Sunday, April 26, 2009

Too Many Sports, Too Little Time

Too many things to comment on, too little time ... 

In the novel Jane Eyre, Bronte's protagonist Jane places a great deal of faith in physignomy, or face reading. Every time the Penguins play the Flyers, I find myself thinking about that book, that penchant of Jane's and the fact that were she to meet the Flyers poster boy, Scottie Hartnell, she would be certain he was a sociopath. But the Pens managed to neutralized him and the Philadelphia fans. I'd rank the Penguins come back from a 3-0 deficit in front of over 20,000 cheesesteak eating, profanity hurling Philadelphia, um, fans, among the best single game comebacks I've seen in any sport. Not quite as great as the Red Sox 2004 ALCS Game 4 comeback against the Yankees, but still not far behind that for me. After the Flyers scored their third goal, I said to GearGal, "This thing is over." I nearly turned it off and I'm quite certain I stomped out of the room and puttered in the kitchen for a few minutes. Next thing I knew, Max Talbot was having his face smashed in and Geno Malkin, the scoring machine, was creating a scoring opportunity for Ruslan Fedotenko. A couple of minutes later, Mark Eaton swatted in Tyler Kennedy's bouncing rebound. Suddenly the Philly fans were quiet. It was eerie. And so, so satisfying. According to the Deadhead, "Philadelphia fans suck. Fans of the Flyers suck. Fans of the 76ers and Phillies* and the Eagles all suck. Philadelphia Phiharmonic fans suck. Rocky sucks. Cheese steaks suck. Villanova sucks. Elton John was great until Philadephia Freedom. After that? Sucks." So the Pens play on and they can add this particular win to their psychological arsenal. The next time they're down in a game - and they will be - they know they can come back and win. It's one thing to think you can come back, it's even better to believe you can come back but the best case scenario is to be certain you can come back. 
(* per my buddy the SportsNoter, that's the "2008 World Series Champion Phillies." Duly noted, Noter.)

I missed most of the NFL draft catching bits and pieces between the hockey game and leaving for the Pittsburgh Passion women's football game (more on that later.) I am pleased to see nary a tight end or punter in site on the Steelers draft board. With the first pick, they picked up Evander "Ziggy" Hood, a 300 defensive lineman form Mizzou, and as great as the Steelers D-Line played last year, those guys are old by football standards, so it's good to have some young blood to mix in there. Then they went out and picked a guard from Wisconsin (those big ole linemen from Wisconsin always seem to be good), a speedy wide out who can return kicks - an area noticeably lacking last year - and a PAC-10 corner. All in all, a good day for us Nor'Siders. 

Meanwhile, Pitt's Shady McCoy heads off to the land of cream cheese and Rocky. Good luck Shady. I hope coach Andy Reid actually allow him to run the ball and the fans give him a chance. Yeah, right. WVU's Pat White landed in the perfect situation in Miami with a coach who seems to be unafraid to utilize his talents, regardless of how unconventional they are. As my buddy Smiley says, "Pat White + Wildcat = points." Church.

Last night, the Pirates knocked the hell out of the Padres 10-1, remaining in second place in the NL Central. This morning, out of curiosity, I checked the stats to see where the Pirates team ERA ranked:
I almost fell over from shock. Moreover, the Pirates have allowed only 55 runs against through Saturday night. No other National League team comes close (the San Fran Giants have allowed 62 runs to this point.) For whatever that's worth. 

As to the Passion versus Baltimore Nighthawks game, it was unbelievable in many regards, none of them really football regards. This is the fourth season I've spent around those girls, I've witnessed many games and, of course, heard so many of their stories. But last night every player I talked to said that this Nighthawks team was the dirtiest they've ever played. Mind you, Baltimore sucks - the Passion were up 35-0 at the half and finished up with the score of 49-0. Midway through the 3rd quarter, Baltimore had the ball and the QB threw a pass, just a little eight or 10 yard out route to the far sideline. The Pittsburgh defender Peru Barber (is that an NPR name or what?) had great position and battled the ball down, as both she and the receiver came crashing down on the sideline. And then, inexplicably, a scrum ensued. According to the players, it seems that a Nighthawk player, probably the receiver, rolled over onto Barber as some other Baltimore player kicked her. A bunch of Passion players went flying over and then the Baltimore coach started shoving and swinging. The freaking coach! Really, I've never seen anything like that. I can't believe the officials didn't toss the coach. Of course, I'll take the Passion coaches in The Octagon versus those "Charm City" guys any day. Jay and Tuck would kick some ass. 

Friday, April 24, 2009

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better

I have a friend who had a t-shirt that read, "Jack and Jill Ran Up the Hill. Jill Won. Girls Rule." In keeping with the spirit of that t-shirt, from CNN/SI today:

"BAYONNE, N.J. (AP) -- On the pitcher's mound, a 12-year-old girl from New Jersey is perfect.

Mackenzie Brown is the first girl in Bayonne Little League history to throw a perfect game. She retired all 18 boys she faced on Tuesday. There are no official records of how many perfect games are thrown per season. Little League Baseball in Williamsport, Pa., estimates only 50 to 60 occur each year. No one knows how many have been thrown by girls. ... She'll get to throw out the first pitch at Citi Field on Saturday when the New York Mets host the Washington Nationals."

I see that the Natinals', er Nationals' team earned run average is 5.36. They should consider offering young Mackenzie Brown a contract. She's probably better than anybody they have in their farm system. Oh, and she can probably spell, "National."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Marc-Andre Fleury: the Flyers Dilemma (with apologies to Michael Pollan)

The Penguins head back to the friendly confines of Pittsburgh with a 3-1 lead in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs over the hated Philadelphia Flyers for one reason: Marc-Andre Fleury has got his eyes on.

That the Flower is the MVP of this series goes without saying. Why? A certain equanimity in the face of hoards of rushing, marauding Flyers is certainly one reason. The other is that Fleury is like a great hunter-gatherer who has his eyes on.

Like half of America, my beloved GearGal is reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, which saves me the trouble of reading it because she fills me in on the highlights. (Quick synopsis:  agribusiness is evil and read your labels). But watching Fleury turn away shot after shot, using his feet, his stick, his glove, and I think even his neck guard at one point, I said, 'wow, he's seeing the puck when there is no way he can see it,' to which she replied, 'he's like a great mushroom hunter who "has his eyes on."'

That is to say, a person skilled in foraging for mushrooms can spot the elusive little fungi in areas that seem like a homogeneous visual plain to the untrained eye, composed of nothing but leaves and tangled branches and such. Of course, because Pollan is a bad ass, he dug a little deeper into the phenomena:

"I became, perforce, a student of the 'pop-out effect,' a term I'd first heard from mushroomers but subsequently learned is used by psychologists studying visual perception. To reliably distinguish a given object in a chaotic or monochromatic visual field is a daunting perceptual task, one so complex that researchers in artificial intelligence have struggled to teach it to computers. Yet, when we fix in our mind some visual quality of the object we're hoping to spot -- whether its color or pattern or shape -- it will pop out of the visual field, almost as if on command. To get your eyes on is to have this narrow visual filter installed and functioning. That's why Ben had me practice on his finds, to fix in my mind's eye the pattern of morels as seen against the forest's layer of duff. To hunt for mushrooms makes you appreciate what a crucial evolutionary adaptation the pop-out effect is for a creature that forages for food in a forest -- especially when that food doesn't want to be found."

And it seems to me, when Fleury is going good, when he's got his eyes on, he's experiencing advanced, heightened pop-out effect. He made 45 saves on Tuesday night in Philadelphia. 45! And at least half of those came in rush-hour on the Schuylkill-type traffic, with two or three or four bodies in front of him, each shielding him from a clear view of potential shooters, obscuring his view of an airborn puck until the last second. But he saw them all. (Even the one that got in, but his toe got caught in the goal post slowing him down enough that he couldn't get to it.) 

Of course, the 2003 overall number 1 draft pick has the speed, agility, flexibility, strength and toughness necessary to respond to those shots. But let's face it, if we put a mere mortal, even a really good hockey player, in net last night, at least five other shots would have lit the scoring lamp, because another guy wouldn't have even seen those shots. There was one shot where he was standing directly behind a Flyer and a Pen, as a shot whistled toward his right shoulder, and just like that, his glove was up, as he cradled the puck with the kind of ease one would expect during a laconic game of backyard catch.

There is no telling what the Pens can do if The Flower keeps his eyes on.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Madden Retires, Turducken Population Overjoyed

Lots of people loved him and probably just as many couldn't stand him. Many of the latter were my friends, actually, but I never hated John Madden and I rather liked him in his earlier years. When he started broadcasting, paired with silky smooth, unobtrusive Pat Summerall (yeah, I know he was drunk half the time, but honestly, I'd rather have a drunk Pat Summerall over a sober Greg Gumbel any day), he explained the game without talking down, he gave us a peek at what made teams tick, he spent an unprecedented amount of air-time talking about line play and his love of the game was obvious, punctuated with grunts, stammers and the occasional "BOOM!" (although those kinda became annoying in later years.) Over his long career, he slowly and painful morphed from John Madden, the smart, funny, big, fat, sloppy, lovable former NFL coach to JOHN MADDEN, the franchise, the legend, and the cliche.

I lay a large portion of the blame for the dismal Monday Night and Sunday Night eras at the feet of Madden's broadcast partner, Al Michaels, another guy I used to like, until he was eaten by his behemoth of an ego. Like everybody else, I loved Michaels for the 1980 "Do you believe in miracles?!" call but as my friend the Deadhead astutely reminded me, his work during the 1989 World Series was stratospherically great, too:  "Remember the earthquake at the Series? I thought Michaels was great that night. Hung in there, gave great reports, should have gotten an Emmy if he didn't. I think he has been slowly transforming since."

When Madden announced his retirement last week, I felt unexpectedly sentimental. I also started to think about which announcers I really hate. Who are the ones who have made me turn off a sporting event in disgust? More importantly, I thought about what trait, or traits, do they all share in common to drive me bats in the belfry crazy?

For me, the worst offenders are:  Phil Simms, Nancy Lieberman, and Tim McCarver. There are more, to be sure, but those three are at the top of my hit list, and I have to tell you, I spent a tense 24 hour period in terror that the powers that be at NBC would tap Simms to fill Madden's SNF spot. I honestly believe that years of listening to Simms covering NFL games has already dropped my IQ by double digits. If I continue to listen to him for a few more years, I'll rank the Bret Michael autobiography as one of the great works of literature and consider American Idol to be the height of culture. (Hey, can I twitter, vote for American Idol and host tea-bagging parties all at once?)

Yappy Phil Simms, Liebernuts and McCarver all commit the number one cardinal sin for a color analyst:  they all bring pre-ordained scripts to each game and no matter how the game actually unfolds in front of them, they will not deviate from that script. Their anticipated version of a game is way more important than what they see with their own eyes. Implicit, of course, is that they are bigger than the game. This is the most annoying trait for any announcer in any sport at any time.

I know Madden had his pet players, but I never got the sense he was scripted like the above Trio of Morons. Sure, he talked about Brett Favre the way Doris Kearns Goodwin discusses Abraham Lincoln and he clearly had a ginormous man crush on Hines Ward, but he did let the game unfold. In fact, he held the game itself in highest esteem. At least I got that sense. 

The other sin committed by Liebernuts, et al, is that they simply talk too much. Here's a handy clue kids:  you all work in in television, so the people listening can actually see the game, too. It's okay to STFU and you can trust that we mere mortals won't be so confused by the quiet as to rend our garments and run naked in traffic. Nancy Liebernuts is women's hoops royalty, but she so enrages me that I want to throw up, throw things at the television, turn the sound off, and walk out of the room in disgust. All at the same time. Tim McCarver alway thinks he's the smartest guy in the room, despite all evidence to the contrary. His pomposity has been abundantly documented through the years. And I really have muted the telly from time to time to give myself a momentary respite from Simms' inane prattling. 

All three comment on the game as though they are paid by the word. I think they think we watch the games to hear them. No, you idiots, we watch the game to watch the game. I think Madden understood that. Although Michaels often tried to lure him into blithering in recent seasons.

Critics will point to Madden's biases, for certain teams, certain players, and certain coaches. For me, I can live with an announcer having biases. Heck, if ESPN hired me to do women's hoops, I'm sure I'd evidence a distinct Big East bias, no matter how hard I tried to tone it down. It's just part of who I am. I think that Madden's biases were as organic as that. He favored tough guys to the point of hackneyed reverence, but there's nothing wrong with giving the beat up ham and eggers a long the line a little love. Maybe he was over the top, maybe he was beyond annoying sometimes, but Madden's take on the game seemed genuine to me, even when I thought he was WRONG! (tm, Smiley.) 

Saturday, April 18, 2009

I've Always Wanted a Bruising CPA

Profile of Laurie Roberts, Pittsburgh Passion Fullback penned for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

I can hardly wait to tell Roberts the pressure is on for her to have a big game tonight. "Hey! Hey, Roho, don't make me look like a weinie, okay?"

Season starts tonight, as the Passion plays the Detroit Demolition at 7:00 p.m. at North Allegheny high school.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Smiley Says, Joe Flacco Just Threw Up A Little Bit

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

"The Steelers have signed linebacker James Harrrison to a new contract that will pay him $51.175 million over the next six years.

Harrison, the NFL's 2008 defensive player of the year, will receive $20 million in bonus money."

Next time Harrison hits Flacco, he'll hit him so hard, it'll wipe that unibrow off Flacco's face. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Top Ten Hoopsters of the Women's Tourney

As the 2009 NCAA championship game played out to the expected coronation of the U.Conn Huskies, I found myself thinking about which players grabbed my attention as never before throughout tournament. Who were the players who showed guts and heart, and willed themselves to unexpectedly compelling performances? In short, these are the ten players I would want on my team in a sudden death situation, or my Top Ten Badasses (in reverse order of the last tourney game in which they played):

1. Courtney Vandersloot, sophomore, guard, Gonzaga. She played 38 minutes in the ‘Zags first round upset of Xavier, putting up 15 points, 11 assists, a steal and six rebounds. In the second round game against Pitt, her numbers were even gaudier: 18 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and five steals. Simply put, Vandersloot put on a show. She was completely disruptive and closed down virtually every Pittsburgh passing lane. When she did get her hands on the ball, she pushed the tempo up the court at breakneck speed. The team lost in the second round game to Pitt, but Vandersloot was easily the player of the game.

2. Allyssa DeHaan, junior, center, Michigan State. In one of the bigger upsets of the tourney, DeHaan took it right to the heart of the Duke Blue Devils. Sometimes a performance is hidden. DeHaan’s numbers don’t blow you away, but the Dookies had no answer for her physicality. She was even more impressive in the Sweet 16 loss. Each of her five blocked shots was like a body blow to the Iowa State team. 

3. FahKara Malone, junior, guard, Purdue. She’s all of five feet, three inches, but she plays like she’s seven feet tall. In the second round upset of UNC, Malone snagged five rebounds. A player so diminutive doesn’t work the boards like that without an iron will and fearless attitude. In the Sweet 16, she sat for just one minute and powered the Boilermakers, controlling tempo and taming C. Vivian Stringer's mighty Scarlet Knight defense.

4. Marisa Coleman, senior, guard/forward, Maryland. With the exception of Jayne Appel (below) I don’t think I’ve seen a guttier, tougher performance all season than what we saw from Marisa Coleman, as she picked up her team, Atlas-like, and carried them on her back past Vanderbilt into the Sweet 16. Her 42 points were impressive, but if you saw the game, you saw a player who refused to lose. Just when I thought she spent everything the had to give, Coleman reached down inside of herself and found something more. I’m no fan of Maryland basketball, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been as touched by a player’s display of genuine emotion as I was by Coleman when she came off the court and collapsed into her coach's arms, breaking down in body sobs, fully aware the her college career was over. 

5. Whitney Hand, freshman, guard, Oklahoma. She plays mad, in your face, defense. She drops threes in clutch moments. She steals, pushes tempo and is a huge spark plug for her team. Top it off with the fact that, as a freshman, she seemed completely unfazed by the pressure of the tourney; she didn’t make any first year mistakes or wear down under the bright lights. This kid? She’s a serious bad ass.

6. Courtney Paris, senior, center, Oklahoma. I went back and fourth on this pick, because of the swirling media circus around Courtney Paris, particularly that sycophant Nancy Liebernuts constantly drooling all over Paris. Then I realized, it’s not Paris’ fault. It’s ESPN and Liebernuts that make me crazy. Put aside the shameful media slobbering, and consider, Paris had the weight of finishing her final college game in a disappointing loss to Louisville in the Final Four, but she spoke to ESPN’s Holly Rowe, fighting back tears all the way, and said all the right things - about her team, about Louisville, about her promise to give back her scholarship money. That was probably harder than anything she’s ever had to do on the court in her career. All class. 

7. Jayne Appel, junior, forward/center, Stanford. If Appel’s fellow trees brought even half the heart, half the guts, half the will that she did in their Final Four match up against U.Conn, well … they would have lost anyways, but it would have been a squeaker. She never quit -- not for one possession, not even for one moment. She was constantly beat on under the basket by Tina Charles and Kaili McLaren, often double teamed, and still, she kept begging her teammates for the ball. She played 35 brutal minutes of basketball and kept coming. Her 35 minutes were like dog year minutes. And Appel would have played another 35 had they let her. To say nothing of her 46 point performance against Iowa State in the Elite Eight. 

8. Angel McCoughtry, senior, forward, Louisville. She plays angry. She plays with a chip on her shoulder. She makes faces and demands the ball. She’s also the best defensive player in the country. She played all 40 minutes Italicwhen Louisville took down No. 1 seed Maryland, dominating the game. Then, she had perhaps the worst half in her career against Oklahoma in the Final Four. It was a horrible, ugly, downright putrid performance and her coach called her out for it. But she did what gutsy players do - she dug deeper, she worked harder and somehow, she and her team chipped away at a seemingly insurmountable Oklahoma lead to make it to the Championship game.

9. Tina Charles, junior, center, U.Conn. Coach Geno Auriemma is all over her like stink on a skunk, but when it mattered most, when the championship game opened against Louisville and the Huskies looked unusually tight, Tina Charles played like an animal. And I mean that in the nicest possible way. Simply not withering, not crawling away to lick one’s wounds under the unrelenting nagging and harsh criticism from cousin Geno is impressive enough. In the Final Four, Geno was goading her the entire time and she responded simply by playing the finest game of her career on the biggest stage. She owned the paint. In fact, they should paint both keys on the Scott Center court in St. Louis to read: “Property of Tina Charles.”

10. Renee Montgomery, senior, guard, U.Conn. Reams have been written about the greatness that is Renee Montgomery. She’s so great that she causes Geno to act, gosh, human. His respect and affection for her is manifest at all times. He loves Montgomery. She does everything right. When you need a three point shot, she reaches back and makes one. When you need a steal, she gets a hand in a passing lane. In short, she controls the game and refuses to be denied. In the Final Four game, every time Appel dragged Stanford within breathing distance of the Huskies, Montgomery had a response. Every time. My pal the U.Conn fan says she’d want Montgomery in the trenches with her. 
Me too.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Coach Speaks the Truth, World Stunned

I can't even imagine how much fun much Big East coaches meetings are. What a cast of characters, with Agnus B, C. Vivian, Geno, Harry P., Jeff Walz and on and on. Jesus they must need a mighty big room to hold those personalities. And I mean big, like Roman Collesium, big. Like Casey Hampton's lunch bag, big. I mean like Madonna's ego, big. Like, bigger than Roger Clemens' level of denial. What I'm getting at is these are coaches with huge, wildly entertaining personalities. And people wonder why I love living in a Big East city. 

Why oh why hasn't ESPN turned the Big East women's coaches into a reality show? Do I really need them to produce another show about raycin'? Hells no. I want to see these coaches and I mean all the time. Bring on the Agnus-Cam! Where's my "Day in the Life of Harry Perretta?" I'd Tivo a show that followed C. Vivian Stringer while she went shopping. (She is the best dressed coach in any sport, hands down, no question.) Sunday dinners with the Auriemma family would be television gold. How can the Worldwide Leader not see this? 

So, as though you needed more evidence that the Big East is the most entertainng conference on planet women's hoops, U.Conn coach Geno Auriemma did something shocking in his pre-game presser before the Final Four game against Stanford. He was Geno. 

To borrow a phrase from the late, great PittGirl, perhaps the world's greatest blogger, that's CHURCH, Cousin Geno.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

It's Just Raycin'

From CNN:

"An Ohio man says he is seeking a jury trial on a charge of driving under the influence that was slapped on him after he crashed the vehicle he was piloting -- a barstool. ... His homemade vehicle was made from a barstool welded to a small metal frame attached to a five-horsepower lawnmower engine, four wheels and a lawnmower steering wheel, according to the Newark, Ohio, police accident report."

Just a little fender bender as he careened over and off the homeade bar-scooter. After consuming 15 beers.( Now, of course, he told police 15 beers. But doesn't everybody lie to the police about this? For instance, if you've had five, don't you say you've had two or three? So if he said 15, can't we assume that he had 20. Although, once you get into double digits, we're probably just picking nits.)

I don't want to tell you where this thought has lead me, but, really, with the cost of gas and sponsorship for NASCAR, can't we just rig out bar stools and race them? Consumption of a six-pace pre-race would be mandatory, of course.  Who wouldn't pay to see that? 

The great state of Ohio brought you the Wright Brothers (from Dayton) and now Kile Wygle, mechanic, visionary and drunk. God bless America.