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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
It's that special time of year again where we all become convinced we can do the impossible and actually fill out an NCAA Tournament bracket correctly. At this point, I'm not sure why anyone really ever feels confident and conclusive in their picks. As I explained to a friend last night, the NCAA Tournament is about as random as it gets. You have no control, you have no idea and everything you think you know you actually don't. If you want foolproof evidence of that, just look at pretty much any NCAA Tournament that's ever been played.
People can come up with whatever strategies they deem fit in the elusive hunt for the first perfect bracket prediction in human history -- andtheyhave -- but as far as I am concerned there is really only one strategy that makes sense. Sprinkle your first two rounds with a small handful of upsets, mostly stick with the chalk for the late rounds and then pray a teentsy bit. This, really, is the only reasonable strategy you can muster.
And why is that when the Florida-Gulf Coasts and George Masons of the world are lingering in the shadows? Because those guys getting anywhere are super, super rare. In the past nine years we've had two 11 seeds make the Final Four (George Mason in 2006, VCU in 2012), which seems like remarkable evidence that miracles aren't so miraculous, but we must also remember that in those nine years 34 11 seeds didn't make it, and only one other 11 seed has ever reached the Final Four ever in history. Indeed, runs like that, shocking as they might be at the time, are exceedingly rare. Wild giant-killer upsets will happen in the early rounds, but in the end the cream rises to the top nearly every time. The average Final Four features 1.8 No. 1-seeded teams -- almost half -- while even just a cursory glance at all of the past seeds to reach the Final Four shows that perhaps with the extreme outlying example of 2011, the top seeds are almost always the best bet to reach the tournament's last weekend, while high seeds, whatever trendy upset cachet they might have, are generally a terrible, terrible bet to reach the latter stages of March (or really April these days).
This all happens because of two truths no one really wants to openly admit when it comes to generating excitement for the annual March bonanza. 1) High seeds are high seeds for a reason: They're better. 2) Upsets are called upsets for a reason: Lower seeds are worse.
When you live in a major city and tend to run in the same social circles, it's far from unusual for you to run into people you know or find peculiar social connections with complete strangers. I am used to this phenomenon after several years of walking the streets of New York City and coming to the conclusion that, as I often say, upper-middle class 20-somethings that went to name universities live in a small world. If you've ever done online dating, you'll often find that the world is even smaller than you thought.
Sports, however, are supposed to be an escape from these types of bizarre life events.
They aren't completely free from them, of course. Various sports leagues have their fair bit of crossover, whether it be basketball and hockey teams sharing arenas or baseball and football teams dwelling in the same stadium or at least the same complex. Slate, earlier this year, ran an extremely addictive game exploiting this called "Six Degrees of Kevin Garnett", an encyclopedic generator that attempts to connect any two athletes that have ever played in the four major North American sports leagues. It's amazingly good. For instance, it can connect Hall-of-fame baseball racist Cap Anson, who died in 1922 with former Canadian-Barbadian hockey player Anson Carter, who debuted in the NHL in 1996, in just nine steps.
Those connections, however internecine and unexpected, however, are at least on the same continent. Yesterday my sports world was tumbled upside down with a peculiar announcement that will be of absolutely zero interest to anyone reading this blog who isn't me, but you're about to (maybe) read about it anyway. As a naive 17-year-old in 2002, I made a decision to jump full bore into rooting for an English soccer team, and at the behest of a one-time co-counselor at Fairview Lake, I went with the lovable Kansas City Royals-esque Southampton FC. I have written about this before.
Many of you probably don't know, though, that Southampton has a bit of a history of managerial instability. The Saints have had so many managers since I began following the team that while I'm pretty sure I can name most of them offhand (Gordan Strachen, Harry Redknapp, Glenn Hoddle, Alan Pardew, Nigel Adkins, Mauricio Pocchettino, etc) I would be hard-pressed to name all of them. The team has also had a remarkably tumultuous tenure above the field managers, with two relegations, two promotions, multiple chairmen and multiple owners -- one of whom actually died shortly after rescuing the team from financial administration.
See if you can all remember back to the heady days of early 2010. It was a wild time to be sure. Barack Obama was the first black President of the United States, we were about to see a franchise win the Super Bowl for the first time in its 40-plus year history, the Middle East and Persian Gulf were in turmoil and the Giants and Mets both missed the playoffs.
It was a different world.
It was around then that I started this here newfangled sportsing blog, which I've found to be a fun outlet though I sometimes wish I had spent the last four years perfecting other, more productive plans for my life as others have passed me by with their astounding achievements. Still, this experience has been a not-so-awful use of my time since I wrote the first entry in this space more than four years ago. However, if you've been reading this blog from the start -- and if you're a person with actual responsibilities I'd like to hope you haven't -- this was, initially, supposed to serve a very specific purpose.
That purpose was to catalog and track my progress as my set forth on the stupifying mission of seeing 122 different major league sports teams play in their home venues. So far I've done pretty well, seeing 27 new teams in the 49 months since I've started writing about it here, but I've also come to the realization that a sports-related trip once every three months doesn't exactly give you enough regular content to build and sustain a readership. And so, as a result, I've diverged, diversifying my portfolio and the various topics on here to include not just my travels, but the analytical, the quirky, the sentimental and the just plain bizarre.
Really, I have no explanation for my theory that Super Bowl XLVIII was a preamble to an impending corporate culture war between China and the NFL with the prize being total global domination. None.
I have watched a lot of sporting events in my life, which I'm pretty sure surprises none of you, and many of them can be easily recalled either for reasons of extreme triumph or brutal heartbreak. My love for the Giants, Mets, Devils, Knicks and Northwestern leave little to surprise as far as which sporting events stick out firmly in my cortex, but it might surprise some of you that of all the games I've watched in my life, one of the most painful and one that has stuck with me the most, just might be the men's ice hockey gold medal game from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Seem like an odd choice? Perhaps it is, but follow me here. I love hockey, and despite my tendencies to snark and complain about my government and those who follow the blindest levels of American jingoism, I love my country, too. So naturally, watching the U.S. men's hockey team win the highest honor of the sport on the international level is one thing I sorely want to see and which no one has seen in 34 years, but the more important aspect is that given the randomness of the short Olympic tournament and the fact that the tournament only happens once every four years. This means there are only so many chances to bring home the gold when major hockey nations like Russia, Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic and, uh, those guys to the north are also gunning for gold.
Canada, for its part, is a perfectly lovely place if I remember it correctly. Of course, I haven't actually been there in nine years so that's hard for me to verify, though am going there next week (more on that next week), but they all seem pretty nice. Except for when they get in the way. Given what I do for a living, I deal with more than my fair share of Canadians, and I've heard more than one of them get all giggly when they talk about the gold medal they won when Sidney Crosby managed to slip the puck past Ryan Miller in overtime four years ago.
And so, as the U.S. looks to finally recapture gold four years later, and has looked by far like the best damn team in Sochi so far, why am I so nervous to see those pesky Canadians standing between America and a shot at gold on Sunday?
I was talking with a friend of mine yesterday morning who covers the NFL for ESPN.com when they abruptly curtailed one of our daily conversations with, "I have to go to my top secret meeting now!"
"What's that?" I asked.
"I can't tell you. It's a secret assignment. If I could tell you it would be a nonsecret assignment."
"I don't know, but I've been sworn to secrecy. You might know by the end of the day."
"Oh, so it's like big news that will be on ESPN?"
"Yes. And everywhere else."
This had all escaped my mind and I headed off to work for eight hours and then came home to settle in for a poker game in which I lost $24, which qualifies as a win for me most of the time. A few hours into the game, a friend checked their phone and said, "Um, I think an NFL player just came out." As it turned out, this was not, exactly the case, though Mizzouri defensive end Michael Sam is likely to be the first NFL player to have done that after he is drafted this April, but upon hearing it, the dots all connected in my head and my first thought was, "Oh wow, so that's what they were working on."
My second thought: "He could be a pretty good NFL linebacker. The Giants could use that."
Amazingly, the concern over whether or not Sam will be readily accepted by his NFL peers in the locker room or if he'll have to deal with the stupidity and bigotry the American public is heir to was significantly further down the list, and in a world where Russia seems to be on the defensive for discriminatory laws against homosexuals while it tries to showcase itself to the world during the Winter Olympics, perhaps that's telling.
Michael Sam will be fine. He may or may not end up being a good NFL player, but it seems reasonable to assume that the fact that he is sexually attracted to men rather than women will not be the reason he ends up eventually not playing in the NFL when his career ends. While the reaction has been almost universally positive, there is definitely that stupid vein of thought (and as a thinking man who played football for nine years and knows the NFL exceedingly well, believe it me it is, in fact, utterly stupid) that the NFL is just not ready for the increase in media attention or potential locker room dischord this might cause right now (But we'll be just fine in a decade when no one who currently works in the League is there) because this is a "man's game" built on the artifice of faux masculinity and a facade of manly bravado. Or perhaps more disconcerting, there is the torrent of GMs insisting this will hurt Sam's draft stock even though the GM speaking in question is, in fact, not the bigoted one.
You guys, the Winter Olympics are officially underway in Sochi, Russia. As you all might remember from four years ago, I'm a big fan of the Winter Games, with particular affection for some obscure sports like curling and short track speed skating, though there is one sport, in particular, that gets my bull running when it comes to the quadrennial showdown. It shouldn't be particularly surprising which.
We, as a society, with our Snowpocalypses, sitcoms, literotica and Branjelina just love our silly portmanteaus. This got ramped up into overdrive last fall when my beloved Festival of lights fell on the third Thursday of November and gave us the gift of Thanksgivukkah. With these prior examples it would seem there is almost no end to the possibilities nor the appetite of ridiculous combined names, but all of us -- ALL OF US -- appear to be missing the boat when the biggest game crosses paths with world's biggest population.
Yeah, that's right, kids. Chinese New Year happens to fall on this very weekend, which, at the same time, just happens to be the weekend of Super Bowl XLVIII. My good friend Michael, who will not be watching the Super Bowl with me because he is a Chinese American who will be ringing in the new year with his family, coined the most appropriate terminology for this weekend, and that is:
"Gong Hay Field Goal!"
It makes perfect sense, but it also begs the question of why hasn't this particular portmanteau caught on with the public? Is it because no Chinese citizens currently play in the NFL? Is it because the NFL has blatantly ignored the growing population in the East in terms of marketing?
And so I am but left to wonder: Is the NFL scheduling Super Bowl XLVIII on the weekend of Chinese New Year one last gasp effort to co-opt the world's next superpower? After all, the NFL has already conquered the North American sports landscape and, for at least this weekend, New York City. Just ask someone who lives here. If the NFL's growing popularity and power continues to expand we may well be hurtling toward a Rollerball-esque future of sports representing corporate power and stabs at global hegemony a little faster than we anticipate. And it might just bring the real death we were anticipating.
There's something you might have noticed about me -- I don't really keep it a secret -- but I am an alum of Northwestern University, a place I couldn't be prouder of at the moment (but I'll have to get into why the NCAA is an immoral cartel some other time). It's a pretty spiffy place. The educational quality is tough to match, the proximity to a major American city is fantastic, and the campus itself is truly beautiful. Well, for about eight weeks out of the year anyway. The rest of the year it's pretty damn cold. Being as stupid as I was in my college years I opted to run outdoors throughout the winter, -20-degree wind chill be damned.
The weather was something I did not miss. Unfortunately for me and anyone else that resides in New York City over the past month, however, this Polar Vortex business had to come down and gum up the works, plunging our typically chilly January into an utterly frigid one. This has prompted a wave of people wearing layers, bright red faces and a barrage of tweets by people complaining about how cold it is as if the ability to wear the aforementioned layers does not exist. If I have any advice to people enduring these extremes, it is that, if they're not so into those temperatures, they should not do this:
They should not stand outside for five hours watching a hockey game.
I know this because that's exactly what I did this past Sunday afternoon, as my New Jersey Devils played one whole period of outdoor hockey against the New York Rangers at Yankee Stadium before standing around for 40 minutes while the Rangers scored six straight goals, as part of the 2014 NHL Stadium Series. Obviously that last bit of the whole deal didn't exactly please me, but on the plus side I got to freeze to the bone in the name of taking some pretty awesome pictures like this one or this one once the snow began to fall. And as an added bonus, the Devils shirked the temptation to wear gaudy new "futuristic" alternates in favor of their throwback uniforms from when the franchise first moved to New Jersey in 1982. Silly as they may look, I am always in favor of those fantastic green shorts.
Some of you might have noticed that there were some football games yesterday. I watched them. Some of you probably watched them. The first one, for all of its pregame sturm und drang, was actually something of a dud, as the Broncos easily and almost mechanically did away with the Patriots in what had been billed as another chapter in the eternal Peyton vs. Brady rivalry. A coworker of mine noted as the game ended that this was a big feather in Peyton's cap, to beat Brady again. I suppose for the sake of argument this is true, though I think it's kind of silly when one considers a) Peyton Manning has already been to the Super Bowl twice and won it, along with the game's MVP award, once, b) That time Peyton won the Super Bowl, he beat Tom Brady and the Patriots to get there while leading an oft-forgotten and epic rally from 18 points down to do it, and c) (This is my most fervent point, here) Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have never been on the field at the same time. Ever.
Really, it's true.
You see, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning both play quarterback, which is a position that is only on the field with the offense. Two offenses do not play on the field at the same time. Ever. So really, when Peyton Manning beats Tom Brady or vice versa they're not so much beating the other as they are beating the collection of 20 or so players that rotate in on the defensive side of the ball. This makes the whole argument kind of foolish.
This brings into focus my bigger point about why this game wasn't all that exciting and, I thought, probably wouldn't have been from the start. The Patriots this season, despite their record, were not the New England Patriots of seasons' past. Their defense was a cobbled together mix of separate parts that weren't bad by any stretch, but certainly weren't great either, their offense was one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, a few competent receivers and a brilliant coach and their schedule was a relatively easy slate that allowed them to fluff their record against a mediocre collection of division foes and a cross-conference matchup with two very bad teams (Tampa Bay and, surprisingly, Atlanta).
The Broncos, meanwhile, with the best offense in the game and a fairly strong defense to go with it, were likely to outclass a defensive unit that simply didn't measure up (like Seattle's might in two weeks) and the rest of the holes were easily filled in. Of the four teams left, the Patriots were easily the fourth best, and to me, by a fair margin it seemed.
As the clock ticked to midnight on Tuesday, I won't lie to you all and tell you I was in the most sane of mindsets. After all, New Year's isn't exactly a sedate holiday, but I think I managed not to get too crazy -- a plus since I had work at 11 a.m. on New Year's Day, which is just as fun as you would imagine. Dems da breaks, right?
But among the garbage flying around in my head at that moment -- in addition to the alcohol -- was my mental check list of things I needed to take care of in the coming days. For example, I was going to need to start looking seriously at plane fares for places like Montana, Los Angeles and Spain. I also need to finally buy my sister a wedding present, which I'm shamefully behind on doing. I also needed to make sure I had purchased enough infant Giants and Metswear for my impending nephew and try to jump start writing in my personal life again.
And then there was this thing. I'm not sure if you noticed since none of you actually read this, but I've kind of been neglecting this here blog. And by "kind of been neglecting" I mean I've "completely been neglecting" this blog. But hey, at least I know I'm neglectful. I'm working on it, I swear. Somewhere on my mental checklist between "do the laundry" and "find out what that smell in the kitchen is," I realized I needed to update you all on my 2013 year in review.
I've done this year in review thing threetimes by now, and I rather enjoy them. It's always fun to take a look back on where your life took you and how it changed. I needed to make sure I remembered to do this before I became too inundated with other responsibilities and curiosities, and while 2014 looks like it may be a doozy (I've already trekked to Long Island in a blizzard for a hockey game) I can't move on completely without meticulously categorizing the last 12 months.
So before we get to the nitty gritty, I suppose I ought to explain that I didn't write an update last week because, er, what happened last week? Whatever it was, it took precedence, and the Giants actually ended up winning on Sunday afternoon, so part of me is wondering if perhaps the secret is that I should stop writing at all. Then again, I guess there's evidence to the contrary that superstitions are dumb and all. (Unrelated sidenote I just thought of: Was Weatherford properly handling a low snap on that game-winning field goal against the Niners a universal correction for the infamous Trey Junkin game nine years earlier?)
In any event, sorry that the four of you out there who bank on this for your entertainment (I'm looking at you, Evan) had to take a week off, but as the horrendous 2013 football season winds to a close, I am back and ready to throw both last week and this week's incorrect picks at you. Before you point out the absurdity of posting picks for several football games that happened a week ago, I want to make it clear these picks all come from my Yahoo picks league, which will be made clear by the fact that a large number of them, even after the fact, are wrong.
If you still are skeptical, you need more hobbies.
Before I get there, though, can we talk about how happy I am that this football season is nearly done with? It's not that 2013 was a bad year in general. I mean, my sister got married, I made four trips to California, I found out I'm going to be an uncle and ensured my nephew's life would be ruined by purchasing his first Mets jersey for him, and I made a trip to Africa, which was still great even though the airport burned down two days before I was supposed to leave.
But let's call a spade a spade here. I like sports a lot. And if we're talking about sports, this wasn't so great. The Devils missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs a yaer after a miracle run to the Stanley Cup Final, the Knicks are a colossal disaster, the Mets saw their first sign of pulling out of the darkness go under the knife with Tommy John surgery and, well, then there was football.