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.

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.