cleveland to show those qualities for all to see and reaffirm that the Best Location in the Nation isn’t worried about the tender sensibilities of sports talk show hosts or the conventional, boring, market-driven decisions of other NFL teams. And the fact that the running elf goes back to the days when the Browns were regularly competing for, and frequently winning, the NFL championship, doesn’t hurt, either. Given the Browns’ struggles since they came back to the league in 1999, why not pick a logo that harkens back to the team’s glory days?

I’m glad the Browns picked Brownie the Elf to grace the field. Now let’s just hope that this season we can celebrate what happens on the field, too.

Check The Weather Forecast . . . .

If the Cleveland Browns have won their first game, it can only mean that Hell has frozen over, dogs and cats are living together, and mass hysteria.

And speaking of hysteria, who wins a game by kicking a 58-yard field gold after a dismal fourth quarter collapse? Only the Browns! Their kicker, rookie phenom Cade York, will never have to buy his own dinner in Cleveland again.

Singing The Sad-Eyed First Game Blues

The first full day of the NFL season is here. For fans of the Cleveland Browns, like me, that means bracing yourself for another first-game loss to kick off the season. Every such loss, and every new season of failure, moves this once-storied franchise farther away from the glory days of Otto Graham, Jimmy Brown, Brian Sipe, Bernie Kosar, and other members of gritty, always competitive teams. Browns fans hope for the best, but fully expect the worst, because we’ve been so conditioned by futility we can’t have confidence about anything. And every year, we inevitably find ourselves singing the sad-eyed first game blues.

The Browns’ opening day record since they returned to the NFL in 1999 is mind-boggling. Their ineptitude in the first game is historic; no other NFL team even comes close. The Browns are a seemingly impossible 1-21-1. I’ve written about it before, and I’ll do so for as long as first-game losses continue to mount, because perhaps nothing better captures the sense of doom and defeat that Browns fans must endure. You would think that, over a period of more than two decades, a favorable bounce or some other good break might turn the tide in a game, but it never happens. We Browns fans are trapped in a repeating loop of disaster, absorbing gut punch after gut punch, and there doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel.

How will the Browns fare this season? Preseason tells us nothing, because most of the Browns’ best players didn’t play a snap. That’s makes it hard to draw any conclusions– which might be a good thing, because the team that did play looked pretty mediocre. I feel like the Browns have some talent, but I know from past experience that dumb plays, stupid penalties, and freakish occurrences have caused losses that shouldn’t have happened. The fact that the Browns will play their first game against their former quarterback Baker Mayfield also produces the kind of story line that seems tailor-made for another dismal Browns loss.

And yet . . . I continue to hope. Being a Browns fan is embedded deep in the core fibers of my being, and I just can’t help myself. I’m like the guy in the old joke who repeatedly slams his forehead into a wall, and when someone asks him why he is doing it, he says: “Because it feels so good when I stop.” Maybe, just maybe, this is the year it will stop.

A Football-Free Sunday?

Having watched a terrific college football game last night, my appetite is whetted for more. I’m ready to plop myself down on the couch, crack open a cold one, and watch some NFL football today. I’m ready to hear the pads cracking and revel in the extreme athleticism, speed, and power of oversized human beings racing around on the gridiron.

Except . . . there is no NFL football today. Even though we got a full slate of college ball last night, football fans hungry for another pigskin fix will be hearing crickets over the Labor Day weekend. The NFL regular season doesn’t kick off until Thursday. So what are football fans to do? Watch the U.S. Open, baseball, or golf? Catch up on HBO’s House of the Dragon? When you’ve got a hankering for clashes on the turf, nothing else really satisfies.

What’s up with this sad reality? Can’t the NFL schedulers and the college schedulers get together and declare that the football season is formally here, so fans can get into their normal Saturday college/Sunday pro routine? Getting only the Saturday half of the equation is like getting the yin without the yang.

Mr. Loudmouth Comes To The Horseshoe

We went to the Ohio State-Notre Dame game last night. It was a great, hard-fought game between two of the most storied programs in college football. The Fighting Irish lived up to their name and put up a tough battle, leaving the game in doubt until the Ohio State offense finally found its footing in the second half, the Buckeye offensive line asserted itself, and the running game helped the team grind out a clutch, 90-yard drive that finally put the game away, leading to a 21-10 win. I’m an old school football fan, and any game where good defense and the rushing attack make the difference is just fine with me.

But, speaking of old school, this fan who went to his first Ohio State home game more than 50 years ago was struck by the atmosphere and the hoopla surrounding the game itself. If you haven’t been to a game at the Old Horseshoe recently, you might be surprised by the in-game experience. Some might call it a feast for the senses; others would say it has become a cluttered confusion geared for people with short attention spans, where the new stuff is threatening to crowd out the traditional elements of a college football game.

Don’t get me wrong, some of it was cool. Last night’s game began with a pinpoint Navy parachuting exhibition, where the parachutists dropped into Ohio Stadium at high speeds and landed flawlessly on the field to the cheers of a huge crowd. I particularly liked the member of the parachute squad who swept into the stadium and onto the field trailing an Ohio State flag, as shown in the first two photos above. I also liked the concept of the drone formations that accompanied the band’s halftime show–although we couldn’t see most of the drone stuff, from our seat in B Deck, which made me wonder how many of the fans outside of the closed end had an unobstructed view–and also the mass cellphone flashlight waving, which made the ‘Shoe look like it had been invaded by a million lightning bugs. The South Stands, in particular, embraced the flashlight waving with gusto, as shown in the bottom photo of this post.

I was also happy to see that some of the traditional elements of a home Buckeye football game remain. The band’s ramp entrance, seen above, remains a central focus, and it never fails to get the fans amped. Script Ohio and a Sousaphone player high-stepping and dotting the i will never get old. The team’s rush onto the field has been jazzed up, with fire blasts, billowing smoke, and fireworks, but at least the band and cheerleaders are still part of it. I like that they continue to use at least some of the breaks during the game to trot people out onto the field for recognition; yesterday’s game honored a 100-year-old World War II vet, the OSU women’s hockey national championship team, and Coach Jim Tressel and the 2002 Buckeye national championship football team, among others. And singing Carmen Ohio with the team and the band at the end of the game is a sweet way to celebrate a win.

But there are other things that this old codger found annoying. Ohio State has hired some loudmouth guy with a microphone who presumed to instruct those of us in the crowd about what to do–like barking out commands for fans to “show their Buckeye spirit” or trying to start O-H-I-O chants as t-shirts are hurled into the stands–as if we really need to be told to cheer and get loud during an exciting football game. Couple Mr. Loudmouth with blasting rock and rap music during some breaks in the action and a few dumb on-field activities, like a relay race between teams encased in large inflatable balls, and you feel like some master planner believes that the fans will become hopelessly bored unless something really loud is happening at every second. And, if you haven’t been at Ohio Stadium since beer sales became part of the experience, be ready to stand up constantly for the beer drinkers in your row to pass by for repeated replenishment and depletion. Some of the guzzlers in our section went by so often we wanted to install a turnstile and charge a fee to let them pass.

I don’t think an Ohio State home game, in one of the most storied venues in college football, needs all of this sideshow stuff. It crowds out the opportunities for the band to play and for the cheerleaders to do some of their routines in front of the fans–which are two of the key things that distinguish a college sporting event from the pros. All of the noise also interferes with another nice part of the Ohio State football experience, which is to talk to surrounding fans, who are typically pretty knowledgeable about football, about the game itself. What a novel concept: football fans wanting to talk about football during the game without being prompted to do something by a loud guy with a microphone! I’d vote to give Mr. Loudmouth his walking papers, ditch the inflatable ball races, and let the band play.

Sticks Throws Stones

Today Triston McKenzie threw a two-hitter over eight innings as the Cleveland Guardians beat the Houston Astros, 1-0. Emmanuel Clase, who has been terrific all season, pitched a perfect ninth for his 24th save.

The Guardians are a very intriguing team, and McKenzie–who is known as “Dr. Sticks” and looks like he weighs about 98 pounds soaking wet–is one of the more intriguing players on the squad. (According to ESPN, McKenzie actually weighs 165 pounds, stretched over a 6′ 5″ frame.) Dr. Sticks, who is 25 years old, is 8-8 with a 3.16 ERA and is one of the big reasons why the Guardians–who no one other than Terry Francona expected to do anything this year–are still hanging around, four games over .500, just behind the Twins in the AL Central. Fortunately for the Guardians, the AL Central isn’t exactly filled with powerhouses.

Dr. Sticks has pitched some brilliant games this year, like today’s gem, but he has also pitched some clinkers. He’s one of those pitchers who seems to just need to get through the first inning unscathed. If he does, you can expect something good to happen. If he doesn’t watch out. Many observers think he is still learning how to pitch at the big league level, and when he fully figures it out, he’ll be very good indeed.

Thanks to Dr. Sticks’ brilliant effort today, the Guardians ended up with a split in their four-game series with the Astros, and seem to be showing that they can compete with the better teams in the American League. There’s still a lot of baseball to be played, but I like what I’m seeing from Dr. Sticks and the other players on this very young team.

Tom Brady’s Parenting, And Other Clickbait Curiosities

If clickbait is consciously geared to attract the most clicks from the most people–which is what you would expect, right?–it’s become increasingly clear that I am totally out of step with the mainstream of computer users. I say this because not only am I personally not enticed by the vast majority of clickbait, I can’t even understand why anyone would be tempted to click on this stuff. That is a pretty sure sign of “Old Fart” status.

This reality was crystallized for me when I went to the Google search page on my phone, which features an ever-changing roster of clickbait pieces, and the lead item just below the Google search bar was “Tom Brady Opens Up About Parenting: NFL World Reacts.” This article captured two of the leading clickbait concepts that I’ve identified: it involved a leading sports figure, and the notion of “reaction” to some statement that presumably must have been controversial or otherwise worthy of note. In fact, the only clickbait concepts it was lacking was (1) some celebrity who is unknown to me wearing a bikini or body paint, (2) a strange crime or odd random incident, (3) a “weird trick” to address some health issue, and (4) how the story of a celebrity who has dropped out of public view “keeps getting sadder.”

But, really, who would care about Tom Brady’s views on parenting? The guy is a leading contender for Greatest Quarterback of All Time, of course, but is there something about his family life that makes it particularly compelling stuff? And why would we care about how other people associated with the NFL are “reacting” to whatever Tom Brady had to say? For that matter, why does anyone, other than politicians who are up for election, care about how people are “reacting” to anything? The “reactions” typically just consist of tweets, which always seem to strive to be sarcastic and don’t have much to do with real life.

It would be interesting to know whether the piece about Tom Brady’s parenting thoughts (which I didn’t read, of course) has been a successful clickbait effort, or a failure. If it has garnered a sufficient number of clicks, be prepared for a piece about how Tom Brady has bared his soul about being a dutiful son, or the sports world’s reaction to Lebron James’ thoughts about the importance of eating a good breakfast.

Putting Pressure On Pickleball

Pickleball is the increasingly popular new sport that is apparently easy to learn and fun to play for people of all ages. (I say “apparently” because I haven’t played it yet.) Now, however, some people are wondering if pickleball can somehow save American society. The New Yorker, for example, has published a piece entitled “Can Pickleball Save America?”

Yikes! That’s a lot of pressure to put on what is supposed to be a simple recreational sport!

Why are some people focusing on a sport that you play on a small court with paddles and a kind of wiffle ball? The underlying premise is that American used to be a much more social place. Americans routinely were involved in multiple social activities–like bowling leagues, civic associations, charities, fraternal societies, sewing circles, book clubs, and church groups, among others. This was true for generations; in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic book Democracy in America, observed that America was a nation of joiners. But recently, that joining activity, and the social engagement it fostered, has withered away to the point that a book was written about the sad phenomenon of Americans “bowling alone.”

And that’s where pickleball comes in. The sport’s broad accessibility, the zeal with which pickleball fans have recruited new participants, and the intrinsically social nature of the game, with players facing each other only a few feet away, raised hopes that pickleball could rekindle the joining spirit that de Tocqueville found and convert a nation of lone bowlers into a more community-minded society. And underlying that notion, I think, is a hope that if more Americans got out and interacted with each other, in settings that don’t involve politics or tweeting, perhaps our politics could become a bit less divisive and a bit more community-oriented, too.

So, can pickleball get us back to the America of yore, or will other, familiar forces like money, professionalism, and branding splinter the pickleball community, and thwart any hopes of the sport saving the country? The New Yorker article suggests that the jury is still out, while the pressure is on. It’s an interesting read. Pickleball has a lot going for it, but the forces at play are powerful ones. Those of us of a certain age remember when people thought the internet would be a tool that would allow for enhanced participation in society through a friendly exchange of ideas. How did that turn out?

Reaching New Heights In Sports Programming

Last night I turned on the TV and was doing some channel surfing when I came across this broadcast. I had to rub my eyes and look twice to confirm that I was, in fact, seeing a televised match of performers in the “American Cornhole League.” That’s them, on a screen busy with sports betting information, wearing their jerseys covered with sponsor logos, weighing their respective beanbags before giving them carefully calibrated flight toward the target. The contestants exhibit professional concentration as they toss their beanbags, grimace if they don’t find the corn hole, and then walk down to the target to do it again. I didn’t have the sound on, so I don’t know whether there was a play-by-play guy breathlessly describing the action and a color guy providing detailed analysis.

Cornhole is a fun game to play at a tailgate or cookout, with beer in hand and a willingness to suffers the taunts of your friends if you make a bad throw. As sports TV goes, however, it’s not exactly riveting stuff. Even Howard Cosell couldn’t make it interesting.

If you’re going to have a professional yard game league, why not lawn darts instead? At least that involves the risk of contestants being impaled.

An Even Bigger Big Ten

There was some pretty shocking news yesterday in the world of college sports: USC and UCLA, two of the anchor schools in the PAC-12, will be leaving that conference and joining the Big Ten. The Big Ten conference presidents and chancellors voted unanimously on Thursday to accept the applications of the two California schools, who will begin play in the Big Ten in 2024.

Why did USC and UCLA decide to leave a conference that has been their home for decades? ESPN quotes USC’s athletic director as explaining that USC “will benefit from the stability and strength of the conference; the athletic caliber of Big Ten institutions; the increased visibility, exposure, and resources the conference will bring our student-athletes and programs; and the ability to expand engagement with our passionate alumni nationwide.”

It’s pretty clear that money, branding, media exposure, and recruiting considerations also played a significant role in the decision. The Big Ten is a much stronger, wealthier conference than the PAC-12, with its own very successful TV network. The additional money provided by membership in the Big Ten will help USC and UCLA support all of its men’s and women’s programs–including those that aren’t big revenue programs–and the TV network will help with recruiting athletes in all programs and allowing them to pursue the most lucrative name, image, and likeness deals.

The announcement is jarriing for those of us who are a certain age, because USC and UCLA are the schools that the Big Ten is supposed to play in the Rose Bowl at the end of the year, not conference foes. But college athletics is rapidly changing, and you can’t blame schools like USC and UCLA for wanting to be part of the stronger and more successful team. From the Big Ten perspective, accepting USC and UCLA as members means adding two schools with significant brands, but more importantly it means opening up the California TV market for Big Ten schools and the Big Ten network. The Big Ten has been pretty judicious in its expansion decisions, so I am sure that this move was carefully studied. And I expect that the USC and UCLA people had candid conversations with representatives of Penn State, Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutgers, to see how those schools have reacted to (and profited from) their decision to join the conference.

With the addition of USC and UCLA, the Big Ten will now have 16 teams. The two divisions will need to be reconfigured–let’s hope they don’t resurrect the lame “Legends” and “Leaders” divisional approach, by the way–and we’ll have to get used to hearing the Trojan fight song and seeing those UCLA powder blue uniforms. And Big Ten fans will have to wonder: now that the conference literally spans the country coast to coast, from New Jersey to southern California, who might be the next expansion target? Stanford? Cal? With geographic considerations clearly out the window, it could be any institution, anywhere. That’s the reality of college sports these days.

A Whale Of A Fish Tale

Fishermen are legendary for their powers of exaggeration, if not outright lies. From Cambodia, however, comes a story about fishermen landing a real whopper, with no puffery involved.

Cambodians fishing the Mekong River have caught what is believed to be the world’s largest freshwater fish. Weighing in at an absurd 661 pounds, the stingray required a dozen villagers to reel in and haul to shore. Consider, by way of comparison, that in America landing a bass that weighs more than 20 pounds is considered remarkable. The Cambodian stingray is more than 30 times heavier. Of course, no American lakes or rivers are inhabited by freshwater stingrays that are 13 feet long, either. In fact, I’d wager that any American angler who hooked a fish that looked like this record catch would probably drop their rod and reel in astonishment at what they had hooked.

Before the stingray was caught last week, the record freshwater fish was a 645-pound catfish caught in the Thailand section of the Mekong River in 2005. (Interestingly, there are reports of a 736-pound catfish caught in the Mississippi River, but apparently there must be some doubt about the size of that fish, because it isn’t mentioned in the story of the Mekong River catch.) In any event, the stingray will still be there in the Mekong River, ready to amaze future fishermen, because the villagers who caught it tagged and released it. And that is perhaps the coolest aspect of this fantastic fish tale.