Don’t Talk Sports at the Dinner Table, a compilation of the best essays from “Wasif’s World” on Yahoo! Sports on-line magazine ThePostGame, it features all the absurdities of sports and the fans plus how closely sports mirrors life.
From the “Wasif’s World” page on Yahoo’s on-line magazine The PostGame, the definitive Q&A on the annual tradition of running the Boston Marathon.
Click here to see the piece on The PostGame
After several heart stoppages and two different televisions –do you think Best Buy will exchange a flat screen with a lamp through it? I still have the warranty. — the chance for redemption is ON. We all remember what happened the first time the New England Patriots and the New York Giants danced in “the Big Cotillion.” In fact, there are still many who wake up at night screaming, “HE’S IN THE GRASP!!!” as nightmares of Eli Manning’s desperation heave to David Tyree after defensive lineman Jarvis Green held onto the quarterback’s jersey for a full three-count continue to crop up.
It is now four years later and the Northeast monopolizes media coverage yet again. Welcome to Rex Ryan’s personal hell. His town’s successful team and his arch rival doing what he cannot do, at least not with Mark Sanchez under center.
There is a weird familiarity to this game, almost like we’ve seen it before. Flash back to 2007 — no, really. . . do it. Flash back! — The Giants squeak into the playoffs by the thinnest of Joe Flacco fu manchus and proceed to win three games on the road, including the championship game in overtime, in inclement weather, after an ill-fated turnover.
Meanwhile, the Patriots, though they made history by achieving the first-ever sixteen game perfect season, made the Super Bowl, but only after a controversial win (in Week 13) by three points against a Baltimore Ravens team. Sound familiar?
In that season, the Patriots beat the Giants during the regular season. This year, however, they didn’t, which bodes well if you’re looking for comparisons to the 2001 team which similarly lost to the Rams, then proceeded to run the table, including a Super Bowl win against those same Rams.
And in a season when Brady’s chief rival Peyton Manning was inactive, his brother Eli has risen like some sort of Phoenix. (A brilliant reference if ever I saw one as his first Super Bowl win was, in fact, in Arizona.) It’s like some weird sort of action movie sequel where the hero, having dispatched of the bad guy, finds that the bad guy had a brother who’s much more evil then his dead brother ever was. (Remember, you can’t spell “elite” without ELI.)
I understand that this redundant matchup has removed all interest for many of you — “When is Cleveland ever going to be in the championship?” — but for those of you who haven’t moved on to other sports like Texas Hold ‘em and the Scripps National Spelling Bee, you have myriad reasons to pick a team and get behind them, if only for one day.
Why Root for New England?
It’s not often you see greatness. No, greatness doesn’t come around as often as the attempt to make greatness a storyline does. From ownership down to the parking attendants at Gillette Stadium, the New England Patriots do things the right way. This includes Belichick and Brady who, when all is said and done, will be among the most accomplished of all time, if not the most accomplished. In short, they are the Egg Mcmuffin of football teams.
They’re playing for the owner’s late wife. Myra Kraft was kind, charitable, and admired throughout the organization. The Patriots are playing this season with her memory in mind. Nothing trumps a dedicated season, save for perhaps one in which the somehow handicapped guy, diminutive or otherwise, gets on the field/court and provides the game-winning score/basket.
They’re playing for history. Four Super Bowl wins for Brady would mean tying him for the most rings by a quarterback with Joe Monana and Terry Bradshaw. And Belichick would be tied with Chuck Noll. If Eli wins, that’s only two. Big whoop!
They’re playing for redemption. It’s a classic story where the defeated hero rises up again to vanquish his reviled antagonist, like “Rocky 2,” “Return of the Jedi,” or any of the “Police Academy” movies.
They also have a bunch of undrafted players, a rookie who is a non-Hodgkins lymphoma survivor, a wide receiver moonlights in the secondary, and Gronk! In short, they’re a good bunch of players to root for.
Why Root for New York?
John Mara is the owner of the Giants. His niece is Rooney Mara, the actress who was darned good in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” (I’ve never seen it, but I’ve heard good things.) By association, you gotta pull for the Maras.
You have a hatred of Peyton Manning. A victory for the Giants and subsequently for Eli will show the middle child that he is, in fact, the slow one and not his little sibling as we had previously thought. A win for Eli will provide retribution for all those wet willies, purple nurples, and wedgies Peyton, no doubt, gave him as a child. This winter, vote “Eli, for Best Manning Ever!”
According to Vegas, they are the underdog. Not sure what Vegas is up to on that one, but if your thing is pulling for the underdog (except in that movie “Underdog”), this is the team for you.
Now, on the flip side, for those of you disgusted by the false promise of league parity and the redundancy this matchup provides — well, you probably already have your reasons, but — here are a list of reasons to root against each team.
Why Hate New England?
There are lots of reasons. For one, they win a lot. Give somebody else a chance!
“The hoodie” himself. Not that you liked his brusque and secretive nature before, but the infamous Spygate scandal pushed your disgust of the man to a new level. He was the only coach to oversee videotaping of other teams, except of course, for any other teams that did it too but just didn’t get caught. As such, the New England Patriots and Bill Belicheat are the scourge of the league.
The New England fans are out of touch with the 99%. They are the Mitt Romney of fans. They don’t understand the hardship that other fans go through on a regular basis just trying to make it to the playoffs, let alone winning a game.
Why Hate New York?
Are you kidding? They’re New York! Do you really want those fans around you when they’re winning? (Or losing, actually. A lot of it is the smell.) If you thought New England fans were bad, you ain’t seen nothin’.
New York is going for their fourth Super Bowl win. It’s boring for a team to be so consistently good as they would have won in the 80s, the 90s, the oughts, and potentially again this decade.
Another Manning?! Really?! We thought we were rid of the Manning talk. Plus, poor Cooper will feel even worse if Eli ends up with two more rings than he has.
The Mara family. Sheesh, how much success do they need?
whether you root for them, against them, or don’t watch the game at all, it will be decided by the talent on the field.
Why New England will win
They don’t lose to teams twice in the same season, er. . . usually. (Forget about last year’s playoff loss to the Jets.)
The supernatural. After the victory in the AFC Championship game, Bob Kraft alluded to “forces at work beyond anything we can understand.” Did Sterling Moore really knock the ball out of Lee Evans’ hands? Did Billy Cundiff really shank the kick? Those of you non-believers can stick to that earthy mumbo-jumbo, but BK knows better. The Pats are “playing for the patch,” in memory of Myra Kraft. And Myra Kraft, in turn, is playing for the Pats.
Revenge is a great motivator. Tom Brady, though he’s cut his hair, may be compared to Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill.” And if New England does win, they will finally be given their 19-0 perfect season! (hm. . . wait, that can’t be right. . . can it?)
Why will New York will win
First of all, the fact is, the Giants are 3-0 in Super Bowls when Bill Belichick is on the sideline. Think about it. That bodes well for them.
But mainly, it’s science. A tough pass rush coupled with an aerial assault from three quick and strong receivers against a less-than-stellar secondary and there will be nothing the Patriots can do.
So what we have is Myra versus Mara, science versus the paranormal. As we all know, sports follows no sort of karmic law or spiritual puppetry . . . or does it? Save for Super Bowl XL featuring the Steelers and the Seahawks, the referees are not “in the bag” or blatantly incompetent, frequently making the correct call with the naked eye on plays we, the viewers, need freeze frame technology to barely venture a guess at the correct call. The Golden Rule applies to the Super Bowl and that is: “The better team on the field always wins. . . unless it is coached by Norv Turner.”
New York won the last Super meeting on a miracle pass and a helmet catch after a missed interception. Heck, they’ve already marched the field in the fourth quarter against the Patriots in homage to Super Bowl XLII earlier this year. Plus, all of Brady’s Super Bowls have been decided by three points. What about this tells you that the Giants won’t again win by three in the waning minutes? One thing’s for sure and that is the certainty that this game will not be any less exciting.
Mental note: Replenish my supply of EpiPens and smelling salt, charge my defibulator, and buy an extra tv.
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.]
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.