Wednesday, October 24, 2012

NFL Picks Week Eight: Time passes much too quickly

During my sophomore year of college I lived next door to two men who represented very different cities. Of course, if you want to be really specific about it, Evan and Alan weren't from San Francisco and Detroit so much as they were from Piedmont, California (which has had its own fun bit of news recently) and Farmington Hills, Michigan, but there was no doubting the metropolitan areas and sports teams with which they identified. Their annual Madden franchise seasons would often end with their San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions facing off in the NFC title game and a simulated Super Bowl that no one felt the need to play. The real champion had already been decided after all.

Evan and Alan's run-ins with their sports teams have not happened often in real life though. Sure the Red Wings and Sharks have had their fair amount of postseason meetings, but that, as long as they've known each other, has been where the line has ended. Their teams rarely faced off, and have never done so with a championship on the line.

That trend ends tonight.

At the beginning of this year's baseball season, I made the prediction of a San Francisco-Detroit World Series, a bit of prognostication I got right for the first time since, well, probably ever, but even then I knew it could mean an unwanted bit of tension between the two former roomies. We time will yet be able to tell if the two manage to remain friends during what is likely to be a bitter, tightly-contested World Series, but in many ways it feels like a strangely appropriate time for these two franchises, which have a combined 30 pennants between them, to meet in the Fall Classic for the very first time. That is because when Game 1 starts tonight in San Francisco, we'll be seeing a matchup of two teams I very closely associate with two of my good friends from college, and this weekend just so happens to be my five-year reunion at Northwestern University.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

NFL Picks Week Seven: The ultimate test of Nap Time's impact

Oh, those plucky Wildcats. They are a pip, are they not? See anyone who has had the misfortune to call themselves a fan of Northwestern athletics has come to terms with two very clear, immutable truths.

A) Northwestern will never make the NCAA Basketball tournament. Ever.
B) Northwestern's football team will be pretty good even though no one else believes it, and said team will always lose when it finally has an opportunity to prove it is a decent team.

Don't believe me on that last one? I've got a whole host of bitter, painful losses that could back that up. There was another cruel, bitter reminder of this just two weeks ago when my Wildcats decided to wave bye-bye to an 11-point fourth-quarter lead when we were ranked for the first time in four years at Penn State, a school, that two years ago rallied from a 21-point deficit against us to give Joe Paterno his 400th* career win. In fact, in the 10 seasons in which I have faithfully watched Northwestern fling the pigskin, I have seen a track record littered with these kinds of debilitating setbacks.

It's what we do.

That loss at Penn State two weeks ago was particularly irksome since a win would have given Northwestern its first 6-0 start in a while, and by "in a while" I mean "five decades". Conveniently, that 6-0 start was also the last time Northwestern was ranked No. 1 in the country. Now, I know 6-0 starts are not exactly as exciting as they used to be since most schools have a tendency to open up the season with four cupcake non-conference opponents. Northwestern's 2012 schedule wasn't too different, although three of the four teams the Cats played, Boston College, Vanderbilt and Syracuse are all in BCS conferences, but regardless of who was on the schedule, a 6-0 start would have not only meant a national ranking above 20 for the first time that I can remember, but the inside track at Northwestern's first real Big Ten title shot in oh..... a decade or so, and maybe their last decent chance in a while.

Some of you might think I'm dreaming and being fanciful, but when you look at the facts, I'm not wrong. To wit: The Big Ten is down on the whole this season. Michigan State's pre-season talk is appearing to be a mirage, Michigan is talented but not yet proven, Wisconsin is having an off season despite its record, Illinois is horrible, Iowa, Minnesota and Purdue are average at best and Indiana is playing like Indiana, and arguably the best two teams in the conference, and certainly in the Leaders division, Ohio State and Penn State, aren't bowl eligible this year due to sanctions. Add into that that Northwestern's offense has been running amok most of the season on opponents' defenses, NU's defense is actually not so awful, and that the Wildcats don't play OSU or Wisconsin this year and, well, the road is about as light as it's ever going to be. And when one considers that next year OSU and Wisconsin return to the schedule while Indiana and Purdue leave it, well, it's certainly the lightest it will be in a while.

Monday, October 15, 2012

So can we talk about how awesome a day Sunday was?

You know, there are occasions where you suffer really annoying days or even really annoying weekends in the sports world. It's just kind of the nature of things unfortunately, but those things, I've found, are necessary. After all, how could I have enjoyed the Giants' two Super Bowl wins in the last five years with the appropriate amount of appreciation were it not for all of the really devastating, demoralizing and infuriating setbacks they've suffered in the tenure of my fanship. In all fairness, I probably could not have enjoyed the high points the Giants have brought in the last few years without the perspective that heartbreak brings. After all, if I ever see the Mets win a World Series, it will doubtlessly be all the sweeter after having experienced the embarrassment and pain that has been being a Mets fan for the past 20 years or so.

But in addition to enjoying championships, there are simply little things, a lucky confluence of events that make you happy -- great days where everything in the sports world that you're hoping for goes your way. And boy howdy was yesterday a great day.

See the New York Giants entered this week about to experience what can in no uncertain terms be considered an utterly brutal stretch of their schedule. Every game Big Blue plays from here on out will either be against a division rival or against a team that made the postseason last year. This includes matchups with the Steelers, Falcons, Packers, Eagles, Cowboys -- even the Redskins are looking less and less like the NFC East's weak link by the week. So when New York headed out to San Francisco for a rematch of last season's NFC Championship Game, the prevailing narrative appeared to be that the Niners, perhaps deserving of consideration as the best team in football after consecutive poundings of the Jets and Bills, were destined to get revenge for January against a Giants outfit that, despite its defending-champion status, was simply not up to snuff after a rocky 3-2 start to the season.

Indeed, it appeared that very well might be the case when the game started, as San Francisco reeled off back-to-back 12-play drives that seemed to show offensive versatility and dominance even though the 49ers managed to come away with only three total points. It was at this moment that I started to get concerned the Giants might be missing out on a golden opportunity considering what had happened earlier in the day.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

NFL Picks Week Six: This is why everyone hates the Yankees

Well, I don't really hate the Yankees, truth be told. My relationship with New York's other baseball team is actually a bizarre and somewhat circuitous one that vacillates between hatred and indifference. When the pinstripes won the World Series in 1996, 11-year-old me was actually vaguely excited and impressed by the pageantry, but by the late 1990s and early 2000s jealousy had reared its ugly head and I was full of flat-out hatred for that team in the Bronx. It was a pretty standard trope for folks like me, die-hards who watched diligently as their team suffered one disappointment after another while the other team in the public sphere won four championships in five seasons -- all during my formative years as a sports fan to boot.

But then in college, things got weird.

Everyone has a tendency to be curious, to wonder, to experiment just a little, and in my case that took the form of a girlfriend who happened to feel about the Yankees the way I felt about the Mets. This wasn't as big an obstacle as one might think even though when I was first told of her Yankee fandom my immediate -- and entirely serious response -- was "Oh, we'd probably never get along," but for the duration of our relationship my disdain for the Yankees was muted almost entirely and by the time we broke up I had no energy to re-discover the hate.

I haven't found it yet either, and I don't really plan to. After all, the Yankees and Mets play just six times a year -- four starting next season -- and don't directly compete for a playoff spot. But I know all too well why everyone else hates them and periodic reminders come up. Look no further than earlier this season when my father and I saw the Yankees play the Blue Jays and while Toronto would eventually win the day, it took 11 innings. That game appeared all but over in the ninth until Derek Jeter, whose long-ball proficiency I had been deriding all game, clocked a game-tying dinger to force extras, which prompted from me the only response anyone ever has in these situations.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Black cards, black cars. All black everything.

In the last few years there's been an almost shocking explosion in sports stadia in the New York metropolitan area, something of a remarkable development considering that none were built between 1982 and 2007. Since then, however, the Devils, Mets, Yankees, Giants and Jets have all gotten new buildings, while Madison Square Garden has been undergoing a multi-year renovation that, given its cost, might as well be a whole new building anyway.

And then there's the Barclays Center, a new building for the recently re-christened Brooklyn Nets that has flipped the dynamic of New York basketball while bringing a new world class arena to an area that already seemed about as built up as could be. See before the Nets pulled up stakes from New Jersey at the end of last season after a 35-year stay and ditched their eternally late-90s/early 2000s-esque blue and red and occasionally silver uniforms for a much more minimalist -- and snazzy -- set of black and white duds, they were more or less an afterthought in the New York sports landscape. Sure, the Nets had made back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in the early 2000s with one of the more exciting teams in recent memory -- a group composed of in-their-prime stars like Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin with a strong supporting cast like Richard Jefferson and Keith Van Horn that pushed the ball electrically under the stewardship of Byron Scott. And sure, they were by leaps and bounds more successful than the colossal cluster playing out the Isiah Thomas error (note: not a typo) at Madison Square Garden.

But much like the Jets to the Giants, the Mets to the Yankees or, perhaps more closely, the Devils to the Rangers, the Nets would never have the same magnetism and cache as the Knicks regardless of far superior on-court successes. New York was the 'Bockers' town, particularly considering the Nets toiled in the aimless swamps of New Jersey (though they did play on Long Island while in the ABA).

The Barclays Center just might change that, though. The Knicks will never play second fiddle in the Big Apple, but the Nets are angling for a sizeably larger piece of the pie by moving to Brooklyn to become the borough's first major league sports team since the Dodgers left in 1957 and by opening up a brand-spankin'-new world class arena at the cross section of several major neighborhoods. This brought with it much buzz and much controversy, and for me, of course, much curiosity. After all, checking out these new stadiums is kind of my thing, and with one so close I just would have to jump on the opportunity.

Doing so is kind of tricky with the Nets not opening their home schedule until Nov. 1, but, as we Jewish suburbanites so often say, "Thank goodness for Jay-Z."

Thursday, October 4, 2012

NFL Picks Week Five: Wait They're Still Playing Baseball?

You'll have to excuse me if I didn't realize they were still playing baseball. See, I've been following a team that hasn't been playing meaningful baseball for months, so I pretty much assumed the games had all stopped. Also, I was a bit busy paying attention to the championship of a sport that was totally way more exciting.

Whoops.

Far be it from me to not realize that Major League Baseball wasn't done yet, and that we had a triple crown winner to boot. So I guess given all of that, it's time for me to take a long, hard, nuanced look at the teams vying for the 2012 World Series title and tell you just who, exactly, is going to win it all. This, unfortunately, is complicated by two very big problems. The first one is that I haven't really been paying a whole lot of attention to baseball over the second half of the season since my team would almost certainly have been relegated to the minors if American baseball had that kind of a system. The second issue is that MLB's new two-team Wild Card system with its bizarre one-year-only lower seed opening at home in the Division Series thing is confusing me so much that I don't really know who's going to have an advantage depending on whom they actually play.

Seriously, it makes no sense. But I will tell all of you this, which is certainly an uplifting situation. I did watch most of yesterday's Rangers-A's game in which Oakland won the AL West after leading the division by itself for a grand total of zero days this season. And goddamn, those yellow jerseys they've got are sweet, aren't they? I mean look at them. I'd buy one if I wasn't so attached to my minor league baseball team.

So really, what this all means is that most of what you're about to read is based mostly on hunches and very little on actually educated knowledge. As a result, you should probably bet your entire life savings on it because what you're about to read is so-so right, it'll totally make back all the money you lost by leveraging your future on my not-entirely-correct preseason picks -- though I totally got three of the division winners and six of the 10 playoff teams right.

Be impressed people.