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My Application to Be an NFL Coach

Dear Coachless Football Teams,

I understand your frustration in hiring a new coach to run your on-field product.  The top college coaches aren’t interested and you have trepidation about some of those who have done it before, the Ken Whisenhunts, and the Lovie Smiths, and the Lovey Howells of the world.  Hence, I’d like to take this opportunity to throw my hat into the ring.

Hey, Norv Turner remained the head coach of the San Diego Chargers for six years!  You really have nothing to lose in calling me in.  Tell you what, I’ll even pay for the lunch we have together.  You like Thai food?

I know what you’re thinking:  I don’t have any experience.   True, but what I lack in experience, I make up for with snappy answers at my press conferences.

As for qualifications, where do I begin?  I am a former Monday morning quarterback, with over 30 years of experience chastising coaches for moves that, with the benefit of hindsight, seem incredibly stupid.  I have a very good record of pointing out what should have been done after the fact.

I am a badass, but a player’s coach.  To wit, I run my practices like a drill sergeant, but allow my players who display exceptional effort on the practice field to earn coupons for “one free back rub and tub soak.”

Each day, I am the first one to arrive and the last one to leave the facility.  (Though I do require an eight-hour lunch/siesta in the middle of the day.  Genius needs its rest.)

And I demand that my players will have the best endurance in the league.  I’m like Michael Douglas in ”Miracle.”  (Or was it Kurt Russell?  Y’know, I shouldn’t get them confused, but I do.)  I don’t run two-a-days, I run three-a-days.  And every practice is in pads.  In fact, I require my players to wear pads 24-7, even on off days.  They can only take them off when they shower.

From a strategy point-of-view, I can tell you that a prevent defense doesn’t prevent anything.  So I won’t use it.  A prevent offense, however, I use almost exclusively when in the red zone.  It helps to reduce turnovers close to the goal line which always sap a team of much needed momentum.

In this formation, when the ball is snapped and the offensive line drives the defense into the end zone, the quarterback hands the ball off to the running back who then scampers all the way down to the other end of the field wasting valuable time the defense would otherwise have to get the ball back and tie the game after we punched it into the end zone.  I got the idea from a recent rousing game of ”keep away.”

Defensively, I am just as adept at confusing the opposing team.  Cover-2?  Yeah, too weak.  I use the cover-11 and drop everyone into coverage.

I don’t carry a punter.  The game has four downs and I like to use them all.  Punters just take up a roster spot.  So I usually carry a fourth quarterback.  Tim Tebow will not be one of those four quarterbacks.  I see him more as a down lineman type in my scheme.

”Game management” is my middle name.  When the ball is in our quarterback’s hands with a minute thirty or less, that’s when we’re at our best.  We play the entire game as if that were the case.  The hurry up offense has never been as fast.  The second the center gets to the ball, he’s told to snap it backwards, whether the quarterback is ready or not.

Sometimes I put all four quarterbacks on the field at the same time and get the defense to try to guess who’s going to get the snap.

I’m versed in the pistol, shotgun, run-and-shoot, hit-and-run, pick-and-roll, the wildcat.  I also have perfected formations known as the musket, laser, Shangri la, and the Mississippi midnight mosey.  (The last one is a dance step, but I have a feeling I could integrate it into the offense seamlessly.)

I’m known for the sheer volume of times I employ the on-sides kickoff.  It softens the receiving team up until they don’t expect a long kickoff.

The types of players I am most fond of are tall and lanky wide receivers, that run a 9.0 80-yard dash or faster.  (I don’t believe that a 40-yard dash can adequately gauge a person’s speed and I believe that running them 100 yards is useless as there’s no purpose for that type of distance in American football.)  Someone like former NBA star, at a height of 7’6” Shawn Bradley would be ideal for my pass plays.

My cornerbacks need to have loose hips and tight necks.  So they can only stare at what’s directly in front of them but can constantly change that point of view.

Did I mention I am a tireless workaholic?  I watch film constantly.  For instance, I just finished “Argo.”  It was breathtaking.  I’m considering running a few plays like that.

I even write my own cheers for the cheerleaders.  ”One-two-three-four, we’re not gonna pass no more.” It’s actually my way to call the play to our quarterback.  (The one flaw is that if the other team realizes it’s not a real cheer, we’re in trouble.)

I grow my mustache like Andy Reid, spit when I talk like Bill Cowher, wear a fedora like Tom Landry, a sweater like Mike Ditka, and a hoodie like Bill Belichick, all at the same time.  My nickname is, in fact, ”Bum.”  According to ancestry.com, I am 1/128th Harbaugh.

On a side note, I am an amateur horticulturalist.  What do I grow?  I grow Bill Parcells Coaching Trees in my greenhouse.

”Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” was Coach Vince Lombardi, the man for whom football’s ultimate trophy is named.  ”Winning is something that isn’t nothing” is mine.  I live it, I breathe it, I want it etched on my tombstone.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m good with soundbytes too.  ”If we score more points than the other team, we will win the game.”  ”I can’t have a bunch of guys peeing themselves in the middle of a playoff game.”  ”Exhibitions are for museums!”  Those were all gems I’ve uttered at one time or another.

I mentioned the press conferences earlier.  They’ll become must-see television.  Great fodder for the media and we all know the fans love an engaging coach as much as they love a winning team.  Look at Jacksonville, there can’t be any other reason to continue watching them.

And not to step on the toes of the marketing department, but I have just four words to throw out to you — ”Fans Suit Up Day.”

So, in conclusion, when you’re trying to decide on a has-been using techniques that retired when Slingin’ Sammy Baugh did, consider that the game is changing.  It’s about staying one step ahead of the curve.  Getting the other head coach to lose focus for just one second as he drops his clipboard in stunned disbelief to say, ”What the –?!” as my offensive line goes into a choreographed riverdance as a new twist on the fumblerooski.

My hire will generate interest, much more than any one of a slew of standard-issue coordinators-cum-head coaches, and that’s what you need.  We may even win a game or two.  Well, as long as Cleveland is on the schedule.

If this opportunity should not pan out, I would also consider a job in concessions where I have several years of experience.  The hot dogs have to be kept at a minimum of 125 degrees, otherwise, they <i>will</i> turn green.  That doesn’t make them taste bad, per se, just different.

 

Featured Image by: digitalart

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Santa’s Wide World of Sports Christmas List

As we engage in a season of cold weather tailgating, roasting one Mr. Chesterfield J. Nutz over the open fire, along with brats, dogs, and wurst — and is there anything wurst than the New York Jets offensive ineptitude? — we barrel toward the beloved festival known as capitalism’s greatest trium– er, Christmas!

It’s that time when temperatures are low and Dwight Howard’s free throw percentage is even lower, when Santa does a check down on his list, perhaps calling an audible for those last-minute developments mussing up his BCS (Big Claus Shopfest).  (Santa has the sports package on his dish so he’s in the know at the North Pole.)

From the usual historic moments to record-setting performances to unnaturally enhanced performances to memorable blunders and self-inflicted goofs that have left us entertained, offended, perturbed, and beholden to our idiosyncratic whims, it’s certainly been a year for the fan.

Thus, it is an unenviable task he has this year as the world of sports was once again flush with compelling storylines, dynamic heroes, and reviled villains.  Though even the vilified might receive a gift as Santa believes it is better to give than to lead the league in receiving yards.

And decked out in crimson, this Saint Nick, not to be confused with Nick Saban, will soon take to the skies to deliver to all that which was earned in the year that was.  On board his sleigh this year, he has stocked these items for the following people:

“Clipper Darrell” – Your rightful place back in the Staples Center to see LA’s best professional hoops team.

Jeremy Lin – A TexMex-flavored reboot of Linsanity.

Jon Vilma – A better excuse.

Saints Bountygate – Helmet-to-helmet contact.

Jeremy Shockey – A tight end relocation program in case he was the one that ratted out the Bountygaters.

Curt Schilling – A redo in the gaming world.

Austin Collie – A desk job.  It’s safer.

Albert Pujols – A better start.

Junior Seau – A solid legacy and some inner peace.

Magic Johnson – All the batting practice he wants.

The Los Angeles Dodgers – A thank you note from the Boston Red Sox.

Andy Reid – a fresh start.

Alex Smith – a starting job somewhere as he’d probably make a pretty decent starting quarterback.

Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel – a better year, in every conceivable way.

San Diego Chargers fans – Whoever the opposite of Norv Turner is as their next head coach.

Cole Hamels – A five-game suspension where he actually misses five starts.

Andy Pettitte – Ginkgo biloba so his memory comes back to him.

Ozzie Guillen – A job coaching Fidel’s national team.

Derek Jeter – A Groupon for Jenny Craig.

Tiger Woods – A meeting with the old Tiger Woods.  Maybe he can learn something about winning.

Timothy Bradley – A win in a match he clearly gets outboxed.  (He got that gift early.)

The Replacement Referees – The knowledge that their horrendous pass interference calls live on.

The NBA – A new slogan: “NBA Action – It’s broken and we fix it.”

The NFL – A change to the rules stating that if you throw a challenge flag on a play that was going to be reviewed anyway, you will be not be penalized and it will still be reviewed.

Penn State University – A lot of mouthwash to wash that taste out of your mouth.

Olympic Spoiler Alerts – You’ll get your gift in five hours.

Augusta’s Women – Women’s restrooms.

Lance Armstrong –  A lifetime supply of “Livestrong” bracelets with the “v” etched out which feels more accurate.

The 8th place finisher in the last dozen Tour de France races– A medal.  Gotta figure he was the top clean finisher.

Lebron James – A new monkey for his back.

Stephen Strausbourg – Another 40 innings.

Detroit Tigers Third Base Coach Gene Lamont – A stop sign.

Tim Tebow – Anything he wants… er, well, except a starting job, of course.

The New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, and Detroit Lions – The extra win they deserve.

The San Diego Chargers – Oh, what the heck, you can get another win as well since you probably only gave up 28 yards on 4th and 29.  Of course, you realize how inept you were for letting it even be that close.

Shortstop Yunel Escobar – Eye black with the Spanish slur for Yunel Escobar written on it.

A-Rod – A cushion football fans use when sitting on the bench.

Shaun White – A lifetime ban from hotels.

Chipper Jones – A peaceful retirement where he can go back to his given name — Andruw.

Adam Greenberg – At least one more big league at-bat, this one against someone other than the knuckleballing Cy Young Award winner.

Melky Cabrera – A better excuse.

Derek Fisher – A new line of work now that flopping has been outlawed.

Mike Brown – The “death stare penalty” sentenced to Kobe Bryant in response to Kobe’s “death stare” at his former head coach.

Kobe Bryant – A huge party where the other guests are NBA players and coaches he’s publicly called out and ridiculed over the years.  There will be clowns and a caricature artist and a piñata.  (Three guesses who the piñata will be.)

Pablo Sandoval – Kung Fu MVPanda.

Felix Baumgartner –  A souvenir photo of his death-defying jump, like one of those snapped on a roller coaster.

Miguel Cabrera – Three crowns.

Mike Trout – An MVP to go with his ROY.

The New York Marathon – Another chance to run the 2012 marathon in 2013.

Johnny “Football” Manziel – Three more years to play like a freshman.

The New Orleans Pelicans – Nothing.  This was just an attempt to get used to their name…  Nope.  Can’t get used to it.

Dwayne Wade and Ndomukong Suh – Soap.

Dale Sveum – A bright orange jumpsuit so Robin Yount recognizes him from the birds.

Justin Verlander – A win in an important game.

Andrew Luck – Well, he certainly doesn’t need any luck so he gets just a little more seasoning.

Peyton Manning – Another Super Bowl win to put a little space between the number of titles he has and the number his brother Cooper has.

Tom Brady – Another Super Bowl win to solidify his place in history.

Jon Gruden – A coaching job so that he may bring his energy and enthusiasm out of the broadcast booth and into the locker room.

The San Antonio Spurs – $250,000 to cover their ridiculous fine for strategically resting players.

David Stern – A time machine to bring him to 2014 so that he can retire already allowing the NBA the chance to regain the legitimacy and dignity it lost spectacularly under his tenure.  Heck, he can go as far into the future as he wants.

NHL – A year off.  You’ve earned it after going so hard these last seven years.

Bud Selig – A title that has eluded him his whole career:  “Best Commissioner.”

Miami Marlins – A new stadium so you can start drawing fans.

and lastly, Bobby Valentine – Another job with a major league team, preferably one that requires him to repeat the words, “Peanuts here!” over and over again, something he may be able to handle without embarrassing himself. The operative word is may.

And after his task has been completed, Santa will then disappear along the horizon, these words echoing soundly behind him, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a fair fight,” preferably one finally between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather.

 

Happy Holidays, everyone!

 

 

Featured Image by: Feelart

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Yankees/Red Sox Fans: A Rivalry Renewed

As Fenway Park celebrates its 100th birthday, a day when the Boston Americans beat the Highlanders of New York by a score of 7-6 in eleven innings while scores of other people were being unceremoniously tossed off a cruise ship in frigid waters, we see that there is still a cold war between the two rivals.

Though the past few years have been rather innocuous, New York City (a city with a fanbase that routinely goes on Red Sox fan sites to criticize Boston backers about caring so much about what New York is doing, while at the same time, explaining how they don’t give Boston a second thought) has sunk to a new low.  (Ironic because Boston is the city that’s built on landfill.)

A controversial New York subway ad tells Big Apple commuters not to give up their seats to a Red Sox fan, even if she is pregnant.

This seems a waste of some good money, the need to recommend this behavior.  You’re talking about a fan base with members who, twice in the past decade, have literally killed Boston fans.  Believe me, pregnant Boston fans are grateful when your greatest crime is simply not getting up on a crowded train.

In fact, we’re taught to be wary any time a Yankees fan makes a sudden movement, such as standing on a crowded subway.  So don’t worry, the edict itself isn’t what’s so disturbing.  It’s the fact that this ad is an act of blatant fanism!

That’s right, fanism!  Who would’ve thought that in an age where we have a White Sox fan in the White House that we could still be subjected to this type of treatment.  All fans should be created equal.  Yes, I’m a Boston fan, but if you prick me, do I not bleed?  If you feed me, do I not burp and undo my belt?  If you tickle me, do I not laugh and then very quickly summon a policeman because, seriously, we’re grown men, why are you tickling me?!

It all begins with Rosa from Hyde Park, in her third trimester, being forced to stand on the subway until she can’t take it anymore and edges into a seat just ahead of a Yankees fan, thus earning her a citation for refusing to relinquish her seat to a non-pregnant Yankee fan.

Where does it end?  First, you don’t stand for a pregnant Red Sox fan, then you don’t allow Red Sox fans to use cabs, celebrate the Macy’s Day parade, buy M&Ms at the giant M&M store in Times Square.  (That place is like a playground for me!  Please, God, no!)

I know there are some New Yorkers out there who will risk alienation to do the right thing and let the pregnant Red Sox fans have a seat, societal customs be damned!  But this is about the authority behind the ad.

Yes, we’ve all heard the anecdotes about how Yankees fans refuse service to someone wearing a Red Sox hat in a coffee shop.  Or the deli worker who skips the number of the guy wearing the Jeter jersey.  These are individual acts and isolated.  But for an edict to be decreed by the MTA, this is too much.

You might be saying to yourself, Boston fans are just as bad as New York fans.  In many ways, they are.  They can get in your face, wreaking of peppers and onions, and fail to cover up all their bodily creases.  But listen to what they say. . . when they’re not slurring:

Boston fans hate the Yankees, as in “Yankees Suck!.”  Yankees fans hate Boston.  They mean the entire city!  “Boston Sucks” is what they scream.

Boston fans are arrested for climbing a pole or lighting a fire.  New York fans are as well, plus, uh, y’know. . . there’s also the murder charges.

Boston fans take credit for the number of championships they’ve won in their lifetime.  New Yorkers take credit for championships that were won before their grandparents were born.

(Have you ever had a six-year-old brag about the 27 World Championships his team has won and then blow cigarette smoke in your face?  It’s not fun.)

C’mon, New York!  It’s bad enough some people consider Boston to be a suburb of you.

Look at all Boston has done for you!  First off, the Red Sox and former owner Harry Frazee gave you half of their team, including Babe Ruth in exchange for a bucket of chicken and some donuts, which in turn brought you your first few championships.

Lest we not forget what city’s residents selflessly traveled the 180 miles down route I-95 during the tragic times of 2011.  You said you’d never forget.  Well, that lasted just over 10 years.  You certainly won’t be confused with elephants.  (Although from a distance… maybe just try a light beer every so often.)

Let’s go back even further and remind you that if it wasn’t for the good people of Boston, we, as a nation, might be drinking tea and watching cricket at the merry ol’ ballgrounds.  Some of those pregnant women to whom you want to give blisters gave birth to the revolutionaries that spawned this great nation; the same revolutionaries that fought for your freedom; the same freedom that allows you to decide whether or not to stand for pregnant women or not without consequence.

Show Boston that you’re leaning in the direction of right over wrong and don’t give them any more ammunition that proves their already deeply-stilted opinions of you.  You’re the bigger city.  Act like it!

I’ve met Yankees fans who don’t appreciate Boston fans and never will.  And vice versa.    That’s why they’re around, so that we, the more reasonable fans, can mock them openly on shows like “The Real Housewives of South Boston” or “So You Call that a Lougie?!” on cable access in the Bronx.

The rivalry ebbs and flows dating back before Fisk and Pinella got into it or, more recently, Varitek showed A-Rod the stitching in his glove.  Steinbrenner 2.0 tried to pick up the slack when he took over, but the fans weren’t as interested.  Nineteen games against each other every year put a simmer on things.  But someday, the fire on the field will reignite, and those players will feel the same resentment as their forebears did.  But then, they get paid a lot of money to participate in the fighting.

Let’s leave the pregnant ladies and other Boston fans out of it.  Isn’t riding on the subway torture enough?  Let them ride the No. 4 Train to the new Yankee Stadium, so that you may bilk them out of their hard-earned money with your ridiculous prices for beer and bag check.

It wasn’t long ago that we were all Yankees.  And we battled the Confederates.  I have a dream!  That one day all Red Sox and Yankees fans can come together in peace and harmony. . . to gang up on Philly fans.  Seriously, those folks don’t deserve a seat anywhere, pregnant or not!

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NCAA Tournament Fun Facts

So, are you feeling good?  Have you studied your spread sheets, win charts, RPI graphs; consulted with your insiders, your psychics, your “rain men”; input your numbers into the supercomputer specifically designed to come within the smallest of percentages of you ever having a girlfriend?

In other words, have you filled out your NCAA bracket yet?  The Madness doesn’t wait, you know.  Part of the fun is processing the myriad information of match ups and potential meetings in only a few days before making what could become your greatest achievement or your most ignominious failure.

Originally meant for a fun diversion, these pools are now hugely popular and there’s billions of dollars at stake here (legally, of course).  So each piece of information, regardless of how trivial, may mean something in your prognostication.  Though most obscure facts have found their way into papers and onto the Internet, I have found a few that you may have missed.  Feel free to incorporate this knowledge into your last-second entries.  For instance, did you know:

Rick Pitino actually receives royalties every time John Calipari copies his shtick.

Missouri is the “Show Me State,” but be warned, they actually have a law that makes it illegal to show them.

No Jewish school has ever won the tournament.  Sorry Davidson, Temple, and Murray State.

Lamar coach Pat Knight is a distant relative of legendary coach Bobby Knight… That is to say, he’s his son, but their relationship just isn’t very close.

St. Bonaventure’s nickname comes from its name (the Bonnies).  St. Louis, on the other hand, did not go with the “Louies,” instead choosing the more obscure Billikens.

Norfolk, Long Beach, and Murray are not, in fact, states.

Famous Harvard Crimson basketball alumni include Jeremy Lin, and– uh… okay, come back to this one… (there’s gotta be someone else, right?  The school’s like 500 years old.)

Duke University is the most hated college, athletically-speaking, in the Nation… and that’s before you even mention their lacrosse team.

It is written in Duke’s by-laws that they must not be ranked lower than a #3 seed and must play their opening round games in a state that borders North Carolina.

Duke and the University of North Carolina are located on Tobacco Road and therefore are not allowed inside any restaurant in New York City.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is the first coach with two z’s in his name to take his team to the tournament since Adolph “Red” Zazoo did his Fighting Lemurs in the 1940s.

Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun is a close, personal friend of mine.  He just doesn’t know it.

Brigham Young is at-large.  If seen, approach with caution.

The Florida Gators won back-to-back titles in 2006-2007.  Their success prompted a brief national craze known as Noah-ing, where one would grow his hair into a big, poofy mess and act like a spaz.

Though the term “Cinderella team” refers to one who exceeds expectations, Cinderella herself never made it past the second round.

The Virginia Commonwealth Shockers were not named for their basketball abilities, but rather for their penchant of streaking on campus.

Crosby Stills Nash and Young actually has a national championship! (1950)… I’m sorry, that’s CCNY (City College of New York), not CSNY.

The term “bubble team” comes from the fact that “not-a-chance-in-hell-of-winning-the-title team” was too long.

No one actually knows where Iona University is.  In that sense, it’s sort of like Area 51.

No #1 seed has ever lost to a #16 seed in the first round of the tournament.

Syracuse was the first #2 seed to lose to a #15 seed in the first round (ironically, a mere 24 hours after I accepted their offer to attend).  This year, as a #1 seed playing a #16 seed, they look to make history again.

And with those little tidbits sprinkled into your brain matter, let the games begin!  And may your pools be filled with the chlorine of good fortune and not urinated in by the bratty child that is elimination.

[Attached image by: Arvind Balaraman]

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Really Inside Baseball

The baseball playoffs are well underway, on a quest to find the last team standing in 2011.  Are you glued to your set?  Are you still wearing the same clothes you were wearing when your team entered the playoffs?  Can you name the team’s best hitter against left-handers after the seventh inning when facing a deficit of two or more runs?

There are many people who are obsessed with baseball.  Chances are you know one of them.  But there are comparatively few who can honestly claim to be obsessed with the baseball.  Zack Hample is one of those people. 

He’s the author of “The Baseball: Stunts, Scandals, and Secrets Beneath the Stitches,” a truly fascinating look at the game’s most important element, the one constant since the very origins of a field game from the mid-19th Century.  Players have come and gone, but the baseball has seen it all. 

Though writing is his vocation, Zack could just as easily be called a “professional fan.”  For he is a ballhawk, someone who spends his time at the ballpark collecting as many baseballs as possible. 

The New York native took time out of his 12-city, 13-ballpark tour to talk to me about what makes this little round piece of cowhide so special.  “The baseball is the object that’s at the center of the national pastime,” he began.  “The game can’t be played without the ball.”  He calls it a “cultural artifact.” 

 I think about that for a moment.  Baseball consists of bases and balls.  The ball is called a “baseball.”  The game is called “baseball.”  Without the baseball, there would be no baseball.  The sport might then have to be called “basebat” or “cleatcup” or something else related to the props on hand, no doubt diminishing its allure. 

From reading the thoroughly-researched tome, you’ll find that the controversy of the juiced ball is not a modern construct, but has survived longer than any accomplishment housed in the record books.  

In fact, it’s been criticized for being juiced longer than the leagues have been in place.  In 1867, when the ball could flop around, the Nationals of Washington were accused of “juicing” the balls by the Cincinnati Red Stockings. 

The term “tear the cover off the ball” used to be taken literally (due to the flimsy construction of it) and not simply as a hyperbolic statement describing a steroid-enraged (allegedly) Roger Clemens arguing a balls and strikes call.

Another little known fact, prior to reading Zack’s book – the baseball used to be the prize.  Winning teams were allowed to keep the ball as they were expensive and hard to come by.  “Hey, you won!  Here’s the ball.”  (That’s nothing like today’s World Series trophy.) 

Over the years, Zack has amassed a collection of official major league baseballs well into the thousands.  “It makes me very happy just to own so many baseballs.”  At press time, he claims it to be 5792 – “That kid’s got balls,” one might say – but that could change as games continue within travel distance.   

This (Pittsburgh) pirate’s booty resides in several locations. “They are mostly at my mom’s place,” he tells me, “in my old childhood bedroom, and she wants them the hell out.”  There are eight 32-gallon recycling bins that hold about 400 balls each.  Then he’s packed balls snuggly into five filing drawers.  He knows that each holds precisely 144 balls; no more, no less.   “It’s almost as if they built them for baseballs.” 

Who’s to say they didn’t?  Finally, he estimates close to a thousand sitting in various duffel bags, and maybe a hundred more in some plastic shopping bags.   

What is he saving them for?  Someday, he hopes to have children.  “I’d like to pass these along to them.  It’d be fun to dump them all out and then jump in them, play around in thousands of baseballs.”  He pauses for a moment, then proudly adds, “I like doing that now and I’m supposedly a grown-up.” 

All this for a little piece of cowhide stitched together with some yarn.  (Which one might think it’s as rudimentary as that.) 

The stitching process itself is interesting, an exhaustive and precise undertaking.  It recruits Canadian thread, Rhode Island yarn, a metal detector, a numerical code, a stamping machine, invisible ink, and the Costa Rican climate (though produced indoors with air conditioning so as not to affect the materials). 

The stitching process is done by hand where warehouses filled with slouching people hunched over balls lining fourteen rows of 25 chairs each at the Rawlings Factory in Turrialba, Costa Rica (which is of no relation to catcher Yorvit Torrealba of the Rangers.)

Read the book and you’ll discover all you wanted to know and things you didn’t know you wanted to know.  It’ll open your eyes to one part of the game you love that has been taken for granted all this time. 

The book, Zack’s third, is broken into three parts – historical and factual stuff, baseballs in the news, and, of course, snagging the ball.  The final section highlights some of the most successful ball hawks in the stands.  “Even though major league baseball is huge and spread out all over the continent, it’s still kind of a tight-knit community of guys who do this, at least to this level,” Zack explains, as one who is unique, but not nearly alone.

Pick up “The Baseball” and become a ballhawk yourself.  It’s something I’ve been sorely in need of.  I’m perpetually haunted by memories of near-misses, my thumbs and forefingers still scarred from baseballs glancing off them time and again. 

As I tell of my most recent failed attempt at snagging a ball, I am hoping he absolves me of my feelings of shame.  “Most people are just passive about catching balls,” he says.  “I think most people would love to catch a ball.  Very few people make it happen.”   

I feel a little better at my success rate.  After all, Zack’s the expert.  He is a hawk and can spot other hawks at the ballpark easily.  “I can tell pretty quickly who has a clue of what they’re doing, just by the way they’re standing, how he looks, what they’re wearing. . .”

He’s just very good at it.  By the time he was in college, he’d snagged his first thousand.

Growing up as someone who wanted to play the game, this gives him the feeling he’s part of it, a way of connecting to the sport he loves.  “It makes me feel like I’m part of the game.” 

The hobby leaves him a bit misunderstood which he seeks to correct.  “I think a lot of people assume I don’t appreciate the sport, that I’m just interested in catching balls and if I can’t do that, I don’t really care about the game, but that’s far from the truth.”  He doesn’t participate in fantasy baseball, but still reads every box score.

A lot of the time, he’ll go to games alone because he’s not interested in the typical leisurely passive viewing habits of the average fan.  There are not many companions that fit his criteria.  “The few times that I tried to take people, they either bitched about moving around from seat to seat or they were competing with me for baseballs.” 

Now, when he attends with friends, Zack explains, “I don’t ask them, ‘Is this okay with you?’  I just say, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’  But they’re my friends and they know how it goes, so they want to come and witness what I do, willing to switch their seats over the course of the game.” 

He’s experienced the glory of catching a home run ball held seconds earlier by the pitcher and inspected by the ump.  But he’s had his share of injuries as well.  “I was on crutches this season for three weeks because I sprained an ankle at a game.  I’ve cracked a rib in the past at a game, broke my nose slightly.”  Ah, the dreaded BDL (ballhawk disabled list). 

This last one is a sore subject.  “It’s not that I can’t catch.  If I’m camped underneath a homerun ball and some idiot comes flying out of nowhere and deflects a ball, sending it off course by an inch just over the tip of my glove into my face. . .  I’ve learned my lesson.”

The pursuit has spawned a philanthropic effort as well as he is dedicated to a charity called “Pitch in for Baseball” that provides baseball and softball equipment for underprivileged kids all over the world.  “I’m getting people to pledge money for every ball that I catch.”  Since he started in 2009, he’s raised over $20,000.  “It’s my way of giving back to the baseball world and not being a doofus in the process, running around and catching balls.” 

And as the season goes into hibernation, while those obsessed with baseball will go through withdrawal symptoms, you can be sure Zack will experience a much different sensation as he will no doubt marvel at the spoils of this year’s hard work.  (He collected 1110 balls during the regular season, continuing with nine at Philadelphia’s Citzens Bank Park, for Game One of the NLDS.)

Perhaps this is a good time to dump out a barrel and do some rolling.

[If you would like to donate to “Pitch in for Baseball,” please go to www.zackhample.com.]

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Motocross: A Battle of David and Goliath

The Pala Raceway in Southern California is buzzing one Saturday afternoon in mid-September, both literally and figuratively.  It is the whir of finely tuned 250 or 450 cubic centimeter engines on motorbikes and the anticipation of the year’s American Motocross Association (AMA) race series finale.   

The dirt track along the Indian reservation is host to hundreds of racers and thousands of fans.  To the naked eye, it’s bikers against bikers, but look closer and you’ll see the Rays versus the Yankees, Barnes and Noble versus Joe’s Book Hut, Miles Davis against a random Spaniard with a vuvuzela. . .

 Multi-million dollar factory teams sponsored by the likes of Honda, Kawasaki, and Yamaha are on the same track as much smaller operations, called privateers. These privateers put teams on the track with their own money in the hopes they can compete. 

Mike Milaccio and John Karas (along with Larry Sager) own one of those teams, Revolution2Mx.  “I started like a sponsor, but not a team,” Mike says.  “From there, John and Larry and I got our heads together and I said, since we know a kid with promise, let’s build a team; let’s make this a job; let’s build a sponsor base.”

By day, they work as corporate recruiters, but in the hidden crevices of every free moment, they are less concerned with file folders and binder clips as much as they are with shifters, sprockets, brake rotors, and rims.  “I have to do this in the morning or at night or on weekends.  I work my day job, and then get on the road and go pick up a part or go give John graphics,” Mike explains.  He then gives his boss a shout out for her generosity in giving him the freedom to do so.   

Eighteen months in and $50,000 worth of expenditures and they’re still fighting.  “We’ve grinding at it.  We’re just trying to get aligned with the right sponsor, someone to help take us to the next level.” 

Their main purchase, the bike, never earns money.  However, the return on investment is there, albeit hidden.  Mike continues, “There’s a profit at the end of the tunnel.  Once we have a sponsor, they’ll say, ‘Okay, how much do you need to budget?'”   

For that, the team of friends hustles to secure big name backers.  One that just jumped on board was Yahoo! Sports, who allowed them to run the Yahoo! flag on their bike which provides visibility for the Internet company and a name backer for the team. 

Davey Coombs who, along with his sister, Carrie Coombs-Russell, is co-vice president of MX Sports ProRacing, describes the carrot dangling in front of the privateer.  “If you’re a top, young privateer in Southern California and you go out and finish in the top 10 at Pala, you can expect a clothing deal, a shoe deal, an energy drink deal, all of those things,” he says.

The Coombs are second-generation promoters having watched their father became the de facto leader of outdoor promoters in 1998, after both parents were involved in the industry since 1974.  Now, the offspring handle the series marketing, operations, and are partnered with Alli Sports to handle the commercial aspects. 

A former privateer himself, Davey had a “cup of coffee” with a factory team – KTM – back in 1985.  (He laughs at how small they were compared to their size now.)  So he knows a thing or two about being a rider on the rise. 

Revolution2Mx thinks they have one such rider in Weston Peick.  Mike boasts, “Weston’s a great kid, upstanding, polite; not some typical racer.  He’s a normal everyday kid who happens to go that fast on a dirtbike.”

 The grizzled motocross veteran (at 20 years old), Weston left high school to conclude his studies with a home-schooling program which allowed him to graduate after tenth grade.  He says with a smile, “It’s not like I failed out or anything like that.” 

A mutual mechanic friend of theirs brought them together and so far, the match has been solid.  In Weston, they found a top notch rider already earning some sponsorships and Rev2Mx brought him a bike and a larger sponsor base.   

But the partnership is not permanent.  He’s not on any contract and the only money he’ll make is if he qualifies for an event and wins some purse money.  Should a factory deal come his way, Weston would gladly take it, along with the salary and all the perks that come with it, and if John and Mike are presented with a corporate bankroll, they would consider taking on a higher ranked rider. 

This is not to downplay the loyalty they have for each other.  Speaking of the admiration he has for his rider, Mike begins, “We might go our separate ways, but we may always circle back around.  The business is small and the talent few.”   

“It is what it is,” says Weston.  “Everyone wants that deal so you can’t be mad that they have it and you don’t.”  Until that day, he does battle for Rev2Mx as best he can against teams more loaded than his.   

As we walk the grounds, John indicates a giant trailer with Kawasaki written all over it.  “They have millions and millions of dollars invested in building those bikes and they’re not bikes that are available to the public. . . and most teams have multiple riders.” 

Larry speculates that, “For companies to sign a top rider under contract, they’re probably around $250-300k.”  Then John adds, “So our challenge right now is being the best we possibly can while spending the least amount of money.”   

At the beginning of the day, Peick is ranked 23rd for the 2011 series, but the numbers are misleading.  Mike says, “We didn’t run the whole series.  It goes back east, all over the country, so the travel gets really expensive.”  With a couple of top twelve finishes on the year, they are all optimistic at what he’s capable of.   

Overall, the odds are against him, what with 80 riders vying for 40 spots in the motos (races).  Plus these factory teams have trailers that are mobile garages.  If one of their bikes breaks, they can have a whole new bike ready in ten minutes.  Some of their components aren’t even on the market yet. 

On the other hand, a privateer has two or three of the same part ready just in case, but has far less a window of error in going against superior equipment.

Still, such odds do not deter the participants.  How does Weston hope to take out the big boys?  “I come in halfway through the moto and start charging and picking guys off.  I’m a hard charger.  Usually they start dropping off a little bit.  You start reading it and you see when it’s time to do your thing.”

Weston can do that because of his size.  At 5’11”, 200 lbs., he’s larger than your typical rider who falls in the range of 5’8″ and a buck fifty.  That makes him more durable, but he’s got to keep his own cardio up in order to keep from overheating.   

And for this team, it’s a family affair.  Weston rides, his father, Lou, works on the bike, and his family cheers him on.  All this, while sharing the tent and vehicle transportation with other up-and-coming riders.   

Next to Lou, Shane Allen is wrenching for Sean Lipanovich, a 21-year-old rider.  “I met Sean at a race,” the 20-year-old mechanic starts.  “He had issues, couldn’t get the bike running, so I got a hold of him.  I fixed the bike in about five minutes and he hired me.”  (To me, it seems like a golfer in high school using a caddy in middle school.)  

Meanwhile, fans have flocked to the sport.  In the last two years alone, Davey has seen the numbers rise exponentially of the sport his father saw to promote.  He reads me the impressive numbers he’s received from Alli — from the first six races of 2011, the total viewership was over 3.3 million.  Add to that, 232,000 live streams of the first motos on the Internet and 122,000 people in attendance.  Overall, these events were broadcast on five continents, 104 countries, and 18 languages.   

Davey credits the increase to a big shift recommended to him from Speed TV.  “After 38 years of races being on any Sunday, we moved them to Saturday making motocross more accessible for tv viewers.”  Until that shift in 2009, races were tape-delayed.   

And on this sun-dried Saturday, close to 20,000 people line the track. 

After the practice run, consisting of two timed 15-minute practices which determines who qualifies, it’s time for Weston’s moto.  The ride will last thirty minutes plus two laps.  Then he’ll have a break while the other classes run before he’ll do it a second time.   

The engines rev and the starting gate lowers.  Weston starts off well.  Standing far to the side of the starting line are his owners, the ones with as much at stake, if not more, than their rider.  They’re understandably nervous.   

Weston completes one lap while Mike and Larry focus on his position, by counting the bikes in front of him.  Larry notes, “He’s middle of the pack.”  “He’s eighteenth,” Mike specifies.  This is acceptable as they know their rider’s habit of finishing strong.

A minute later, Weston appears again, this time, pausing in front of the pit crew and waving his arm frantically, as John McEnroe might in protest to an umpire.  Something’s gone wrong. 

Mike, Larry, and John try to understand what could be happening, without panicking.  “He probably blew it up again,” John says.  

“I hope it’s not blown up,” replies Mike.  Then he bows his head.  “We’ve got the worst luck in the world, man.”

One more lap and Weston dismounts.  He’s realized the obvious — his bike has betrayed him.  After only three minutes and eight seconds, he’s out of this moto. 

He and Lou wheel the bike back to the tent.   “A brand new clutch cable!” Lou cries angrily, wheeling the bike past the helpless ownership group.  “Right where it goes in the lever, it just broke right off!” 

He goes back to work, replacing the cable, then prepping the bike as he had earlier.  Weston’s second moto is only two hours away and as overall finish is simply the average of both motos, he’s going to need an exceptional run.

This time around, things seem better.  Weston rides in the top fifteen for the first 20 minutes and is preparing to make his charge when the same bike malfunction occurs sending his team back to the tent feeling empty. 

Mike tells me they’ve had the problems before.  “I don’t want to sell out the bike, but clearly we’ve had bad luck with it.  We couldn’t have counted on all the difficulties with that bike.  We swapped out every part twice.  It’s a really bad, unlucky deal.  It’s one in a thousand.”  Though ultimately, it’s on him and Revolution2Mx to make it work.  “I’ve got to give my rider a chance to show his talents,” he admits, before announcing, “We just bought a 2012 Kx450f to ensure a fresh start.”

Another expense and the frustration creeps through further, though he shows equal concern for his rider.  “Weston’s a real pro.  The economy’s tough.  We’re just trying to get aligned with the right sponsor,” a statement which could be the motto of the privateer.  “Twenty to fifty thousand dollars would change our lives.”

Well, there will be more opportunities, assuming there’s money to spend.  The inaugural Monster Energy Cup (part of the supercross stadium series) is October 15th.  “The best part about this race,” says Davey, “is if the platform is there, if the tv viewership is there, if the stage is built, the opportunity is there for any athlete to shine between the drop of the starting gate and the checkered flag.”  He sums it up, “The best way to make money is through your personal endorsements and sponsorships.” 

 And that’s what Weston Peick, Team Revolution2Mx, and others are finding out.  Thanks to the surge in popularity and enhanced visibility of the sport, David has more chances to challenge Goliath.  And that buzz is only going to get louder.