A Moment of Sporting Thanks

Prior to the autumnal feast that shall soon be placed before us, we’ve already been given a lot to digest from this year in sports, including not one, but two labor strikes, improbable winners, ungracious losers, horrific tragedies, and a trip from Penn State to the state pen.  Let us now take a moment to focus, not on the negatives that are overthrown passes and blown coverages (as we all know there was pass interference somewhere that should have been called), but rather on all the positives we can take away from the field; to take pause and give thanks for this culture in which we have invested our time and sanity. 

Interestingly enough, the first Thanksgiving occurred when the Pilgrims went to the Wompanoag Tribe in 1621 for lessons in surviving the brutal winters of Massachusetts and how to deal with the annual collapse of the local wood-chipping team. 

That autumn formed the basis of what we now know as Thanksgiving and for many years, the colonists lived peacefully and synergistically with the neighboring Indian tribes.  That is, before shooing them off their land, claiming it for themselves, and then giving them casinos.  It was kind of like running up the score.  Nothing said they couldn’t, but it was generally frowned upon, especially by the Indians. 

But I digress. These days, the holiday stands for overeating, creating weird hybrid meals like turducken, watching football, and spending time with the family you seek to avoid all year long; a chance to call a timeout to the hustle and/or bustle of our lives. 

So with that tradition in mind, let me take a moment to present to you that which I am thankful from the past twelve months in sports.   I am most thankful for:

Norv Turner, for defying logic and remaining gainfully employed as a head coach in the NFL.  Seriously, does he have photos of A.J. Smith in a compromising position or something? 

The 2011 Boston Red Sox, for making us all forget that “All My Children” had ended.

Theo Epstein, for giving Cubs fans hope, as blind as it might be, for that’s where it begins.

Jim Harbaugh, for showing that going from the college to the pros is easier than everyone prior to him has shown it to be.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, for keeping the economy growing with fines levied from hits.  C’mon, James, it’s been a while.  Your country needs you!

The NFL, for making it a safe game to play again, except to the myriad players foolish enough to get injured on a weekly basis. 

Tim Tebow, for being a great quarterback even though the numbers show he sucks at it.

Ndomakung Suh, for being a dirty player while remaining so damned likeable. 

Andrew Luck, for saving the Indianapolis Colts while still at Stanford.

Boise State, for losing a game this year so as not to confuse things in the BCS as they did in 2009.

The Big East, for keeping the words “big” and “east” in their title even though both are misnomers. 

Dirk Nowitzski, for winning that ring he deserved five years earlier.

The NBA players, for standing their ground and taking a charging foul.

The NBA owners, for arguing the call, saying it was a blocking foul.

David Stern, for continuing to ruin a league he once built to prominence.  The guy’s like a gambler at Vegas who doesn’t know when to leave once he’s accumulated a stack of chips.  It’s become quite comical to watch.

Novak Djokovic, for showing he should be on “Dancing with the Stars.”

Roger Federer, for finally allowing others the chance to win trophies.

Tim Tebow, for forcing us all to love him.

Bob Costas, for getting the interview with former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky so we could see the worst denial in the history of speaking, a 16-second denial on whether or not he is sexually attracted to young boys where the alleged child rapist repeated the question, qualified it, danced a little, then finally denied it once we had all switched over to “Dancing with the Stars” that we had TiVoed.   

NCAA football conferences, for making geography class irrelevant. 

Michael Vick, for regaining the respect of his fans, only to lose it again with his performance on the field.

St. Louis fans, for being so even-tempered. 

Albert Pujols, for doing something legendary just days before his contract expired.

The Texas Rangers, for allowing networks to replace footage of the 1986 Boston Red Sox with them.

Playoff beards, for making a world of difference in how you play. 

Cal Ripken Jr., as a reminder not to take his feat for granted.  He played in 2,632 consecutive games.  I, for one, took a week off between writing the beginning and end of this piece. 

Tim Tebow, for making us all believe in ourselves.

Sports karma.  That’ll teach you to take anything to South Beach.

Floyd Mayweather, for finally realizing he gets paid a ton of money to fight Manny Pacquiao. . . whether he wins or loses. 

Mike Tyson, for being viable again. . . in some funny acting bits.

Coach K, even though we all hate your team, we gotta admit, you’re pretty good

Shaq Fu, the Shaq Daddy, The Big 401K, and so on, for his fun-loving personality we hope continues into retirement. 

Chad Ochocinco, for his tweets before he got to “heaven.”

Major League Baseball, for stepping up to the plate and showing America it’s still a force to be reckoned with.

And finally, Tim Tebow, for making every day just a little brighter.

What a year it’s been.  Sports are as they always are – intriguing captivating, nauseating, emboldening, and demoralizing.  And that’s only on a Sunday.  Here’s to the other six days of the week.  Now, pass the turducken.  I’ve still got some eatin’ to do before I watch “Dancin’ with the Stars.”

[Featured image by: David Castillo Dominici]

Really Inside Baseball: An Interview with Zack Hemple

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.]

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.

Know Your Realigned College Football Conferences

Like some sort of swinger party set against the plush velour of a mustachioed man’s suburban townhouse (not that I would know), universities are hopping from conference to conference with no sense of loyalty or decorum at a disconcerting pace. 

As an attention play over its professional counterpart, the NFL, who held our focus for months with labor negotiations, the NCAA has, in the meantime, put forth their own modifications, ones that are challenging the entire landscape as we know it. 

The main variations you might notice are that several conferences have featured realignment, introducing unfamiliarity to the schedule.  Traditional foes may have been transferred and rivalries may have been eliminated. 

So, as your swivel-perched head attempts to recognize the new alliances throughout Division I-A football, here is a handy reference guide for you to review while plopped down in front of the big screen watching your favorite school on the gridiron.  The remodeled foundation now looks like this:   

The Big 10 now has 12 teams.

The Big 12 now has 10 teams.

The Pac-10 is now the Pac-12 and it does, indeed, have 12 teams stretching as far east as Utah and Colorado, which is a long drive from the Pacific Ocean. 

The Big East is the smallest of the major power conferences with eight teams and stretches as far west asLouisville.  (However, come back to us in a year or so and it will have been sold off for parts.)

The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) spans up and down the Atlantic coast, which will soon run through Syracuse and Pittsburgh thanks to global warming.  (Damn you, Al Gore!)

The Southeast Conference (SEC) is pretty much in tact. . . for now, as Texas A&M wants to join.  Though they are in Texas, which is nowhere near the East, the school is located in the Southeast part of the state. . . sort of. 

 South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, but remains in the SEC. 

Texas Christian University will be joining the Big East next year. . . unless the conference no longer exists in which case, TCU will feel pretty stupid. 

Murray and Kent are not states! 

Louisiana State is in the SEC, Louisiana-Lafayette is in the Sun Belt, and Louisiana Tech is in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC).

The Sun Belt stretches from Texas to Western Kentucky.

Western Kentucky U niversity is located in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Bowling Green State University is not.  It is located in Bowling Green, Ohio. 

Bowling Green still fields a football team, but has no intention of promoting bowling.  Their colors are orange and brown and not green.

Conference USA includes Southern Miss, Central Florida, and East Carolina

Western, Central, and Eastern Michigan are all in the West Division of the Mid-American Conference (MAC), though all are in the Eastern Time Zone. 

Fresno is not a state either!

Army and Navy are independent while the Air Force is in the Mountain West Conference.  The Marines and Coast Guard do not have teams.  Neither does Seal Team Six nor the CIA.  Or. . . do they?

New Mexico is in the Mountain West while New Mexico State is in the WAC.

After leaving the WAC for the Mountain West in 2010, Boise State is staying put and their field remains blue.

Brigham Young has also left the WAC.

Akron remains in the MAC despite rumors that it would take its talents to South Beach.

We areMarshall!

Temple no longer plays in Division I, but does continue to play on Yom Kippur.

Rice University has actually been around longer than Jerry, Sidney, and Ray and was not named for any of them. 

Ole Miss players are roughly the same age as those from Mississippi State. 

Ohio State and Miami are the only teams in college football whose players have taken illicit benefits, but that doesn’t take into consideration the other schools whose players have as well.

Pete Carroll’s USC Trojans are still on probation for rules violations and as a punishment, he has to coach the Seattle Seahawks with Tavaris Jackson at quarterback.

USC has lost some scholarships, but Reggie Bush still has his Heisman trophy. 

Cam Newton has his Heisman trophy since he claims to have been unaware of the shady dealings his father was involved with. 

Mark Ingram also has his trophy, but his father is still in jail. 

OJ Simpson is in jail and no longer has his Heisman.

OJ was locked up for kidnapping, but not murder, though according to a civil court ruling, he’s done both. 

Terrelle Pryor has to miss the first few games of this season, but can return when Ohio State visits  Nebraska on October 8th, though by that point, his team will be in Houston for the Raiders/Texans game.  Regardless, he won’t be allowed to return until the next week against the Cleveland Browns, Ohio’s other football team.

Miami has a team. . . for now.  Joe Paterno is still coaching.

Kickoffs still matter. 

It’ll take more than luck to win the Heisman Trophy, though the favorite to win the Heisman trophy is, indeed, Luck.    

Dick Butkus has never won the Butkus Award. 

And, come the end of the football season, the Bowl Championship Series BCS still exists and is in place to determine, beyond reproach, the best team in college football, which may not actually be the best college football team in the nation.  (The one thing that needed modification didn’t get it.)

So there you have it, your cheat sheet for college football 2011.  You can now focus solely on the enjoyment of the games, your tailgating, and the punishment that is sure to be handed down to your school very soon.


[featured image by: arkorn]

Podcast from 2010 Boston Book Festival

Here is the podcast from the panel at the Boston Book Festival on October 16, 2010 entitled “Baseball: Writing About America’s Favorite Pastime.”  It featured authors Howard Bryant, James Hirsch, and Andy Wasif, and was moderated by NPR’s Bill Littlefield. 




[featured image by: digitalart]

God and Sports: What Effect Does HE Have?

Stevie Johnson won the game for the Buffalo Bills.  That’s what Geoff Hangartner thought when he turned his back the moment the ball landed perfectly in Johnson’s hands and he rushed to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to celebrate.  “Perhaps a little dance, perhaps I’ll throw the signal caller on my back and gallop around for a little bit; maybe just a simple helmet bump,” the Bills center thought. 

Fitzpatrick, by that time, had already gone from celebration to mourning, clutching his helmet in disbelief.  The Harvard-educated quarterback knew the degree of the ball’s trajectory, the force with which he threw it, and the speed of the wide receiver all came together to make the perfect throw.  He also knew the odds that such a perfect throw would be dropped were low, yet still feasible.  And he knew the likelihood that what he was seeing was real and not a philosophical manifestation or existential occurrence. 

Steve Johnson was not so cerebral about it.  He just knew that he had [bleeped] up.  He did catch the ball perfectly on the bounce though, so he had that going for him.  But that didn’t count and someone was to blame.  Who would have thought that it was the Lord?

After the game, the wide receiver tweeted, “I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!!” YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO”

Is God even on Twitter?  Not that HE couldn’t figure it out, but HE may have deemed it as a waste of time.  I mean, after all, if HE was spending time on the site, do you think HE would’ve finished the world in only six days?  HE’s very into time management.  

But that’s besides that point.  One thing we do know is that God has a sense of humor.  It’s why some men have hair on their backs, but not their heads.  It’s why we still need orthodonture work done throughout our adulthood after getting a half dozen teeth pulled and wearing braces for two years during adolescence. 

Have you ever lost your keys and looked in your coat pocket without finding them.  Then you’re back to your coat pocket later in the day and the object reappears?  That’s God.  You can thank him for replacing your keys.  Of course, you could also blame him for taking them in the first place.  

Though an omniscient being, do you think God gets the sarcasm at the end?  “Thx tho.”  Or was Johnson being sincere?  “Oh, yeah, thanks for those times you didn’t screw me.  I wouldn’t want to see ungrateful.  But for this particular time, you’re on my list, buddy.” 

Players frequently thank the Lord when they win the game or make a great play.  This would be the first time in recorded history where the “Big G” was publicly thrown under the Crosstown Heavenly Express Bus (the #8 for those with a heavenly bus schedule). 

But what hand does God actually have in the game?  There’s this old gem from a couple of years ago:

God was giving Yankees manager Joe Torre a tour of heaven. He showed him a little run-down 2-room house with a faded Yankees banner hanging from the front porch. God said, “This is your new home, Skip. Most people don’t get their own house up here.”

Joe looked at the house then turned to see the house on the top of the hill; a huge 2-story mansion with white marble columns and plush patios under each window. Boston Red Sox flags lined the sidewalks and windows and a huge Red Sox banner hung between the marble columns.

 “God, with all due respect, let me ask you a question: How come I get this little house with a torn Yankees banner that proclaims our 26 World Series titles while Terry Francona gets a huge mansion with Red Sox banners and flags flying all over the place?”

God smiles for a moment then replies, “That’s not Terry’s house, that’s mine.”

And you can replace the Yankees with the Patriots or Duke Blue Devils, whatever you want.  The truth is God doesn’t have a favorite.  HE just has a sense of humor.  HE loves that joke.  HE loves when you tell it to make your team feel like they are chosen.  HE also loves when your team screws up.  It’s funny.  Ever see those blooper reels on the lighter side of sports?  God’s got them all (on Blueray, of course).

He’s certainly not biased toward one team or another . . . (although there is significant evidence to indicate he’s not a fan of Cleveland).  But scholars spend so much time focusing on the existence of God and his effect on games that they neglect his most significant nemesis, the Devil. 

Remember, the Hades resident exists as much as he’d have you forgot about him.  “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”  That’s from “The Usual Suspects” and doesn’t give away the ending, though if you still haven’t seen it by now, I should ruin it for you just based on principle.  

I find it strange that El Diablo doesn’t get more due.  He’s behind lots of things.  But winners praise God, who is probably amused by the attention, while the Devil is ignored.  It would make just as much sense, if not more. 

Take the 1990 NY Giants after the kick by Buffalo’s Scott Norwood’s sailed wide right sealing his team’s fate – why don’t players get into the locker room after the game and say to the reporters, “Phew!  The Bills played tough out there tonight, but we had Lucifer on our side.  Thank the Devil.  Super Bowl Champs, Baby!!!”

God, quite frankly, is not a sports fan.  Do you know how trying that would be on HIM?  “Have you ever seen a World Series baseball game on tv?”  Of course, you haven’t, few people have.  Sorry.  Stupid question.  Any sport will do, really.

If you had, you’d see all these people sitting in the stands, hands clasped deep in prayer.  Most of them swear their butts off and are probably cheating on their spouses, so they’re not really very religious.  During these times, God gets deluged with requests much like a city’s septic system does during commercials of a Super Bowl broadcast. 

Philosophers have struggled over this for centuries, back when the first rock slipped through the first caveman’s hands or a sword fell out of a Gladiator’s hand just as the lion was about to pounce, or the sun got into a knight’s eyes enough to obscure the angle of the attacking knight’s lance. 

The issue has haunted the likes of such great minds as Kirkegaard, Newton, and Vegas bookmaker Joey “Muffintop” D’Angelo who theorized that God was a fan of Rollie Massimino’s animated coaching style and thus made a fortune on the 1985 CAA Finals. 

Nope, Lucifer just knew a good opportunity to screw a lot of bettors.  “#8 seeds never win.”  Heh heh.  Yeah, we’ll see about that. 

The Devil is the sports fan.  He loves messing with things.  God has better things to do.  If God cared, do you think the Yankees would really have 27 championships?  Would a team named the Blue Devils win so much?  How would that look?  (Actually, that’s exactly the kind of humor God goes for.  He’s an ironic dude.)  

Of course, there is the less-publicized theory that a couple of guys at Buffalo Wild Wings who weren’t ready to head home to their wives used their connections to the Rich Stadium grounds crew to keep the game going.  But like I said, it’s only a theory.

What do I know anyway?  Until now, I thought Newton spent all his time creating a delectable snack cookie made from figs.



[featured image by: Danilo Rizzuti]

Legendary Athletes Come Together for a Cause

Imagine a political conference with all the great leaders of the world.  Now imagine that very same gathering with a selection of record-setting athletes and Hall of Famers.  Where politics has the G8 summit, sports has the Harold Pump Foundation Dinner.

The 11th star-studded event took place inCentury City,California this past week and featured the very demographic, along with stars of entertainment, the world of business, and politics.  Going into this year, twins Dana and David Pump have raised $4.6 million to help fight cancer, the disease to which their father lost his fight in 1999.  Each year, they honor inspirational people and their accomplishments.

This year was no different as Marcus Allen, Jerry West, and Oscar de la Hoya received Lifetime Achievement Awards, along with current Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn.

Being on the red carpet and interacting with these all-time greats is a fun and educational experience.  Just getting to take a moment to slip inside the minds of these legends and see what makes them tick.  Plus, you never know who is going to show up at this particular gala.

Larry, in Los Angeles, you’re on with Wasif’s World, hello.”

Larry King, ambles down, suspenders and all, with his wife, Shawn.  He’s been almost as visible in retirement as he was when he was hosting CNN’s “Larry King Live.”

What has he been up to?  “I do Conan a lot,” says Larry, leading his wife to chime in, “Are you kidding me?!”  She’s turns to her husband, with the mind of a public relations rep, “What are getting ready to do?”  Then she turns back to me.  “He’s getting ready to make a huge announcement.  He’s been very busy.”

Larry then adds the outlet that may be involved before his wife scolds him not to reveal anything.  I promise to keep it in the vault and simply clarify, “You’re getting ready to not be as. . . leisurely?”

“Correct,” he says succinctly.  So we can expect more from him soon.

Seeing talk’s elder statesman is impressive, but nothing compared to a sighting of former president of Mexico Vicente Fox y Marta, su esposa hermosa.  Señor Presidente, you are connected with the Foundation?

“I’ll be supporting and coming anytime “double D,” Dana and David, call me and they will be coming toMexico.  We’re also developing this kind of programs inMexicofor the Fox Center of Studies, which is the presidential library of which I am president.”

From news to politics to entertainment, we see 30-year show biz Alfonso Ribiero.  Best known as Carlton Banks on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” now you can see him as host of GSN’s “Catch-21” and he currently directs episodes of TBS’s “Are We There Yet?”

He has a little athlete in him as well.  “I played a lot of baseball as a kid.  I loved the sport.  I was too short for basketball.  And football was a little rough for me.

For me now, golf is really my sport.  I’m a 2-handicap; it’s one of those things that I can kind of get it done.”

But it’s the professional athletes that mainly draw the fans hovering around the carpet.  Ozzie Smith is the first.  You almost expect him to do a backflip as if leading the other guests out of the dugout.

There have been better shortstops, but no one more unique.  “I wasn’t blessed with size and stuff,” the Wizard of Oz begins, “but the things that I was blessed with, I never took for granted.  I continued to work hard and strive to be the very best that I could be over a nineteen-year period that allowed me to stand here and say I made it to the Hall of Fame.”

Oh, great and powerful Wizard, why have you honored us with your presence here this evening?

“They need you to use your name to bring awareness to certain causes.  I feel very fortunate that I get the opportunity to walk the red carpet and things like that,” says the current educational ambassador to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Gale Sayers mirrors the sentiment on how he can continue to use his celebrity for good.  “I had the funds to go out there and give some money to charities and people who play athletics, many of them have the funds to do that as well.”  He says he tries to spend as much time as he can with his charity, the Gale Sayers Foundation that helps underprivileged kids.  “And my wife has more charities that I spend time with.”

The string of memorable retired players doesn’t slow up from there.  One-of-a-kind NBA player Jamaal Wilkes came next.  How did he come up with that unorthodox shot?  “My start and ending were very fundamental.  I don’t really know how I started shooting that way.  I didn’t realize I was shooting any different until I got to college.”

And why stick with it?  “Survival.  It was a technique to survive.  Playing as a young boy with older men.”

He certainly wasn’t the only retired hoopster.  Eulogizing Shaq upon his recent retirement frequently referred to him as the most athletic center to ever play the game.  Those people seem to be forgetting about Ralph Sampson.  He’s one of only two players to ever win the Naismith Award three consecutive times as the nation’s best college player.  [Who is the other? Answer below.]  Talking to Ralph is like watching a movie from the front row of the movie theatre.

Ralph responds to that particular praise for Shaq with a smile.  “Take a look at the video tapes.  Look at Sports Illustrated.  How many covers did it say, ‘He can dribble, he can shoot, he can bring the ball up the court’?”

At 51, could the former Houston Rocket star still dribble and shoot and take the ball up the court?  “If I was in great shape, I could probably do it about ten minutes a game.  I’d have to be in awesome shape though.”  He moves on, giving my neck and posture a chance to readjust.

Perhaps new head coach Brian Shaw would take a chance on him.  He’s just happy he’s “being reacquainted with my old teammate Larry Bird, now that I’m heading toIndiana. Indiana’s a hot bed of basketball; the fans are very knowledgeable of the game there.  So I’m looking forward to it.”

With the NBA the latest professional league to endure a lockout, when that day will come is anyone’s guess.  Mike Dunleavy has some thoughts about it.  “It’ll probably get to about September before anyone does anything in real earnest.  Maybe there’ll be a surprise.”

So when the NBA does reconvene, what does the talented hyphenate – coach/general manager/broadcaster – see in his future?  “Y’know, it depends.  I’m interested in all of the above.  Right now, I’m getting ready to coach the USA Team, a high school team, the Adidas nations, a team where they bring in high school kids all over the world to play in LA, so I’m looking forward to that. It should be a lot of fun.”

There’s a wave of celebrities on the carpet at this point.  I’m busy talking to some and miss out on others.  Eddie Murray, Jeremy Piven, and Mike Tyson, for instance, walk by.  “Iron Mike” is accompanied by Jim Gray.  I’m not sure of the connection, though I wonder if this is by design as Pete Rose makes his way down the carpet a few minutes later.

In a tweet to Sports Illustrated writer Phil Taylor, he responded, “Gray’s lucky.  Even at 70, I think Pete could crush him.”

Speaking of Pete Rose, his name comes up in a conversation with Hall of Fame relief pitcher Rollie Fingers.  I ask him to talk about the time he was asked to shave his moustache.

“It wasCincinnatiin 1986.  Pete Rose asked me to come to spring training and I said fine.  I talked to the general manager who welcomed me to come to spring training.  He said, ‘There’s only one thing you have to do, shave your moustache.’  I said now what difference does it make?  He said, ‘Well that’s our rule.’  I told the general manager to tell Marge Schott to shave her Saint Bernard and I’d shave my moustache. So I quit.”  Rollie shrugs, “At that point, I’d had it for 17 years.  I wasn’t going to shave it off for her, so I just decided to stop playing ball.”

Yes, youngsters, before “Fear the Beard,” there was “wax the ‘stache.”  (At least, there should have been in deference to the handlebar masterpiece.)  And Fingers still has the best piece of facial furniture out there, though El Presidente Fox sported an impressive one as well.

Throughout the evening, you notice that the fans aren’t the only ones who are clamoring to speak with the athletes.  Other athletes admire them as well, such as Wilkes talking to Celtics and Lakers legend Bill Sharman.  There is a mutual respect.

One of the evening’s honorees, Marcus Allen, summed it up nicely.  “To grow up, to have ambition and to admire guys, then to meet those guys, to become friends with those guys – all the guys that walk the red carpet, you know personally – and have those guys be the fabric of your success regardless of what sport they play, that’s an amazing thing.”

Then he smiles and gets a glint in his eyes as he says, “But at the risk of sounding crazy, I knew it was going to happen though.”

Julius Erving, Dr. J to many, agrees.  “We’re here on the red carpet; some people are treating us differently than if we’re on the other side.  You need to go on the other side to have some sanity.”

I offer to switch places with him.  “Yeah, I could start asking you the questions,” he says.

Without following through on that, he continues, “Y’know the celebrity hat is sort of a byproduct of whatever I was able to do on the basketball court and maybe what I’m able to do to inspire other people.  But more importantly is to have meaningful relationships and to have a meaningful mission in life.  I want to be the best person that I can possibly be.”  Spoken like a true non-medical doctor.  He then commiserates with his friend, former NBA star Marques Johnson.

Recent addition to the NFL Hall of Fame Marshall Faulk stands at the end of the carpet waiting to talk to Jim Brown.  After a brief discussion and some photographs, Jim turns to a fellow Syracuse Orangeman, though one with considerably fewer varsity letters than the former lacrosse, football, and track star.  Of course, we talk acting as he had an even more prolificHollywoodcareer than he did as an athlete.

“Acting is a wonderful profession, it’s an art and if you get into it, you can truly enjoy it.  It’s totally different than sports.  In acting, you have a director, a cutting room, and a cutting room floor.  Your best scenes can be cut out of the movie.  But I enjoyed acting because I had a chance to be exposed to a lot of great actors.  Al Pacino was a wonderful teacher and friend so I’m just happy to enjoy all of these things.”

Jim left the gridiron for a new career, opening himself up to a new set of fans.  Jerry Rice, of “Dancing with the Stars” fame, has just realized that for himself.  Regarding the reality show, he says, “It gave me a chance to reach a whole new demographic of people and it’s like, people might not know me from football, but they know me from the show.”

Just don’t remind the ultra-competitive all-time great that he came in second place.  He bristles, “Well thank you so much for reminding me of that bad memory and I get this all the time from Nick Lachey.  He rubs it in my face, now you’re doing the same thing.  But that’s okay.”  (It’s not every day, I am compared to the former 98 degrees member.)  Jerry smiles to show me he’s okay with it.  Knowing him, he’s going to work harder and win a dance off in the future.

Author Ingrid Katal describes to me how we can take our own goals and dreams to the next level by discussing her book, “What is Your Honor Code: The Missing Link to Managing Your Mind.”  She says, “I believe that we need to have policies and boundaries for ourselves and anyone else in our lives.  There isn’t any reason to get angry, frustrated, or stressed out and we actually let in a lot more stuff that doesn’t need to be added in.”

This motivational advice could help us learn some of the habits that brings success to these athletes, such as Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker, who explains her practice.  “I try to add 25% each year, try to add something new to my game each year.”

To her, it’s not just about scoring.  “It’s getting your teammates involved, knocking down your free throws – what percentage are you shooting from the three point line? – things like that, that aren’t necessarily evident on the stat sheet, but they’re proving that you’re improving your game.”

And Rosie Grier, former formidable Fearsome Foursome lineman of the Los Angeles Rams, now a minister, preaches that we all have to play our role, to fulfill our missions since we’re only around for a short time.

Their involvement is best summed up in Marcus Allen’s acceptance speech later that night.  He said, “We are rich by what we give and poor by what we keep.”

And though the undertones were serious, the festivities were hosted by comedian Cedric the Entertainer. However, he was not the funniest one there.  That distinction went to former Dodger skipper (and “Dugout Wizard” to fans of the 80’s tv show “The Baseball Bunch”), Tommy Lasorda.  Alluding to the length of the ceremony, when it became his turn to speak, he said, “I’m glad I got up here.  I thought I was going to miss tomorrow night’s game.  I want to congratulate all of you for sticking around.  It takes a lot of heart.”

All in all, it was a great night for a great cause.  No, Bill Walton, the only other person to ever collect three consecutive Naismith trophies, was not there, but Magic Johnson was, among still more legends.  To find out more about the cause and the even, go to www.doublepump.com.  Maybe you can join in the fight and inspire others like these athletes inspire you.