Tuesday, June 29, 2010

We'll Always Have Pretoria

As I've now had three days to cope with the U.S.'s untimely ouster in South Africa, I'm slowly coming to grips with once again dealing with this "The U.S. will never care as much about soccer" nonsense. I'm not naive enough to think that the United States is actually on par with teams like Brazil or Germany, but as I've tried to explain to people, they don't have to be. The toughest part of the World Cup for a non-elite team is getting out of its group. Once you're in the knockout phase, all bets are off and the best team either overall or just that day, doesn't always win.

Well, the U.S. did that. We got out of our group, winning it for the first time in decades, but in the end, two home run balls, an incorrectly played bounce and a slew of missed opportunities in the final minutes of regular time were enough to bounce the Yanks from the World's greatest sporting event in the round of 16 against Ghana Saturday.

This is a frustrating end to a Cup that started out with so much promise, gave the U.S. an oustandingly favorable draw in the knockout stage the likes of which we may never see again, and perhaps the single greatest moment in the history of U.S. Soccer. It is hard not to leave disappointed, but that disappointment may very well be a good sign for the future. The only comparable moment in my life for this came in the U.S.'s loss to Germany in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. That was indeed disappointing, but that disappointment came because they had come so close to achieving something so unexpected and special that we wished we could have had it.

That's not the case in 2010. This time we're disappointed because there was so much more available for the taking and we should have had it. That's not to say Ghana's victory was a fluke. Obviously, they are a strong side and the very fact that they eliminated the U.S. four years ago as well is evidence to their consistency -- albeit bitter evidence. Still, the United States were the prohibitive favorite going into Saturday's match, and with a relatively weak quarterfinal matchup laying ahead, the prospect of suddenly having as easy a walk as the U.S. could ever have it into the semifinals was staring Bob Bradley's men in the face.

They dropped the ball. And they know it. But this, too, is a good thing.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Donovan to the Rescue

I remember in the fall of 2006 when I attended a Northwestern football game and talked to an alum who had attended Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. I asked him what the stadium was like after Endy Chavez's historic catch and he responded to me that dozens of people were hugging him and jumping on top of him, and he couldn't possibly have cared less about it. The euphoria of that moment was simply too strong for him to mind being violated.

I had never quite had a moment like that with complete strangers until Wednesday, when Bert and I saw Landon Donovan save U.S. Soccer in the 91st minute against Algeria to put the Americans through to the knockout stages of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. We were watching at a sports bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn called 200 Fifth, which was not overcrowded, but a decent, and involved crowd nonetheless. By the time Donovan, arguably the greatest American player ever, poked Clint Dempsey's rebound into the net, it was almost entirely full, and while I had begun to accept that the flurry of unconverted opportunities were about to leave us on the outside looking in, in that moment the bar erupted.

Strangers jumped on top of me and hugged me. I had no idea who they were. And I did not care.

This was one of those great moments that make sports worth watching, and while I did think it was a bit odd that one bar patron rubbed my tummy while I was standing on top of my chair screaming with my hands on my head, the excitement of Donovan's score was enough to get me to forget about being personally violated for a few seconds. As someone who follows the U.S. soccer team and has on more than one occasion had to defend his refusal to pick a European nation to support because the Yanks had no chance, this was a moment of joy and redemption when all seemed nearly lost. In short, it was what makes sports great, and when you take a minute to sit back and look at the tournament, that's not even the best part.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Welcome Back, Jason!

If you are a Devils fan there are a number of moments you cling to from the past 25 years of history. Clearly the three Stanley Cup Championships take primary placing, but other exciting ones such as John McLean's overtime winner that put New Jersey in the postseason for the first time, Patrik Elias' Game 7 winner against Philadelphia in 2000, Jeff Freisen's Conference clincher in 2003 against Ottawa, Martin Brodeur's goal in the 1997 playoffs and Brodeur's record-breaking win against the Blackhawks in 2009 are all up there.

But for someone who grew up in the 90's and watched an unheralded dynasty come to maturity (and fall short of true historic greatness by not sealing a title in 2001), the moment that rings loudest in the franchise annals is Jason Arnott dumping the puck top shelf past Ed Belfour in the second overtime of Game 6 in the 2000 Stanley Cup Finals. The goal sealed the Devils' second Stanley Cup Championship in outrageously dramatic fashion.

Fast-forward two years and Devils GM Lou Lamoreillo, seeking to shake up what he sees as a stale roster, ships Arnott and longtime Devil Randy McKay off to Dallas for Jamie Langenbrunner and Joe Nieuwendyk. While Nieuwendyk and Langenbrunner would be key pieces of the Devils' third title a year later, Arnott would eventually wind up in Nashville where he has fashioned a solid if unspectacular career.

While the Devils have still been a solid contender in the years since and Arnott has achieved success in Tennessee, there has always been something unfulfilling about seeing the man who fashioned the greatest goal in franchise history spend most of his career in another jersey.

But that all changed this weekend, when Lamoreillo, seeking improved strength down the middle as the Devils hunt one last title before Brodeur retires and the window closes, dealt a draft pick and Matt Halischuk to Nashville for the man who made the Devils champions for a second time.

And apparently Arnott couldn't be happier.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Not That I Want To Jinx It But...

If you haven't noticed, the Mets are actually playing pretty good baseball these days. I know, I'm shocked, too, but the numbers don't lie. New York has won six straight games and jumped to a high-water mark of nine games over .500 for the season, leaving them just a half-game behind Atlanta and three ahead of the suddenly listless Phillies, whose offense seems to have come back to Earth after two outrageously productive seasons. Meanwhilst, New York, which had an offense that decided to take the day off every time its ace was on the mound, has suddenly been pounding the ball, including last night when the Amazins strung together four straight doubles in a five-run third inning of their 8-4 win over Cleveland, the first time they had turned that trick since matching the feat against the Dodgers on July 21, 1991.

Of course, while it is obviously exciting for Mets fans -- after all, the team is a Major-League best 17-5 since May 21st -- it has to be kept in at least some perspective. In this case, five straight wins, albeit on the road, against the Orioles (one of which I attended in Baltimore) and Indians, two of the worst teams in baseball, should be seen as less of an achievement than taking care of business. You can't blame the teams on your schedule, but at the same time, to be a contender you have to beat the teams you're supposed to beat. Right now, the Mets are doing just that, and with the bats and the rotation flourishing -- the starters are 16-3 with a 2.61 ERA in the last 27 games -- they are making quite a charge at contention.

The only question now is staying there, and while manager Jerry Manuel might be ludicrously putting his faith in Hisanori Takahashi and R.A. Dickey, Buster Olney is reporting that upper management isn't quite so optimistic. And thank goodness for that. After frustrating fans with their refusal to go after a potential big fish at the trading deadline, the Mets, as one of the few buyers on the market, are poised to bolster their starting rotation with some huge addition along the lines of Roy Oswalt, Ben Sheets or Cliff Lee. And all signs seem to imply that the Mets are going to get one of them.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Are You Ready For Some Futbal?

So some of you might have noticed that there's some soccer tournament in South Africa that's about to kick off. I know I have. I imagine at this point none of you will be surprised that I watch the World Cup almost obsessively considering I watch, well, just about everything else, but I'm going to make the point clear again.

I watch the World Cup obsessively.

I love watching international sporting events and this one tops it all. I have spent a number of sleep-shortened nights to watch early matches from the 2002 Cup in Japan and South Korea, I still talk about being contacted in shock by several fans at once after Zinedine Zidane's head butt and red card against Marco Materazzi in the 2006 Final, I fondly recall hearing my entire science hallway erupt in 2002 when we weren't allowed to watch the U.S.-Poland match, but it had been announced South Korea was beating Portugal and easing the Yanks' way to the knockout stage, and I still owe Jessica Sher thanks for calling me to keep me updated when France eliminated Brazil in Germany four years ago.

Thanks, Jess.

Yeah, I love the World Cup. It is always fun, it never gets old and it never will get old.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Smile As Broad As Its Shoulders

Yes, those of you who know me know that when it comes to matters of hockey, the New Jersey Devils are the be all and end all for my emotions. But I have made it no secret that during my time with the Chicago Blackhawks as a wee web intern from Northwestern University I developed a fondness for what was, at the time, an utterly moribund franchise. Chicago had made one playoff appearance in the previous decade when I got there, and was never anything close to a contender.

The plus side to that, however, is that copious high draft picks mount up, and if you have a smart enough scouting staff and a savvy GM, the fortunes can turn around swiftly. Those fortunes all came to fruition last night when the Hawks knocked off the Flyers, 4-3, in overtime for their first Stanley Cup in 49 years. Now, some might harp on the fact that Patrick Kane's game-winner was one of the more bizarre incidents I've ever seen in sports, as colorfully painted by the announcers whom had absolutely no idea what was happening, but it doesn't matter. A good goal is a good goal, and if you're in the right place at the right time like Kane, the good goal makes you a Stanley Cup Champion.

Awkward or no, my guess is the Windy City won't be caring. And neither do I.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

An Ode To My Car: RIP 1994 Toyota Camry Wagon: 1994-2010

As one makes a number of road trips around the country to see sporting events there is one item that is nearly unparalleled in its importance to the mission. A car. If you live in the heart of the northeast megalopolis, an automobile will get you more places than you could possibly imagine as you try to strike one team after another from your final list.

In the decade or so that I have spent getting from one stadium to the next, the one and only car I have ever considered my own, a 1994 Toyota Camry Wagon, has been a crucial part. The automobile, which you see a photo of wrapped in saran wrap after a night of drinking in 2004 to the right, has taken me to a number of arenas and states, which I will list later on in this post. Indeed it has been a major part of both my teenage years, my college years, and one of the bigger journeys I will venture on in my life.

It is that knowledge that gives me the heavy heart to announce that after 17 years, my Camry appears to be at its end. It is heartwarming to know that not everyone gets the same value for their money that my family did with this wonderful beige mistress, but that makes it no less upsetting to finally see such a major player in my life leave me.

Among the memories that I will have shared with this car are:
-- Passing 110,000 miles on one of my many drives to Fairview Lake YMCA Camp
-- Passing my driving exam in Lodi, New Jersey in September 2002
-- Failing my first driving exam in Rahway, New Jersey on July 15, 2002 because I couldn't see past my evaluator's bee-hive hairdo
-- Once accidentally hitting 120 miles per hour on a drive to a friend's lake house in Pennsylvania
-- Making multiple drives from my house in Millburn, New Jersey to my senior college apartment at 2060 Ridge Ave in Evanston, Illinois. The drive was exactly 800.0 miles.
-- Getting four tickets in the span of one week in March 2007
-- Being asked by my mother why a friend's bra was randomly in the back of the car
-- Explaining to my mother in complete honesty that I had no idea how the bra got there
-- Accidentally rear-ending that woman in the middle lane of Millburn Avenue
-- Accidentally backing into another car pulling out of a parking spot in the Millburn High School parking lot
-- Accidentally slamming into the support pole of the parking deck at the Loews Theater in East Hanover, NJ
-- Driving along I-94 to the United Center during my career-changing internship with the Blackhawks
-- Getting a ticket on Lake Shore Drive that required traffic school
-- My first ticket in a Maplewood, NJ, which I got for failure to yield to a pedestrian as I was slowly turning into a parking lot on Maplewood Ave
-- Moving into my first adult apartment
-- Leaving a friend's house to find my car covered in chalk graffiti with such statements as "Steph K is hot"
-- Finding the next morning that my most hated of nicknames was also written in enormous letters on the roof
-- Not cleaning the car off in time, which enabled "Steph K is hot" to permanently be burned into the paint
-- Arriving at my car to find the driver's side handle filled with chunky peanut butter
-- Accidentally snapping the handle on the driver's side door because it was frozen in a sub-zero Chicago winter
-- Proceeding to enter my car through the passenger-side door for more than a year because I was too lazy to get the handle repaired

I imagine many more will come to light in the next few days, but as it stands those are just a handful of the memories that will stick with me on my first car.

Monday, June 7, 2010

My Night With The Kid

Some of you might recall that I was planning on posting an entry about Ken Griffey Jr. in response to his retirement last week before it got obscured by the considerably wild story of Armando Galarraga's botched perfect game. While this did push Griffey's meek exit from Major League Baseball into the background for a few days, Junior will clearly be the more remembered part of baseball and American cultural history.

And so, in his honor, so to speak, I am posting an excerpt on my visit to the place that wouldn't exist without his heroics, Safeco Field in Seattle, Washington. This is a peculiar entry in that I'm editing it from a much larger chapter that encompasses a wedding in Yellowstone National Park, my first visit to PacBell/SBC/AT&T Park in San Francisco, and two extremely long train rides, one from Salt Lake City to San Francisco and one from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon. If it seems like I'm jumping right in the middle of the chapter, well, it's because I am, but this seemed fairly fitting to put up here in light of Griffey's announcement. It's also among my favorite experiences I've ever had in a stadium. Enjoy.

Originally written April 7, 2010

While I don’t make a point of judging the aesthetics of transit hubs, Portland’s train station is beautiful. It is a red-roofed low rise building with a large clock tower sprouting above it that features an adorably kitschy neon sign that says, “Go By Train”. That sign was added after World War II – the station itself has been open since 1896 – and the inside is entirely covered in marble in such a way that it reminded me of a junior version of New York’s Grand Central Terminal. As you walk out, you see a view of the city as well as the ubiquitous plant life that seems to be everywhere.

I had never been to Oregon before, but I could already tell Portland was one of the more pleasant locales I had seen. Over the next few days I’d find it had no shortage of character or culture. In many ways it reminded me of the East Village in New York City without the overbearing pretension. Of course, perhaps what made me think of New York were actually the numerous pedicabs outside the station trying to court my business.

I wouldn’t need them. Dave Reis was coming to pick me up and I was plenty excited about it. Dave and I hadn’t seen each other in about a year and a half – not so long by most standards, but when you’re still in that post-college phase it seems lengthy. We had some personality differences. I was a city person, he loved the outdoors and hated New York. I was a writer, he was an engineer. But beyond that, we had established a long friendship dating from the very first day of college. Dave was on that same outdoor hiking trip I did before my freshman. Before a 13-hour bus ride to northeast Minnesota, our group had dinner at the Evanston Chili’s and afterwards, while walking to Blomquist gym, he noticed I looked fairly uncomfortable and spoke his first words to me.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Nobody's Perfect

The biggest tragedy of Armando Galarraga's 28-out Perfecto last night is that English clearly isn't Galarraga's first language. No, don't worry, I'm not about to throw every book in the state of Arizona at him, after all, the game was in Detroit, but my mention of the language barrier is that Galarraga may not have the same understanding of dry wit and nuance that can inspire brilliant commentary and quotation. And because of that he might not understand why he's so worthy of Bartlett's these days.

After speaking to the media last night, Galarraga was questioned about his emotions or anger towards first base umpire Jim Joyce, and Galarraga, who apparently is the classiest most zen act in all of baseball history, simply smiled and said, "Nobody's perfect." The staggering genius of that phrasing in that situation ought to be lost on no one.

Of course, in the grand scheme, his quote won't be the memory most people have of this historic moment gone awry, but instead the forfeiture of the single most hallowed of individual accomplishments in baseball history will in and of itself be the story. Indeed the remarkable case of a third perfect game inside the span of one month -- until this year two had never happened in the same season in the modern era -- has overwhelmed what was an outrageously busy June night in sports. Ken Griffey Jr., iconic kid of the 1990s who was originally to be the subject of today's post, announced the end of his Hall of Fame career yesterday afternoon, while the Philadelphia Flyers made it a series with their 4-3 overtime win over Chicago last night in the 2010 Stanley Cup Final.

But all of that goes to the backburner now, and as a man who has loved watching Ken Griffey Jr. and spends a considerable amount of time paying attention to hockey, I'm fine with that. Because this is a once in a lifetime kind of moment that we may never see again. And it has the power to transcend and forever change its sport.