Thursday, November 20, 2014

NFL Picks Week Twelve: On what it means to win in South Bend

On Oct. 2, 2004, I was a sophomore in college going on a jog along Northwestern University's Lakefill when at the north end I came across an enormous gathering of Ohio State fans tailgating on the shores of Lake Michigan. On this night Northwestern would be playing Ohio State in front of a national TV audience looking for its first win against the Buckeyes in 33 years. Campus was alive with anticipation for reasons no one really knows. I remember walking along Sherman and Simpson and seeing students tailgating and playing beer pong in their backyards, almost as if it was a real college. For myself and a group of friends from freshman year, our preparation of choice was a power hour at our friend Sparky's apartment on Simpson St.

We got drunk, we had a blast and on Noah Herron's 33rd carry of the night we beat Ohio State in an overtime thriller. To that point, and I say this without irony, it was the greatest night of my life.

When you went to a school that has framed itself as a perpetual underdog thanks to its remarkable history of football ineptitude, moments when you are pitted against a legendary nationally-recognized program and somehow seize them are particularly special. Experiencing those moments when you are young, dumb and, well, you know, have a special kind of youthful optimism about them. You don't know what tough turns life can take in your 20s in terms of a career, family, friends or romance because you're a college kid, and all that matters right now is you can rush the field and there's beer to drink.

I still get the opportunity to celebrate sports victories that carry a special brand of surprise or joy, but it is rare that I get to experience the kind of fresh-faced child-like exuberance that comes with an upset victory in college sports. I do not live on a college campus anymore, though I suppose one could argue New York City provides access to the same kinds of vices, and so the magic of a football upset, while still invigorating, does not always carry similar heft.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

NFL Picks Week Eleven: Three years of waiting to see our lady

Last weekend, Northwestern played Michigan in what can only be referred to in the loosest of terms as a "college football game." I say without hyperbole that this was probably the worst-played football game I have ever seen in my life between any two teams at any level relative to the (theoretical) amount of talent on the field. In what was ultimately a 10-9 defeat for my Wildcats against that bitterest of bitter foes, the game was so inexplicably discombobulated that it very nearly verged into the territory of "fun bad" as we all drank in the local alumni bar and watched the mediocrity (and that's being generous) ensue.

To wit, this clash of cretins featured the following incidents and factoids:

-- Northwestern finished with -9 yards rushing due to quarterback Trevor Simien taking multiple sacks.
-- NU at one point started a drive at Michigan's 15-yardline and came away with no points.
-- Michigan had an averaging starting field position of its own 42 and somehow scored merely 10 points.
-- Punting on 4th and 26, NU's punter bungled the snap and kicked it with his left foot for 20 yards.
-- Michigan fumbled at one point after snapping the ball into a man in motion in the backfield.
-- Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner missed a handoff because he tripped... on nothing.
-- Northwestern missed a 36-yard field goal.
-- NU had no plays over 20 yards and its longest rush of the game went for a whopping six.
-- Michigan converted just one of its 12 third down opportunities.
-- Michigan and Northwestern combined for six turnovers including four very bad interceptions.
-- Gardner finished the game with a QBR of 5.2. Simien wasn't much better at 38.9.
-- NU did not score on its first 12 drives. In the second half, three of those drives began in Michigan territory.
-- Somehow NU strung together a 95-yard drive that ended in a field goal to end the shutout.
-- The game ended when NU scored a touchdown with three seconds to go, but opted for a game-winning two-point conversion on which Simien was quickly sacked rather than overtime despite having out-gained Michigan by a significant margin in the fourth quarter.
-- Michigan knew the exact play that was coming on the two-point conversion.

This was, in no uncertain terms, a tremendously bad football game, that part way through brought comparisons to an epic encounter in 1939 between Texas Tech and Centenary College in which driving rains made offense nearly impossible and the teams resorted to punting a total of 77 times in hopes of recovering a weather-driven muff at the other end of the field. A whopping 67 of those punts occurred on first downs, including 22 of them on consecutive plays in the second half. I would say that game was equally as bad as Northwestern-Michigan was, but at least that one had a coherent strategy.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

NFL Picks Week Ten: Look, I forgot, ok?

Hey, let's not waste time talking about who did what and who hit whom and who hit that and who slept with whom and who extorted what.

Things happen, ok?

In this case, the thing that happened was I was too busy to come up with anything particularly clever to write about this week, and while seeing all of the terrible America-themed Veterans Day unis that are sprouting up across the college football universe today (like Purdue's) are giving me fodder, it's probably best that I just call it quits and show you my NFL picks for these week even though one of those games was already played.

Whatever. I picked it wrong anyway. Shit happens. I think you'll all find a way to survive, and if you're having trouble thinking of the positives with me not writing anything interesting this week, just think about how Southampton is still No. 2 in the BPL table after Shane Long's two-goal second half against Leicester City this morning.

See? That fixed the problem. Ok, on with the incorrect weekly picks.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

NFL Picks Week Nine: The Mets are tied for first place again

Ladies and gentlemen, the 2015 World Series New York Mets are currently undefeated and tied for first place in the NL East with an inside track for home field throughout the playoffs. That is the most exciting baseball news I have become aware of in months, and I am currently the most optimistic I have been about the Mets in years. I mean, how can you not be when they haven't lost a game yet?

This is the anticipation the offseason brings sometimes. While I actually am somewhat cautiously optimistic about the 2015 Mets, I now can sort of think about them in earnest since the 2014 World Series featuring Madison Bumgarner against the Kansas City Royals came to an end last night. It's always a bit wistful when baseball season ends, and perhaps more so when Alex Gordon doesn't get waved home by the third base coach as the tying run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth like he should have been, but I am enthused about next season, both because the Mets will have Matt Harvey back and because they won't have to face Bumgarner three times in a seven-game span.

I mean, seriously, that was one of the greatest performances in World Series history, perhaps the type of thing you'll tell your children about. In fact, if you're a San Francisco Giants fan, it is almost certainly the type of thing you will tell your children about.

Royals fans...maybe not so much. Coming so close only to see a wild ride like theirs end with the game-tying run 90 feet away must be a brutal feeling, but, uh, hey, the Chiefs host the Jets on Sunday! And unlike the Royals the Chiefs have actually won four of their last seven games.

Sorry, that was a low blow, wasn't it?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

NFL Picks Week Eight: What the hell am I going to do this weekend?

It's that time of year again. I have discussed more than once just how dull and mind-numbing it is to endure the annual bye week of the New York Giants. After all, fall is my favorite season because it carries with it the promise that even if the Giants are bad, at the very least they're giving me something to watch. But once over that 17-week stretch of entertainment that is the NFL season, the Giants take a weekend off. Often it leaves me wondering what I should do with my time and how I can kill the next 14 days until I see them play again, but usually there is one carrot that gets me through the drudgery. At least on Saturday I can watch Northwestern play, even if it also delivers its special brand of frustration and disappointment.

2014, however, is an entirely new kind of manufactured disappointment. This time around, in a cruel aligning of the stars, my cure for boredom is also talking the weekend off. And I have no idea what to do with myself.

That's right. This weekend both the New York Giants and the Northwestern Wildcats will be on their respective bye weeks.

This particular set of circumstances hasn't occurred in 10 years, when both Northwestern and the Giants took off the weekend of October 16-17. Of course, that was during my sophomore year of college, and considering the late-autumn chill had not yet set in in Evanston by that point I at least had drinking to help occupy my time. I could do the same now, but as a 29-year-old professional I should probably have a more responsible and socially acceptable solution to the problem.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

NFL Picks Week Seven: Ned Yost is making my head explode

The MLB Playoffs are a funny thing. Boiling down an extensive 162-game season that presents a large enough sample size to more or less separate the wheat from the chaff to a series of lightning-quick postseason series that are largely dependent on randomness and pitching matchups seems silly on the surface. This is because, well, it is. If the goal is to crown a true champion that is the best team in a sport each year, then a playoff system that twice per year requires two teams to play a single elimination game after a marathon season kind of flouts the purpose. Anyone who has studied statistics knows small sample sizes are prone to random variation and that larger sample sizes are needed to bear out the true nature of things. To that end, several studies have shown the MLB playoffs are largely a crapshoot.

I mean, that doesn't mean it isn't fun. And to be fair, if the Mets were somehow defying the law of averages on a nightly basis, I'd be loving every minute of it.

But the point remains. Ned Yost, or as I call him, Bunty McBunterson, should have managed this team out of the postseason about 19 times by now. Yost is a man whose managerial strategy thrives on old-timey small ball used at all the incorrect times with a little bit of bullpen mismanagement mixed in. This is not an unpopular opinion to have. Far and wide in both Kansas City and Yost's former home city as a manager Milwaukee has it been talked of that his management is, well, terrible. Even in mid-Septemeber his blunderous moves one after the other were ridiculed. A light has been shined on how his old-school mentality is completely inconsistent with statistical evidence. His total bungling of the AL Wild Card game this year is legendary. Not only did his inexplicable decision to bring in starter Yordano Ventura in relief on two days rest raise the public ire of Pedro Martinez, but his persistent dedication to sacrifice bunting has been mind-boggling. In that game, which the Royals somehow won despite their manager, after getting the leadoff man on, sacrificed him to second in the 9th, 10th and 11th innings, which according to the Wins Probability Added statistic had a negative impact on Kansas City's chances of winning. This included a ninth inning in which the Royals trailed and gave Oakland a free out when they had three outs left in their season.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

NFL Picks Week Six: The 2014 NLCS bores me to death

At the outset of the 2014 MLB playoffs there was one thing more than any other that I simply did not want to see. Of the 10 teams in the postseason field, I knew I would be bored out of my gourd if I had to watch the goddamn St. Louis Cardinals reach or, heaven forbid, win the World Series again.

Well, look who just happened to upset the heavily favored Los Angeles Dodgers. Yet again the Cardinals and their brand of unsexy and mildly wholesome baseball have managed to reach the NLCS and the only thing that stands in the way of a fifth pennant and potentially a third World Series title in the past 11 seasons is... the San Francisco Giants.

Retread, retread, retread.

Don't get me wrong. I don't have any issues with the Giants. As the one-time team of my family before it moved west and the theoretical ancestor of the New York Mets, there are a lot of reasons to like a team that is rich in history and was, until four years ago, equally as frustrating to root for as mine. In addition, I certainly don't have the kind of vitriol for them that I do for St. Louis, a dull team that ruined what was supposed to be the most special kind of special seasons for the Mets back in 2006. But the Giants are starting to wear on me, too. I've seen them succeed with two championships in the past four seasons and seeing someone fresh and new win the pennant, even if it's a team I'm supposed to hate like the Washington Nationals, wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

NFL Picks Week Five: The Royal Treatment

Of all the cities in America for me to have something of a second home base or social network, Kansas City is far from the obvious choice. New York is, and almost certainly will always be, my home, but Chicago is the only other metropolitan area in the world in which I've lived. San Francisco is a place I know well and in which I know many people. Hell, even Los Angeles, a place for which I have less than zero fondness is a locale I can map out geographically and have several couches I could crash on if necessary.

I could not draw you a map of how Kansas City is laid out, nor could I explain to you its mass transit in any meaningful sense. But for some reason, as I keep thinking back to it, it is a place that feels like home whenever I'm there.

This all started because 11 years ago I worked at Fairview Lake YMCA with a girl named Susie (because what girl from Kansas City wouldn't be named Susie), who eventually led me on a friendly visit to her hometown that opened the door to an entire group of people in the City of Fountains, a nickname KC has rightfully earned. I've now been back to Kansas City three times, once to learn that I will never be able to dunk on a regulation rim, once to experience Real America in all its glory and once more to see Susie tie the knot. There is a whole handful of people in the city I could happily stay with the next time I'm in KCMO (and there will definitely be a next time because have you had the BBQ?), and each of those people is always welcome to stay with me, which many have done.

Also, need I note that Kansas City is the birthplace of my beloved New Jersey Devils?

Needless to say, my feelings for the Paris of the Plains are clear, and it's because of those connections that I've felt a twinge of wistful excitement watching the Kansas City Royals play playoff baseball for the first time since I was three months old. We could talk about championship droughts ad nauseum. Hell, the Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals are all currently in the postseason this year and each is currently in the midst of a longer wait for a World Series title. But each of those teams has had stretches of competitiveness and near brushes with glory in between. The Tigers have won two pennants in the last decade, while the Orioles, Pirates and Nationals can all claim multiple division titles since the Royals last played meaningful games in October. Even the Chicago Cubs, they of the century-plus wait for a title have reached the NLCS in the past 15 years.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

NFL Picks Week Four: On the New Year, God and football

I am not a particularly religious man. As a child I went to Hebrew school every Sunday from the age of eight all the way through my bar mitzvah and my confirmation at age 16, an event I find most memorable both for my horrid mutton-chop sideburns that I somehow thought were fashionable and the moment at which I walked back from the bathroom to sit down to lunch in the synagogue with my family only to have my dad lean over and inform me that my fly was open. Perhaps it was that open fly, perhaps it was the democrats or perhaps it was the undeniable influence of enlightened liberal arts education (or maybe it was just being a Mets fan), but somewhere between my bar mitzvah and the current day I lost the faith. I'd like to believe in a higher power, but the rational side of me has difficulty justifying it.

However, I do value tradition and customs and on a cultural level I feel overwhelmingly Jewish, likely as a justification for my family's loud dinners and neuroses, but also because I believe in the importance of connecting with your heritage. German-Jewish scholar Solomon Maimon once posited that Reform Judaism, my particular brand, was not so much a system of rules outlining how one ought to worship, but a forum for discussing the very nature of spiritualism and the almighty. This speaks to me, and while I may not believe in God, I like to think that if there is one, it is modest enough to value my general goodwill as a person above my dedication to praising its name. If you've ever read the Old Testament, this hope is probably foolhardy, but as a result of that, I may consider myself to largely be an atheist these days (though the best atheistic gospel of this week may have come from Keith Olbermann), but I still try to hold to some of the customs I was raised with as best I can. I am rarely in a synagogue and I can't remember the last time I attended a shabbat dinner, but I light my menorah, I fast on Yom Kippur, and tonight when the sun sets, I will party like it's 5775.


לשנה טובה, kids. 

Tonight marks the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the annual turning over of the Jewish calendar (though this is different from Simchat Torah, when we roll the scroll all the way back to Genesis). Many Jews mark the beginning of the high holidays by attending services in synagogue and having dinner with their family. Tonight I will be doing none of those things. The closest, I will get to observing the holiday tonight will likely be a few token Happy New Year greetings and an endless hunt to purchase a copy of this for my almost-nine-month-old nephew Sammy, which is probably likely to give him more happiness than the other gift I considered for him this week.

No, instead in my family, we celebrate these holidays on the actual dates if we can, but more often than not on the date when we can all manage to get together for them. This year, that means we'll be ringing in the New Year tomorrow on the second night of the holiday, which brings up a pretty profound quandary, as well as the entire reason I'm bothering to write about the Jewish holidays on this blog.

Friday, September 19, 2014

NFL Picks Week Three: I have nothing to talk about

Ok, just to be clear, that's almost certainly not accurate. There is plenty to talk about in the world of sports. I could tell you how I'm watching Sydney play North Melbourne on delay in the 2014 Preliminary Final, how Southampton looked phenomenal in beating up Newcastle United 4-nil last weekend, how I went to a Mets game on Wednesday night and it was unsurprisingly uninspiring or how despite a head-scratching loss to the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon, I'm still not that worried about the Giants .... yet.

But you know what? I'm really just too tired to go into detail on all of those things at the moment. Also, I'm pretty sure there is construction outside with a jackhammer incessantly banging away and it is really sapping my energy to be clever and informative on my day off, to say nothing of thinking clearly.

It's a ton of fun.

So, rather than try to strain my cortex to put something witty together, after all, only four or so of you are going to read this anyway, I'm going to skip through the razzmatazz and just get to what you're all waiting for: another attempt to see how bad I am at picking NFL games this year. I mean, it is definitely early in the season and those first few weeks are all kind of random anyway, but my start to the season has been less than good. Let's see if Week Three changes that, or, at the very least, if Northwestern finally wins a game and I stop caring about my picks as a result. I can dream, can't I?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

NFL Picks Week Two: To the Travelers go the Spoils

There are many aspects to planning out a road trip of the sort I returned from last night. One that I heed you all to consider if you're pondering a similar venture is to account for just how much sports-related crap you might find yourself coming home with. As you can see to the right, there were quite a few silly trinkets I came back with from my six-day jaunt through eight states and one province across two countries; that photo doesn't even include the multiple bottles of bourbon that were purchased. In the end I found myself somehow braving the subways yesterday with a messenger bag, duffel bag, three bottles of bourbon, one life-sized baseball bat, one mini baseball bat, one double bobblehead doll, one Cincinnati Reds stein, one terrible towel and an entirely superfluous Super Nintendo that was dragged along for inevitably no reason.

If you are plotting a trek like the one I just finished, account for these acquired articles in your pre-trip packing. It somehow escaped me.

Of course, that really only makes the trip more fun in the end. In a span of just six days I saw five old friends, went to four new stadiums, three bourbon distilleries, two sports halls of fame, two breweries, the world's most famous horse-racing track, one baseball bat factory, countless regional fast food chains and one incredibly wet boat ride around Niagara Falls. To cap the whole thing off, somehow my friend Dan and I didn't kill each other over the 30 hours and 2,500 miles we spent alone together in a car thanks to a steady stream of satellite radio and hearing the first 15 seconds of Florence + the Machine's cover of "Addicted to Love" about a billion times.

So, yeah. I recommend it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

NFL Picks Week One: The Road Trip Begins

The months of February through August are, no doubt, a bleak time on the calendar. The brutal cold of winter's depths chills us to the bones, the sweltering humidity of summer soaks us through our clothes, and that cole slaw at the Memorial Day BBQ always seems to have just a bit too much vinegar in it. These are universal trials and tribulations, pains we each endure as we await our savior when it arrives on the first Thursday of September. Rest assured, though, after waiting patiently and counting down the minutes, that wonderful day is here.

The NFL is back tonight. Life has found meaning.

Unfortunately for some of us, the wait is a little longer than we might like it to be. The Giants don't play their season opener until Monday night at 7 in the first half of ESPN's annual Week One Monday Night Football doubleheader. The extra 30 hours will make the wait almost that much more interminable, but on the plus side I can be excited by the fact that when the Giants kick off their hopefully-slightly-better-than-mediocre 2014 campaign, I will be there to see it in person.

As I mentioned on Tuesday, I am setting off tonight on a whirlwind sports road trip of epic proportions. My friend Dan and I will set sail (or drive, more accurately), from Jersey City this evening to embark on what will be a veritable orgy of bourbon, sporting events, sports museums and a highly unhealthy amount of greasy food. As you will note, I have planned it down to the minute to maximize the fun, though I have not been dragging any guide books to parties.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

2014 NFL Preview: Birth of the Road Tripstravaganzapalooza Spectacular

Surely, you all noticed last week when I expressed my excitement over the start of Northwestern's 2014 season with the notable caveat that the team would likely break my heart at some point during the next four months. Well, if you read the funny pages on Sunday, you probably saw this year's rendition of the Wildcat Shakedown wasted no time in, well, shaking itself down. In perhaps the most colossal screw up I've seen since I first started following NU (Note: the loss to UNH in 2006 is not as bad given it was one of the best programs in Division I-AA and boasted all-time great receiver David Ball, though the Cats were a noticeably more talented and well-trained outfit), the Cats decided to be generous and spotted California-Berkeley a handsome 31-7 lead before finally realizing there was a football game going on and closing it to within 31-24 in the fourth quarter.

Of course, you don't get wins for trying super duper hard when you realize you've got to try super duper hard super duper late, so despite opening the season at home as 11.5-point favorites against a team that failed to beat any Division I opponents last season, Northwestern is 0-1 in 2014. This was frustrating on multiple levels, not the least of which was that it ruined an opportunity for that ultra-rare alignment of stars known as the Football Hat Trick Day, a term I had the foresight to make up on Saturday morning, after I noticed three different teams I follow across three different codes of football all had games in a 12-hour span. The Geelong Cats took care of business against Brisbane despite it being a relatively meaningless home-and-away-season finale and now have an opening-round Finals match against big-time rivals Hawthorn Friday morning (naturally you're all counting down to this), and just a few hours later Southampton picked up its first Premier League victory in which it trailed on the road in 20 years when the Saints scored three times after falling behind 1-nil at West Ham. The two most difficult hurdles in the race out of the way, heavy-favorite Northwestern (words I never thought I'd see in that order) seemed a safe bet to complete the circuit.

It's a good thing the bar had beer.

Fortunately for me, rather than wallow in the tears of that unfortunate misstep, I get another distraction this weekend when the NFL, at long last, gets underway. Sure, the New York Giants don't exactly look poised to dominate the NFL, compete for a Super Bowl title or, if they continue to struggle with the offense, even earn a playoff berth. But, ever the optimist, I have faith Eli Manning will get a handle on the new scheme and somehow the Giants will eke out nine wins in their 2014 schedule. As we've seen in the past, sometimes nine wins is all you need.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Only four days until the heartbreak begins

Northwestern football is not an easy thing. There are times when it is comparatively easy to, say, serving in a North Korean labor camp, but even those times, I find, are rare. At no point was this more evident than a year ago when my Wildcats were sitting on the precipice of a potentially program-defining season. In 2012, NU had pulled off its best season in nearly two decades, going 9-3 with all three losses coming in brutal fashion before winning a bowl game for the first time since 1949. It was a year that was so good, with each loss being so precarious, that one couldn't help but wonder what could have been.

And so 2013 was supposed to be the year. We were ready to join the big time and as we sat 4-0, ranked No. 16 in the country and were ready to tangle with Ohio State in a game that could have been as strong a statement as a bunch of guys in tight purple shirts can make. Even in the third quarter Northwestern held the lead and looked to be on the verge of a transformational moment. And then it all fell apart. Despite that loss, NU fans held their heads high until a surprisingly bad performance against Wisconsin. Then the cracks started to show. And they continued showing. And showing. And showing. Eventually it became clear that 2013 wasn't going to be the dream season many of us hoped it would be, and to further the point, we plebians of the college football world were viciously knocked down as we tried to scale the summit, reminding us where we stood in the course of things.

After that brutal experience, this Saturday, we're going to do it all over again. And I. Can't. Wait.

Call it masochism if you must, in fact, that's probably a fairly accurate assessment, but there is almost nothing I enjoy more during the year than spending my fall Saturdays gorging on beer, wings, waffle fries and if all goes well some purple shots. There is nothing that feels better than tipsily toasting with friends and walking through Central Park after seeing a Northwestern victory, however rare they may be, and that time of the year is almost here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Ok, so it's been a while. What's good?

It occurred to me this morning that I've gone more than a month without updating this here blogtastic space, and that probably qualifies as the longest I've ever gone without publishing a new post. I know some of you (two people) are disappointed by this. I have no one to blame but myself and the countries of Spain, Portugal and Morocco, but when you leave the country for three weeks in July and this is followed by what is the deadest black hole of sports all year (particularly when you're a Mets fan), well, this is what happens.

I apologize for that, but, I mean, let's been honest. There's been a grand total of zero that's happened in the sports world aside from Germany winning the Weltmeisterschaft, and that was nearly a month ago. I imagine most of you don't want me to get nerdy and wax poetic on the Giants' installation of their new offense under Ben McAdoo. You definitely have zero interest in a treatise on how Geelong recently solidified a top-four (and maybe top-two) spot in the ladder by edging Fremantle with the 2014 AFL Finals Series right around the corner. Have any interest in how I feel about Southampton selling pretty much every player they own to Liverpool and then naming Jose Fonte captain? I didn't think so, though I would like to point out how much I love their new jerseys while we're at it.

What's that? You want to talk about the sudden emergence of Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom because you actually know about the Mets? You're inspired by his remarkable July that saw him go 4-1 with a 1.39 ERA, earning him NL Rookie of the Month honors? His deGromination of the National League has you thinking Sandy Alderson and his player development staff uncovered another stud pitching prospect that could be flipped for a badly needed bat or bolster what looks like it could be a stellar rotation next season?

You have...hope?

Oh wait. Never mind all that.