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.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Futbal like it oughta be

As many of you know, over the last few years I have taken to exhausting large portions of my vacation days with one 2-3-week-long bonanza outside of the country each summer. This was sparked by a trip to Israel way back in the salad days of 2010, followed by a five-nation tour of the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria in 2011, my Scandinavian adventure in Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Norway and the Netherlands (again) in 2012 and a wild and crazy trip last summer to Kenya, Tanzania and, unexpectedly, the Netherlands last summer.

Unsurprisingly, these trips have created many memories. Each trip usually has one or two that aren't so great, like when my flight to Amsterdam in 2011 turned around midway through because it was leaking hydraulic fluid. Or when my passport got stolen in Norway. Or when I somehow found myself in a boat in the middle of the Indian ocean at night getting extorted. Or when the airport in Nairobi -- and I don't think I can say this enough times -- burned down before I was supposed to leave.

But among all the crazy, wild memories I have had in my foreign travels, one of the most memorable was, unsurprisingly, a sporting event. In 2011, The FIFA Women's World Cup was being held in Germany, where I was conveniently in the midst of traveling. I briefly toyed with the idea of attending the final if the U.S. made it, which it did, and certainly would have were the game being played in Berlin, where I was scheduled to be at the time. Unfortunately, the Berlin Olympiastadion was undergoing renovations at the time and the game was to be played in Frankfurt instead.

Still, even if I wasn't going to be attending, with the U.S. in the final I needed to find a place to watch, and my friends Kristen, Luisa and Mike and I happened upon the bar in a hostel in Mitte called Belushi's. The place was supposedly American-themed and there were many fellow traveling countrymen sitting in the bar and watching the game on various big screens. All we were doing was watching a sporting event we could have watched on TV at home, but the atmosphere and the experience were something altogether different.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Mama said knock you out

I have no real problem with Belgium. I've been to the country twice and found it to be more or less pretty pleasant. Granted, my experiences are quite mixed as I've been to Antwerp, which is a delightful city with some tremendous museums, and Brussels, which might be the most uninteresting place I have ever been. And I've been to Elkhart, Indiana more than once. I do hope to make it to Bruges one day even if the crux of one of my favorite films, In Bruges, is that the city is unbelievably dull, and I once visited friends in Aachen, Germany, which is almost sort of near Liege.

In short, Belgium is fine. They make good chocolate and taught us to make waffles in large circles. I generally have little reason to dislike the place even if it can't decide if it wants to be one country or two.

Or, at least I had little reason to dislike the place.

This afternoon will change all of that, as the United States faces Belgium in the Round of 16 at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Salvador, Brazil. Getting this far was no small feat, as the Yanks barely hung on in a hard-fought loss against Germany to emerge from the Group of Death this past Thursday. Now that the United States has managed to exceed most people's expectations, however, the real work begins.

There are almost no places in sports where you can find the same kind of tension and drama that you will find in the knockout stages of the World Cup, particularly if it ends up going so far as "the dreaded penalty shootout", which has happened twice already in the current tournament. Should the U.S. and Belgium be forced to penalty kicks, I might tear a few hairs out and swear off chocolate-covered waffles forever, but there would have to be 120 minutes of stalemate to come before that happens.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sometimes a tie is worse than kissing your sister

I would not consider myself such an enormous United States national team fan that I watch every friendly and keep tabs on just who might be a better option than Michael Bradley in the center midfield (answer: probably no one on this roster), but I do follow the team's qualification process and watch when I can. And more to the point, I have put life aside to watch every single U.S. World Cup match since 2002, with the one exception of its Dos a Cero victory over rival Mexico in the round of 16 12 years ago because my alarm somehow failed to go off in time for the 2 a.m. kickoff, as the game was played in Jeonju, South Korea. I have watched those games in basements, living rooms, bars, public parks and once in the empty offices of the Boston Globe's D.C. bureau. This coming Thursday I am taking a personal day from work so I do not have to be distracted during our group play finale against Germany.

Since I first made the World Cup appointment viewing, I have witnessed a heartbreaking quarterfinal loss in which the U.S. went home despite dramatically outplaying the Germans in 2002, a miserable group stage from which the U.S. failed to advance in 2006, a painful 2010 round-of-16 ouster against Ghana in which Asamoah Gyan scored the winner in extra time against the run of play, and a stunning collapse against Mexico in the Final of the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup.

It isn't Northwestern, but the USMNT delivers its fair share of heartbreak.

But with all of those matches burned into my brain, I have never experienced the kind of bitter, broken feeling that seeped into me just before 8 p.m. on Sunday night. The negative shift in emotions was so dramatic that I have yet to entirely process it and couldn't quite bring myself to write about it until 36 hours later. And the U.S. didn't even lose.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Mets have driven me to soccer: FIFA World Cup 2014

Last night something remarkable happened. I went to Citi Field to watch the Mets host the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers and thanks largely to a surprisingly solid outing from Daisuke Matsuzaka and a line drive grand slam by Taylor Teagarden in his first game with the team, I actually saw New York win a game at home for the first time in four visits. This isn't the first win I've seen in person this season of course. In April I saw the first nine innings of a 13-inning win against the Angels that I missed the conclusion of so I could catch my plane. In New York a few weeks later I saw the Mets slug their way to a surprising blowout win at Yankee Stadium.

But this was the first time I got to hear "Taking Care of Business" and it was a dandy of a time. So everything's cool, right? Well, not really. That win was the Mets' first in a week coming on the heels of a six-game losing streak at a particularly inopportune time since they were on the cusp of reaching .500 again and a mere three games out of first. Shockingly, I don't think the page has really been turned, so, essentially, I'm in need of a distraction.

Thank goodness for futbal, am I right?

Tomorrow marks the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, which, as you can probably deduce from what I've written before, has me outlandishly excited. Of all the sports I watch, soccer is not my favorite, but of all the competitions I deign to throw myself into, the World Cup just might be the best. Sporting events are nearly always more exciting when they take on a nationalist twinge, but for all the complaints Americans have had in the past for soccer, its low scores, its ties, its flopping, few games on a national scale can match the World Cup for drama. This country should know that well after producing the two greatest moments in its soccer history in recent tournaments.

The World Cup with its pitched intensity (see what I did there?), worldwide enthusiasm and penchant for producing rare brushes with greatness given its quadrennial schedule is an event unlike anything else. Each tournament brings its own special collection of wild moments, heartbreak and controversy that will linger, and I plan to be glued to the television screen for each and every match I can watch up to and including the Final on July 13 (which I plan to watch in an open plaza in Madrid, Spain, but more on that next month).

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The 20th anniversary of when heartbreak hooked me

Hockey is a central factor in my life these days. If you know me, you know this. You know I watch an inordinate amount of games each season and that I work in the industry however small or ineffectual the capacity. When people meet me and find out what I do, the question I almost universally receive is, "Have you always been a hockey fan?"

Have I?

I suppose in a literal sense the answer is no. After all, I'm fairly certain that when I emerged from the womb the only things I was really a fan of were napping and breast milk. The team from which I draw the most central core aspects of my peculiar brand of optimistic pessimism didn't draw me in until a few weeks before my fifth birthday. The Giants didn't absorb me until the Leon Lett game in 1993, in which the team didn't even play. While I watched the 1994 NBA Finals, the Knicks didn't become my team until I was mesmerized by Latrell Sprewell and the '99 Bockers' unexpected run to a conference title.

As for the Devils, it seems foolhardy to imagine they pre-dated all of these teams, but I'm fairly certain that not only do I know the moment when I became a fan, but that it happened on this day 20 years ago.

I knew little of hockey as a child beyond the Mighty Ducks movies, though like so many American children, they certainly played a part. The earliest relic I have of any real Devils fandom came courtesy of a poster my sister got at a game featuring the 1992-93 squad, they of Dave Barr and Craig Billington. But this didn't suck me in, even if the black-and-white player photos and the pixellated Devils logo were dazzling. I hadn't yet attended a hockey game at this point and my first Devils game wouldn't even be until Dec. 7, 1995.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

That kid is back on the escalator again

One of the most alarming things I've found as I attend baseball games this season is the disturbing trend that time continues to move on. Humanity has tried to stop this many times, but unfortunately there are no ways to create a Picture of Dorian Gray for all of us or even a Benjamin Button. We're going to get old. That's the truth of it. Unfortunately, for me, this has become more and more apparent over the last week in which I endeavored on an irrational baseball spree and went to four Mets games in six days. This might have been a bad idea since they're the Mets and they went 1-3 over that stretch, but it is what it is.

The big running theme, however, was that children are coming to games and are smart enough now to actually engage with. I should have seen this coming since I recently became an uncle, which is its own kind of weird, but it came into sharp focus on Friday night when a six-year-old kid was asking me to teach him the history of the Mets and I realized he was born after I graduated college. Then the kicker came when his nine-year-old sister kept telling me I was old and asked, "Were you alive for 9/11?"

Seriously? Is that a question people ask now?

On Saturday a group of 12-year-olds joined in with me to mock a Phillies fan who was chanting of his love for the Eagles, which was fine until I realized none of them were alive when the Giants played the Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV. On Tuesday a group of teenagers at the Mets-Yankees game huddled over my shoulder to watch Game 7 between the Rangers and Penguins on my phone and they all made mention of the fact that none were old enough to remember the 2000 World Series (one wasn't born until 2002), and then there was last night, when I sat in the first row at Citi Field and faced a barrage of reminders that I'm a mere 14 months away from turning 30.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Well that was fun while it lasted

It seems every April I start to do the same dance. The Mets have average to low expectations, because they're scrappy and try oh-so-hard and Terry Collins is a pretty decent manager they end up having an ok first month of the season, and then my eyes start to widen.

Then, you know, the sample size grows.

Since the Mets were last legitimate postseason contenders in 2008 (let's not talk about how that ended), they were seven games over .500 as late as May 31 in 2009, five games over .500 on April 30 in 2010, actually rallied from six games under .500 to reach the even mark on May 20, 2011, were five games over .500 on May 9, 2012 and in first place (note I attended the game that brought them there in Philadelphia), and last year... well, last year didn't really go so well from start to finish. Meanwhilst, despite those strong starts, the Mets finished with an average record over the last five seasons of 75-87.

Because I know all this, and because I understand the Mets are taking a deliberate, patient approach to rebuilding their team, I had no expectations for this season in terms of final record. I made this patently clear in my season preview, and am concerned only with seeing the individual puzzle pieces the Mets need to succeed develop properly and successfully. I have no designs on the postseason or a division title of any sort. I am rational. I am patient. I am cool-headed.

So naturally, when the Mets finished April this year with a 15-11 record and general manager Sandy Alderson said in a private meeting he expected 90 wins this season, I kept everything in perspective and didn't get too excited.

Ha! Just kidding! I root for the Mets, remember?

Friday, May 2, 2014

Ok, so this website was more or less made for me

I go to a lot of baseball games. This isn't exactly a secret to most of you out there, but perhaps some of you don't grasp the scale on which I do this. Perhaps I don't grasp it either. Some of you may recall back in 2009 when I was attending a Mets game at Citi Field and I came across an older gentleman who was seated in front of me and told me of his travels. I noticed how on that day he was attending the 6,226th game of his life.

Ladies and gentlemen, that's a lot of baseball. I have a hard time imagining I will ever reach that level of baseball attendance no matter how many games I make my way to -- and I plan on making my way to a lot of them -- but it might be nice if there was some way to keep track. In my life I've seen more baseball games than the average Joe, and keeping ticket stubs is a minor obsession, so a place to track and log it all without having to mark down my own home-made scorecard would be pretty sweet.

Wait, what's that? It exists now?

Last night I returned home from my third baseball game of the year after watching the Seattle Mariners double up the New York Yankees (I may have been more interested in my Lobel's Steak sandwich for a part of the evening), and I tooled around on the internet for a bit only to come across Hardball Passport on the Twitters. It's a website that enables you the check in and log every Major League Baseball game you've been to since 1975 (and every minor league game since 2002), which once filled provides you with a remarkable array of statistics regarding your baseball past.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

An open letter to my alma mater

To whom it may concern:

Yesterday a Chicago institution celebrated its 100th birthday. Wrigley Field, a stadium so steeped in lore, tradition and beauty that it's easy to forget its primary tenant last won a championship six years before it opened, is a landmark that holds a unique and rich position in the culture of Chicago. As I read through the series of articles praising this historic structure, many of my thoughts went to my own experiences within its walls. While a student at Northwestern University I attended my first of many games at the Friendly Confines. That first one came during New Student Week my freshman year, when I rode the L down to Addison by myself to watch a meaningless game, as the Cubs had clinched the division the day before. In October of my freshman year, my high school buddy Josh and I stood on Sheffield and Waveland during Game 7 of the NLCS to watch whether it was misery or joy that ensued (it was misery). I went to every game the Mets played at Wrigley while I was in school, with the lone exception being a series that took place while I was back home in New York that coincided with my 21st birthday. I once saw the Mets nearly get no-hit at Wrigley, still one of my most vivid baseball memories. I attended several NU day at Wrigley student events as an undergrad, and my favorite memory in the building came in 2010, when Northwestern played Illinois in football at Wrigley in a game that brought out thousands of alums, was the scene of ESPN College Game Day and prompted Wrigley's famous marquee to be painted purple.

There is a common thread here.

I associated many of my experiences at Wrigley with my alma mater, an institution of its own impressive stature that I am all too willing to brag about to friends and coworkers who have no interest in hearing it. I have an exorbitant amount of purple shirts, Northwestern football jerseys and formal purple and black shirt and tie combinations because of my alma mater. I spend every Saturday in the fall watching Northwestern with my fellow alums, and over the course of my undergraduate education and the nearly seven years since I graduated from school, I have traveled to Madison, Wisconsin (twice), Minneapolis (twice), Iowa City, Iowa, Boston, West Point, New York, back to Chicago (thrice), to Champaign, Illinois and Berkeley, California to watch Northwestern's football and basketball teams play. My fandom and dedication, I feel, is not up for debate.

However, as my thoughts of Wrigley meandered over to my thoughts of Northwestern yesterday, my school made news of its own -- as it has been wont to do over the past few months -- that left me unsettled. I am proud of my school, and never was I more proud than in January when Kain Colter became the public face of the fight to unionize college athletics.

There are times when we can be proud of our teams and cheer them on for one solitary year of potential greatness. Anyone who has walked through the arch at the corner of Sheridan and Chicago on a daily basis knows all about Northwestern's miracle run to the Rose Bowl in 1996 for instance. But what Colter's movement presented was not the chance to win a championship that one school gets to hang a banner for and cling to. This was something different.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are so damn boring.

Did you watch hockey last night? You did? You might have. Anyway, I watched hockey last night. It was fine, I guess. On Wednesday night I missed the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs because I was out celebrating my mother's 60th birthday. It didn't look like I missed out on very much though.

There were three games on Wednesday. In the first game of the postseason the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens traded goals for three periods, including a nutty coast-to-coast job by Steven Stamkos, before the unheralded Dale Weise beat Lightning goalie Anders Lindback for a game-winner in overtime. At nearly the same time the Pittsburgh Penguins found them down 3-1 to the underdog Columbus Blue Jackets, in the playoffs for just the second time in their history, and then rallied with three goals to win the series opener 4-3. In the late game, which I actually did watch most of, the Anaheim Ducks jumped out to a 4-0 lead against the Dallas Stars and appeared set to coast to an easy win until the Stars scored three times to make them sweat it out.

One day of playoff hockey, three one-goal games. Total snoozers.

Surely last night had to be more exciting than that. Well, at least have. We got a taught 1-1 game between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers that hung on the knife-edge until New York broke out with three goals in the third period to put its hated division rival in a 1-0 series hole. Meanwhilst, in St. Louis the Blues and Chicago Blackhawks dropped the puck on Game 1 of their series. All that happened was three goals in the first period, a late goal to force overtime, a desperate save by Blues forward Maxim Lapierre in the first extra period and Alex Steen netting the winner in the first triple-overtime game in franchise history. This after Chicago had numerous chances stoned by Blues goalie Ryan Miller and St. Louis killed off multiple power-play opportunities.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

From now on I get to pass over Los Angeles

חג שמח, everyone! As many of you know last night marked the beginning of Passover (or Pesach if you want to sound conservative), and much like Moses leading the Israelites on an exodus out of Egypt (and with the exact same stakes), I made a frantic exit of my own on Saturday night. I spent this weekend in my favorite city, Los Angeles watching the New York Mets embarass themselves in Anaheim against the Angels, who will hence forth be referred to as the Anaheim Angels because, damnit, that's really what they are, and as the innings began to dwindle Saturday night it started to become very clear to me that perhaps I had packed my schedule just a little too tightly.

See, I have a tendency to be fairly lax with my travel plans these days, which is to say that I generally ignore all the hogwash about arriving at an airport three hours early or whatever they say it is these days. This is the product of years of arriving at the airport early and having absolutely nothing to do for two hours. While it's nice to get some reading time done, I always figured that maybe it wasn't necessary to kill time by the Gate for hours on end and dine on a $17 cheeseburger. This has occasionally gotten me into some trouble, but by and large it's been a more efficient use of my time.

There is a certain uncertainty that creeps into your head, however when you find yourself sitting in an airport bar watching the end of a Mets game being played 35 miles away that you were in attendance of just an hour earlier. Suppose, however, that is mostly Jose Valverde's fault.

I can explain.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The 2014 New York Mets: Because they have to

After the winter we've had in New York there are only a few things that could make the wait through the snow, the chill and the mythical polar vortex seem worthwhile. As a proud resident of this city and an adamant baseball fan I can assure all of you that one of those things is not going to be the New York Mets.

Yes, the Mets. Those guys.

Now, I don't want to give you all the impression that I'm completely downtrodden about the 2014 varietal of Fred Wilpon's merry bunch. As I told a friend this morning when he asked me if Dillon Gee was a solid choice to anchor his fantasy staff, I don't particularly care about this season in terms of win-loss record. After all, there are at least five or 10 or maybe 26 teams in the Majors that are more talented or well-balanced than the Mets, but the future remains bright -- really bright -- for the first time in a long time.

I do not expect the Mets to win as many as 80 games. A final total of 75 victories might be an achievement, though I expect they'll do better than the 63 wins an opposing scout predicted in Sports Illustrated this past week. But regardless of the wins as they may or may not come, the Mets have plenty of positive aspects for fans like me to keep their eye on. These are the things I want out of the 2014 Major League Baseball season, and the things in which I've invested my hopes for the Mets actually having a winning record again before David Wright retires:

Friday, March 28, 2014

It's that time of year where I talk about Aussie Rules Football again

I'm pretty sure I lost you all at the title there. That's fine. I expect that. But I really wish you wouldn't all be so closed-minded about something so exciting, so momentous, so super that I cannot hide my excitement. No, I'm not talking about how my bracket is more or less shot or the fact that the New York Mets are opening up the 2014 season on Monday because, apparently, they have to.

What I'm talking about is the glory of Australian Rules Football.

Ok, I can see you pulling away from me here, but stick with me. You're (mostly) Americans. You love American sports like football and baseball and the like. That's great. But it's important to know that Australians are trying their best to get into the things we love here. Really. The 2014 Major League Baseball season opened last week while most of us were sleeping when Clayton Kershaw toyed with the Arizona Diamondbacks at the Sydney Cricket Ground in Sydney, Australia. The SCG is one of the oldest and most picturesque of Australia's sporting grounds and it made for some pretty awesome pictures.

The key takeaway, however, aside from answering the riddle "If the MLB season starts 20,000 miles away and no one's awake to watch it, did it happen," is that the Aussies seemed to enjoy the whole thing. Really, they did. They wrote all about it through their own, uh, peculiar lens, but the whole thing went over like gangbusters.

I am now asking you to do the same with their national pastime.

Yes, I realize many of you think this is untenable because a) the games are on at awkward times and b) you don't care. I'm not entirely sure what I can do about that second one, but luckily this weekend I have a solution for the first one.