Against All Odds

Tonight the NBA Finals begin.  For the fourth straight year, the Cleveland Cavaliers will face off against the Golden State Warriors.

If you listen to the pundits, this will be the most uncompetitive, lopsided contest in recent sports history.   You’ll see headlines like “Everybody is counting out LeBron James, Cavs in NBA Finals Again” or “Is Warriors-Cavs IV the biggest mismatch in modern Finals history?”  You’ll read about how the mighty Warriors, with their entire roster filled with All-Star studs like Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, are going to mop the floor with the poor Cavs, who can offer only LeBron James and a gang of unknowns and retreads.  You’ll see statistical analysis of why the Warriors are destined to win, and hear about how the Cavs are in the Finals only because the Eastern Conference of the NBA is like the minor leagues compared to the Western Conference, and see that the Las Vegas oddsmakers have made the Warriors a prohibitive favorite and set a double-digit point spread for the first game.

b45567aa1369a5376fdf8d85c224c52aThe only way puzzled commentators think the Cavs might even win a game or two is if the entire Warriors team comes down with the flu, or Draymond Green and a few of his teammates get suspended for multiple games after a crotch-targeting binge that can’t plausibly be viewed as involving “basketball moves.”

Is this the biggest mismatch in sports — say, since the mighty Miami Hurricanes were supposed to wipe the field with the Ohio State Buckeyes in the National Championship game on January 3, 2013?  I guess we’ll just have to see if the know-it-all commentators and talking heads could possibly be wrong, and the Cavs can luck out and scratch out even a single win against the media darlings — which would no doubt happen only with the help of the officials and an overconfident Warriors team that doesn’t bring its “A” game against a feeble opponent.

Sometimes, in sports, the underdog does win, and the conventional wisdom proves to be wrong.  Will it happen this time?  I’ll be watching to find out.  But if the impossible does occur, and David does manage to slay Goliath in 2018, it will be one of the sweetest wins in the history of sports.  Because this time, it truly is Cleveland against the World.

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A Commoner’s View

I think that, with respect to many things, you can divide the human race into two clear categories.  Those who care deeply about professional sports and those who think it’s weird that people are so passionate about grown-ups playing what are obviously children’s games.  Those who like heavy metal music and those who think it’s a secretly devised form of eardrum torture.

180519-royal-carriage-mc-1322_2___825391-nbcnews-ux-1080-600And those who care about things like today’s royal wedding, and not only will watch broadcasts of it from beginning to end but will drink tea and eat crumpets and display Union Jack flags and wear the kind of silly hats that our friends across the pond will happily don on such august occasions, and those who scratch their heads in bewilderment that anybody in America would refer to a complete stranger in a different country as a “royal” or speak knowingly about “Prince Harry” and “the Queen” or pay any attention whatsoever to their nuptials or to anything else they might do or say.

I’m in the second category.  I’ve never understood the fascination that some people have with the British monarchy, and when something like a wedding happens the attention that it draws seems to me like lunacy.  I’m not one of those people who thinks that Americans who are interested in this stuff are betraying their democratic roots or high-society wannabes, I just find it mystifying that anybody cares about it.  I suppose some people just like the pomp and pageantry that the Brits do so well, and enjoy talking about dresses and hats and the uniforms that the men wear.

Me?  I’d really rather watch sports.  In this world, I think, it takes all kinds.

Crossing The Parrot Line

Here’s a pretty good rule of thumb:  if you feel you need to have a parrot announce something to make it more interesting, the announcement is necessarily so intrinsically boring that even a squawking parrot won’t help.

470ff7460e14467f854bcb5bc442ac98So it is with the NFL draft, where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have announced that their fourth-round pick will be delivered by a parrot — a Catalina Macaw named Zsa Zsa, to be precise — from the fake pirate ship in the Buccaneers’ stadium.

It’s just the latest effort to try to jazz up the draft, which is the single most boring televised event in the history of organized sports.  For most of the history of the NFL, the draft wasn’t televised, because the NFL Commissioner and team owners correctly concluded that there was nothing remotely telegenic about it.  They wisely recognized that watching men think about which college player they should select, and watching players fidget while they wonder when they’re going to be picked, falls distinctly into watching-paint-dry territory, and seeing the selections appear on stage to don ball caps, give a grip-and-grin with the Commissioner, and display fake jerseys isn’t really any better.  It’s hopelessly dull stuff.

But when the endless quest for more televised sports activities caused someone to decide that the NFL draft should be on TV, too, the seemingly endless quest for ways to make it more interesting to watch began.  After all, even the most diehard NFL fan, whose entire life revolves around his team, can’t bear to watch uninterrupted hours of a yammering Mel Kiper, Jr. and his curious coiffure.  So gimmicks were developed, like having picks announced by former players or fans, or remote cut-ins of player families reacting to the news that their family member was drafted.  The parrot is only the latest, and most pathetically desperate, cry for attention.  Next thing we know, the Browns’ selections will be announced by a guy dressed up like the Grim Reaper or read by the team’s garbage hauler.  One the Parrot Line is crossed, anything is possible

If somebody asks me on Monday whether I watched this weekend’s NFL draft, I’ll think of the parrot and say:  “No, because I have an actual life.”

61*

If you’re a baseball fan, of a certain age at least, you think of 61 as a number that inevitably is accompanied by an asterisk.  That’s because, in 1961, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s decades-old single-season home run record of 60 by bashing 61 home runs — only to have his feat placed in the record books with an asterisk.

roger-maris-1961The 1961 baseball season was an exciting one, with Maris of the New York Yankees and his Hall of Fame teammate Mickey Mantle each chasing Ruth’s record.  Mantle was the a hero to many and the sentimental favorite, but it was Maris who broke the record by hitting his 61st home run on October 1, 1961.  They even made a made-for-TV movie, 61*, about the season.

Some people weren’t exactly happy that Maris broke Ruth’s record, though.  Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick, a friend of the Babe, insisted that Maris’ record go into the record books with an asterisk, to recognize the fact that Maris hit his 61 homers in a 162-game season, while Ruth hit his 60 round-trippers in a 154-game season.  It was a pretty bogus move by the Commish, because even though Maris held the record, the asterisk cheapened and delegitimized it somehow.  It communicated, implicitly, that 61 was not an authentic record and required explanation. It’s the most famous use of the asterisk in sports history — in fact, probably the most famous use of punctuation, period, in sports history — and the asterisk dogged Maris for the rest of his career.  (And he probably wasn’t comforted by the fact that asterisk comes from the Greek word for “little star,” either.)

The key point, though, is that I’ll always think of 61 as carrying an asterisk.  So today, when I celebrate my 61st birthday, I’ve got to put an asterisk after that number.

What’s my footnote?  I guess that I really don’t feel like I’m 61, and in fact am a bit shocked that I’ve been around for 61 years.  I can’t say that I feel like a kid, but inside I’m more of a forty-something.

Celebrating Gold Pants Day

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Today members of the 2017 Ohio State Buckeyes football team received their treasured gold pants.  For members of Buckeye Nation, it’s a day worth celebrating.

In 1934, after years of Michigan gridiron dominance over the Buckeyes, legendary Ohio State coach Francis (“Close the Gates of Mercy”) Schmidt told the Men of the Scarlet and Gray that the Wolverine players put their pants on one leg at a time, like everyone else.  In short, the players on That Team Up North were human and could be beaten.  Ever since, players on an Ohio State team that beats the Wolverines in The Game receive an old-fashioned “gold pants” charm.  It’s one of the cooler traditions in the tradition-soaked world of  Ohio State football.

If you click on the link above, you can watch a video that Ohio State football released about the distribution of the gold pants, including comments from J.T. Barrett and some other recent Buckeyes about The Game — and how many pairs of gold pants they’ve earned during their Ohio State careers.

On To Baseball, And (Eventually) Summer

Today the 2018 Major League Baseball season starts.  On Opening Day, fans of every team can approach the new season with optimism that this might just be the year for their team to win it all.

1cfa76df7b9fae74e7898045efb9d360Fans of the Cleveland Indians, like Russell and UJ and me, are hoping that, on this 70th anniversary of the Tribe’s last World Series title, this might be the year that the team ends a very long drought.  With the winless streak now celebrating its 70th birthday, we think it’s time for its mandatory retirement.  And after last season, where Cleveland won more than 100 games but lost to the Damn Yankees in the playoffs, Tribe fans are hoping that the team has the pieces in place to make another legitimate run for the championship banner.

But Tribe fans are not alone, of course.  The start of baseball season is great, because every baseball fan everywhere feels inward optimism about their squad, even if they won’t admit it publicly.  Lightning can and does strike.  Sometimes teams just gel, and unlikely heroes emerge, and rookie phenoms actually pan out.  Every year, it seems, there is a Cinderella story, and at the start of the season every fan hopes that their team will end up donning the glass slipper.  The sense of hopefulness and possibility is intoxicating — but also can be brief and ruined by reality.

This year, though, at least for those of us in the Midwest and East who’ve been enduring the Winter that Won’t Go Away,  there’s another reason to celebrate the arrival of baseball’s Opening Day.  If the Summer Game is finally here, we can hope that summer itself isn’t far behind.

Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Sports

Last night two bad things happened:  the Ohio State Buckeyes went down to defeat in the NCAA Tournament, and during the game Mr. Sports emerged.

The Buckeyes’ loss wasn’t unexpected; they’d gotten whipped by Gonzaga earlier in the season and were the underdog.  Ohio State gamely fought back from a 15-point deficit at the start of the game to briefly take the lead in the second half, but ultimately Gonzaga pulled away.  It was a good game, but also one where, from the standpoint of Ohio State fans at least, it seemed like every rolled-out layup and rattling in three-pointer and missed-shot carom just favored the Bulldogs.   Sometimes that happens in sports.

1281989935452That’s where Mr. Sports came in.  That’s the name I’ve given to the harsh, foul-mouthed, angry personality that sometimes takes over during TV sports broadcasts when one of my favorite teams is playing in a big game.  Mr. Sports wants his teams to win so badly that any adversity or bad break causes him to surge to the forefront and launch into vicious tirades about referees, opposing players, the fates, or even the opposing coach’s wife or Mom and Dad celebrating an impending win.  And, because college basketball is a game where so many bounces or debatable foul calls can happen, it’s prime territory for Mr. Sports.

Last night Mr. Sports was pretty bad.  Kish and I had decided to watch the game together, but after Ohio State fell far behind and was struggling to catch up, one of Mr. Sports’ loud and profane outbursts caused Russell’s dog Betty to leap off the couch, and Kish decided to retreat upstairs in disgust.  Mr. Sports then watched the rest of the game by himself, fulminating about the unjust fates.  After the game ended I went back upstairs, feeling sheepish and stupid about my loss of control in front of my disappointed wife and the two dogs.  Recently I’ve gotten better about keeping Mr. Sports under wraps — combining age, presumed maturity, and avoidance strategies like just not watching much college basketball this year — but sometimes the power of Mr. Sports is simply too strong.

The Atlantic recently carried an interesting article about the positives and negatives of being a sports fan, and concluded that the benefits outweigh the negatives.  And I know from personal experience how thrilling it is when one of your teams wins it all.  But it is embarrassing when Mr. Sports thunders out from my id and starts raging at the TV, and it makes me feel bad to disappoint my baffled wife, who just can’t understand how sports can cause such a fundamental change in behavior in the blink of an eye.

I’m 60 years old, and I’ve still got some growing up to do.