Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The City Of Brotherly Disdain

Originally written July 31, 2009

It is one of my deep regrets in life that I never saw Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. Supposedly it was one of the worst places to see a baseball game, but I am a firm believer in the inability to understand joy if we don’t experience pain. That said, I have no idea how to appreciate new baseball wunderkinds without being familiar with their lesser predecessors.

And the Vet was, by all accounts, lesser. A soul-less cylindrical wasteland not unlike Shea, its most exciting characteristic was its on-site courtroom and jail cell for Philadelphia’s more animated fans. Those particular animated fans may be more the norm than the exception in my mind, but that is, I ought to admit, perhaps unfair.

I come into this story with an ax to grind. As a lifelong Mets, Giants and Devils fan, the city of Philadelphia is not my favorite. Throughout the late 1990s, the Devils and Flyers regularly battled for the Atlantic Division, and on two occasions, Eastern Conference Championship. As a Giants fan, my hatred of the Eagles is an unspoken certainty. As a Mets fan, the Phillies broke my heart with late season comebacks to take the National League East in both 2007 and 2008. Both years I had tickets to the first round of the playoffs to boot.

Of course, those two incidents happened after my first trip to the Phillies’ not so much warmer, gentler home of Citizens Bank Park on August 17, 2006. At that point, the city of Philadelphia had not won a title in my lifetime. And I was damn happy about that. As I was born in 1985 I had just missed titles by the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies and the 1983 Sixers. The Flyers’ last Cup was in 1975 and before that, the Eagles, perhaps my most hated of all sports teams, hadn’t snagged an NFL Championship since 1960, six years before the first Super Bowl. While the Phillies did finally end the city’s title drought in 2008 in a bizarre rain-interrupted Game Five, it was still of great satisfaction to me that the rest of the teams were unable to reach the top of the mountain.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Weekend Sports Roundup

Ok, I'm going to level with you. I had a fairly busy weekend and last night in the semifinals of my office fantasy hockey league I suffered the most painful fantasy sports loss of my life, so.....

Yeah, I don't have a story prepared for you.

I know. I know. You're not sure how you're going to procrastinate at work today, but I'm going to ramble a little and perhaps you'll be able to find some solace that way. Maybe. I have a hunch that won't be the case right away since, for me, the most exciting sports moment of the weekend came when I checked my twitter feed at the Brooklyn Brunch Experiment and found that Southampton FC had won the Johnstone's Paint Trophy.

Some of you might recall from my earlier posts that I follow a soccer team in England called Southampton FC, known as the Saints, the result of a sparsely maintained friendship I formed with a Brit named Scott Pestell eight years ago while working as a summer camp counselor. Since I started following the Saints, after an early brush with Premier League prominence -- the club rose as high as fifth in the table of England's top flight -- it has been a rough period for the team. Southampton has been relegated twice in the past eight years, the results of financial constraints, injuries and being put into administration. The Saints did nearly pull back into the Premier League before losing a play-off match to Derby County on PKs a few years ago, but since then it's been nothing but bad news.

Well, the red and white stripes got some good news on Sunday.

Friday, March 26, 2010

1995 NFL Mail Bag: The Detroit Lions

Looking back on it, it's hard for us to remember that there once was a time that the Detroit Lions weren't completely god awful. That time was the 1990s, when Wayne Fontes led something of a renaissance for football in Motown despite everyone thinking he looked like that creepy Italian Restauranteur who was actually selling spaghetti bolognese as a front for the mob.

In fact, however, Fontes was just a football coach, and from the looks of it not too shabby of one either. The Lions would win two NFC Central titles and make the playoffs four times under Fontes, as well as securing two more postseason berths before the decade was out. That's six if you're counting, which means in the 1990s, if you look up postseason participants in a given year the Lions are more likely to be among them than not.

Yeah, this is the same team that went 0-16 two years ago.

I bring this up because it was during this peculiar Barry Sanders-driven renaissance that I sent a letter to the Lions and received a response, according to the postmark, on March 21, 1995. Fontes was still in charge, Barry Sanders was a six-time Pro Bowler and GM was still solvent and financially independent. It was a good time for the Motor City.

It was so good that you'd think the Honolulu Blue and Silver could have sent me more than three pieces of paper and a poster, but all in all, considering what other teams sent me this was actually a pretty decent take. It's one of my favorites actually and I'll give you the two reasons why.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

18 Hours Until Geelong's First Bounce

I preface this entry with the warning that 99% will probably not care at all about most of what I write about. Don't worry, there's some basketball later. But sometimes you have to do some things for yourself. You know, artistically. So here we go.

Perhaps one of the biggest highlights of my recent jaunt to Israel was a chance encounter with a group of Australian teenagers at our hostel in Jerusalem. No, not that kind of chance encounter. This was a collection of 18-year-old men who hailed from Sydney, and what made the meeting so exciting for me is that it provided a rare opportunity to talk football.

Not this kind of football, or this kind of football. And, uh, certainly not this kind of football.

I'm talking about footy, AFL, Aussie Rules. This kind of football.

I've made mention before of my affection for the Geelong Cats, and I always enjoy the rare chances to talk shop with a native Aussie or any other AFL fan. I'm far from an expert on the game, but in a year or so I've picked up my fair amount of history, and in this case, given that I had just had one of my rare opportunities to use a computer 15 minutes earlier, I actually had the upperhand knowing Western Bulldogs had knocked off St. Kilda in the final of the NAB Cup, a preseason NIT of sorts for the AFL.

Happy to deliver the news we riffed about Gary Ablett and Leo Barry, names that you surely have never heard of before, and both of us compared our own joy over sportsfandom triumphs, in my case Super Bowl XLII, in his Sydney's nail-biting win over West Coast in the 2005 Grand Final, ending a 72-year title drought for the Swannies.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sure, Let's Make Overtime Confusing

A few years ago, my brother told me that a coworker had brought his New York Giants Super Bowl XLII Championship DVD into the office and was playing it all day. Elliott, ever the cineaste, said he admired the way the movie had been edited and were watching football games actually like the way NFL Films presented it, he might actually watch them once in a while.

So you can probably tell from this that my brother does not particularly like football.

Given that, you can imagine my surprise, when it was him of all people who broke the news to me that the NFL had voted to change its playoff overtime rules. Now, I wasn't completely oblivious. I knew it was being voted on, I just hadn't heard that the changes went through. Evidently some other major vote had been stealing headlines from it all week.

But here we are, and I suppose, with the new rule passing yesterday by a vote of 28-4, I should first explain what, exactly, the changes are. Previously, NFL overtime in both the regular season and postseason was straight forward sudden death. Flip a coin, kick off, whomever scores first wins. Period. The new rules muddy up the picture a little bit.

Now if a postseason game goes to overtime, the team that receives the opening kickoff will end the game only if they score a touchdown on their first possession. If all they can muster is a field goal, the other team will have an opportunity to respond. If the second team scores a touchdown, they win, if the second team doesn't score at all, they lose, and if the second team scores a field goal the game then moves to sudden death.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Oh, Sid. You're Adorable.

In times when the NCAA Tournament has gone so haywire that three of your Final Four teams are knocked out by the end of the second round, it's important to remember that other items on the sports landscape can still attract your attention before Major League Baseball's Opening Day.

I speak, of course, of hockey.

Yeah, I know, you all probably get tired of me talking about how awesome hockey is, even though it is, in fact, awesome. The 82-game regular season can, at times, seem like it drags on for me too, even when I'm pumping out these for a living. But I'll still argue to the death with any of you that it's more entertaining than that dog and pony show we call the NBA regular season. The speed, skill, tension and penchant for close games put it a cut above for me.

Take for example last night's game between the Kings and Avalanche, both exciting, young teams, both featuring future superstars on their rosters, both in the heat of an almost ridiculously logjammed playoff hunt in the Western Conference. Every night, we are treated to a game that is at least close for most of regulation, but on a pretty regular basis we get a game like this one, where two zany goals are scored and one of them forces overtime with less than ten seconds left.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A City Best Seen With A Map

Originally written February 17, 2010

As a child I never dealt with the trouble that comes from moving. I know many people who did and I can’t imagine having to restart my life and develop a new circle of friends. Had I not lived in the same house my parents bought in 1981 for my entire pre (and part of my post) college life, I would be completely different. Of course, it’s entirely possible I would be more able to deal with transition, which might have served me well when the Devils moved into their new home in October of 2007.

Now, this wasn’t quite the same change as when the Mets jumped across the parking lot to Citi Field 18 months later. I had spent far more time at Shea Stadium than Brendan Byrne Arena. But something still seemed odd about the opening of the Prudential Center. Perhaps it was because it was the first sporting venue in the New York Metropolitan area to open since the Byrne, which, interestingly, also opened its doors for the first time in 1981.

Perhaps it was only right that the first one of my teams to change its venue – three of them would over the next three years – came just months before I moved out of my childhood home for good, to the 21st-floor apartment I currently call home in Long Island City, Queens.

While in college I had paid a fair amount of attention to the Devils’ new arena – the planning, the spending, the groundbreaking. It would be tough in some ways to bid the Byrne its farewell. Despite watching the Devils lose the first time I went there, I had gone on a remarkable run over its final years. My mother and I witnessed Vancouver’s Todd Bertuzzi beat Martin Brodeur 56 seconds into overtime to hand the Devils a 3-2 loss to the Canucks on December 4, 2002. That would be the last time I ever saw the Devils lose at there. In fact, I wouldn’t see them lose in person again until a 4-1 loss to Buffalo on October 28, 2009 – their third season at Prudential Center.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

Of course! What was I thinking trying to actually predict the winner of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament? That was just silly. I should have known there'd be absolutely no point because I could never get the damn thing right.

Well, let's not say never. I've had a fair amount of success picking national champions and getting most of the Final Four -- though I've only gotten the entire Final Four once -- but after yesterday, it's official. My bracket has never been this dead this fast ever. In fact, I'd go so far as to say yesterday was the single most devastating day I've ever had in the NCAA Tournament.

So how did that happen?

Well, it all started with those adorable Gaels from St. Mary's who decided, "What the hell? Let's beat Villanova." And so they did, dumping one of my Final Four teams in unceremonious fashion as the Gaels played exciting, inspired basketball with a plethora of wild three pointers and 'Nova's Scottie Reynolds played basketball about as well as I do.

That's not a good thing.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Oh, Hello Round Two

Despite some painfully remarkable jetlag last night, I'm doing my best to catch up on all the sports news I missed  -- (the Browns traded Brady Quinn to Denver? Really?) -- but I think I'm doing an alright job of catching up. Jumping right into the swing of the NCAA Tournament is a sticky wicket, however, and I'm having some trouble getting everything in order. Last night at work I was struggling to stay awake and do my job competently let alone watch the tourney.

Evidently, I lost several games without even realizing it in a second day that appears to have been considerably less exciting than the first. No matter. Let's see how I'm doing.

I finished the first round 22-10, which considering I wasn't in this country for most of the last two weeks isn't awfully surprising. Of course it isn't awfully good either. Also, Barack Obama is kicking my ass. A number of my upset picks didn't come through as Louisville, Siena and Florida State all were unable to knock off higher seeds. Siena, who I had getting through to next weekend in one of my more optimistic cinderella picks was particularly painful, but all in all I'm really not shaping up too badly as far as deep teams are concerned.

Friday, March 19, 2010

I Leave The Country For 10 Days And College Basketball Goes Topsy Turvy

I'm not sure if all of you managed to survive without my whimsical musings for the last two weeks, but if you did, perhaps you're back reading again. And if that's the case, maybe my readership won't have been as punished as much as I feared it would be. Awesome.

Either way, all of you can rest easy as I am back from a wild 11 days in Israel, where I saw new cities, wild landscapes and very little of the American sports scene. It should be noted, unfortunately, that I was unable to track down an Israeli national team hockey jersey -- I did find a bootleg copy of NHL 2K10 for Wii at a street market in Tel Aviv, however -- but that was hardly enough to bring down the rest of what was an amazing trip. In a visit that provided little in the way of Israeli sports, I was still able to get a feel for how the country feels for soccer and basketball. One night at a bar in Jerusalem I heard an entire street erupt after a major shot in some basketball game. Earlier that evening at our hostel, a number of Israelis were crowded around a TV for Maccabi Tel Aviv's game against Real Madrid.

Basketball would be on my mind, too, though not of the Israeli variety. No, I was primarily concerned with finding some way to learn the field for the 2010 edition of March Madness, and unsurprisingly I wasn't the only one who was anxiously awaiting the release of the NCAA Tournament bracket on Sunday night. It was actually Monday morning for us -- early Monday morning -- as our group woke up at 3 a.m. that day for a sunrise hike to the top of Masada. Because of the scarcity of internet access, keeping up was tricky, though I did see some of the more bizarre stories of the past two weeks. On the dark bus ride to our early morning trek, we hastily got word of the tournament field on one person's international blackberry, and little by little we began to figure out who we'd have in our Final Fours.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

So I Guess I'm Missing Christmas. Well, Hanukkah.

It's entirely possible that there are some people out there reading this on a regular basis who don't actually know me, but I'm highly skeptical. And if my inclinations are, in fact, correct, me pointing out on here that I'm going to Israel for 11 days on Monday is probably unnecessary, but just in case you missed the memo, I am leaving for Israel on Monday.

What does this mean for you?

Well, probably not a whole lot in your day-to-day lives. I think the vast majority of you get by without seeing or speaking to me every 24 hours, but if part of your daily routine involves reading my absolutely phenomenal musings, well you're about to take a break. I'm not sure how much internet access I'm going to have in the holy land over the next two weeks -- I'm expecting it to be almost none -- but the upshot of that is most e-mails won't be answered and it's extremely unlikely that I'll actually be able to post any blog entries.

If I do, consider it a present. From me to you.

If I have the time to post a full story before I head out -- this is looking unlikely -- I will do so Monday morning just so you have one last bit of entertainment before I'm gone.

What this all means for me, however, is that last night I realized that I will be missing perhaps the holiest of holy days on the sports calendar. Due to a massive oversight on my part, I will probably be hiking up Masada or somewhere else in the Negev at the time CBS unveils the 2010 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament Bracket.

Friday, March 5, 2010

1995 NFL Mail Bag: The Los Angeles Rams

One of the things that makes you feel old is when you sift through your old mail to find indicators of the past. This can take many forms: friends you no longer talk to, relatives who are no longer living, middle school teachers you no longer see for 7th period social studies or, in some peculiar cases, sports franchises that no longer exist.

This brings us to the next team on my 1995 Mail Bag list: The Los Angeles Rams.

The fact that I even have mail from the Los Angeles Rams is pretty remarkable considering when I did this project. The postmark on the envelope is May 8, 1995, which must have been before the Rams pulled up stakes for St. Louis after a protracted legal battle with the NFL, but the Rams did indeed spend that fall in the Gateway City, where they still reside. I'm not sure how I managed to get this lucky, obscure pieces of NFL history are always fun to uncover, and in fact, I had entirely forgotten that the Rams were still in L.A. when I wrote all these letters.

Given that they were moving to St. Louis shortly after, something that made Tania Ganguli and the four other remaining Rams fans in southern California cry, my guess is they were doing their best to get rid of all the remaining stationary. As per wikipedia, the Rams had waned in importance on the L.A. sports scene and were seeking a way to bring value back to the franchise as they were unable to compete in their current home stadium of Anaheim. Interestingly, the Rams' move was blocked by several owners who chalked up their struggles to incompetent management rather than a bad market.

Somehow, I don't buy Frontiere's argument.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Wrights Of Spring

Yes, I know, considering that David Wright didn't actually play in yesterday's spring training game against the Braves that title doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Apparently there was rain early in the day and every Mets starter is descended from the Wicked Witch of the West so they pulled them all before first pitch. Either way, baseball is back. It may be entirely meaningless, dull, unimportant baseball, but it is still baseball.

And in this case it was winning baseball. Yeah, I was shocked, too, but sure enough here we are. The Mets topped the Braves, 4-2, which, given that it's spring training, doesn't matter at all, but first baseman of the future Ike Davis did go 2 for 3 with an RBI and a run scored. There's that to cling on to. More importantly though, it was just nice to watch some baseball. I missed green grass, the deliberate pace and Mets announcer Gary Cohen's extreme hyperbole when he described the game as a "big win" for the Mets after the final out.

I'm all for painting things in a positive light, but this may have been a wee bit extreme on Cohen's part. After all, it's the first game of spring training. It might be the absolute least important game the team plays all season. Either way it was nice to see someone swinging a bat in a mildly competitive fashion. It would have been nice to get a look at newest Met Jason Bay, but what with that tenacious rain and all, we may have to wait until this afternoon.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Making A Bad Decision

 Originally written April 19, 2009

The dull box of Brendan Byrne Arena has played a much larger role in my youth as the first home of my New Jersey Devils, and likewise Madison Square Garden for the New York Rangers, but remarkably enough, I had actually made my first visit to the Byrne a month before that fateful loss to Toronto, when I went to see the Devils’ co-tentants, the New Jersey Nets. My first professional basketball game was on November 11, 1995. That morning I was playing in a pee wee football game in Summit, New Jersey, when a parent of one of my teammates offered my father their tickets for that night. I had never been to an NBA game before, so I was fairly excited, but despite that, I remember shockingly little about the game itself.

The Nets were playing the Sacramento Kings, this much I recall, and the Nets won by an 86-84 score as the Kings fired up a three-point shot at the buzzer that bounced off the rim. The more impressionable aspect, however, was the horrific weather that night. The Meadowlands of northern New Jersey are a large flat area where wind can pick up and wreak havoc, which has often been an element of difficulty for punters when the Giants and Jets play across the parking lot. On that particular night, when there was a massive thunderstorm, my father, my friend Matt Nedostup and I sprinted from the arena to our car, at one point on the trip seeking refuge behind a parked 18-wheeler as a break from the swirling winds. By the time we were once again under a roof we were completely soaked.

Much of the in-game experience that night is a total mystery to me. What I remember of the arena itself has long been pounded into my head by my many trips there to see the Devils, and the inside feels fairly similar except the center of the action is wood rather than ice. I’ve only been to a handful of Nets games in my life, though a game in 2003 between the Nets and Pistons does come to mind. The Nets were a double casualty of both only a scant interest in the NBA in my childhood and the fact that when I finally did get sucked into professional basketball, it would be the Knicks that I’d call my team.

This was a bad decision.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Of Course I'm Right The One Time I Don't Want To Be

I'm sure you all fondly recall Saturday when I stated my big concern with Canada facing the U.S. in today's Gold Medal Game because I didn't think the Americans could knock off a more talented Canadian team on its own soil.

Well, I was right. In heart-breaking fashion.

I don't know how exactly to quantify or describe all of the emotions and tensions that came throughout what was, without question, one of the greatest hockey games I've ever watched, but I'm going to try. Sort of.

This game was played with the type of taut atmosphere you find in Stanley Cup Finals and Super Bowls. In fact, Super Bowl XLII was the last time I recalled being as emotionally involved or excited in a sporting event. I spent much of the afternoon gnawing on fingernails and sitting with nervous energy. I was unable to sit near the end of the third period and when Zach Parise tied the game with 24.4 seconds remaining the outburst of joy was not only palpable but loud. Very.

This was a game that created that type of atmosphere and bred that emotion, and what may have been most remarkable about it, was that nearly everyone I knew, for whatever reason, couldn't stop watching despite however high or low their fandom might be. In fact, my friend Jenn, who aside from attending a Bruins-Devils game with me in Boston a year ago, has almost never talked with me about hockey, was mentioned on that bastion of hockey news known as BBC Sport for her opinion on the game (see 1320).