Beauty and the Beast – Steph and LeBron

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I’m watching NBA playoff games, and that’s as unlikely as my setting up a herpetarium in the bedroom.

I am a total bandwagon fan of the NBA, only following the sport for the past three years after almost twenty years of thinly veiled contempt for professional basketball and for what I considered its grotesquely overpaid  divas – both players and coaches.

I’d been a fan in my boyhood, unattached to any particular team; I liked individual players, each of whom was a hero for differing reasons.  I grew up in New England and saw more of the Boston Celtics than any other team, and those years were very good years for Boston, so my attention was often focused there.  Bob Cousy (The Houdini of the Hardwood) was a brilliant passer and playmaker, slick, deft, bordering on flashy but so passionate about the game that his behind-the-back no-look passes to equally adept teammates – Bill Sharman, Tommy Heinsohn, K.C. Jones – were simply part of a Celtic machine that operated with surgical precision.  Equally talented as an offensive player, the Celtics’ Bill Russell was a defensive genius, a shot blocker, rebounder, and a team leader who took the Celtics to 11 championships in his 13 seasons with the team. If I’d known the phrase, I would have said I admired Russell because he played within himself, a warrior handing opponents one slam after another with calm dispatch.

I didn’t much care for Wilt Chamberlain; he was conspicuously taller than the rest of the league (and humanity) so his scoring seemed inevitable.  Much later, when I saw the documentary about Chamberlain’s years as a waiter in the Catskills, I found him more interesting.  I did care quite a bit about four or five other luminaries – Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor for example.   I was a sophomore in high school when Baylor pumped in 61 points against the Celtics in game 5 of the 1962 finals.  Baylor was an incredible athlete with a smooth jump shot and remarkable rebounding skill.  I’ve always admired rebounders , so I’ll put Bob Pettit and Jerry Lucas on my list as well.

All of which is to explain that I stuck with the NBA watching the Lakers,  Detroit’s Bad Boys, Jordan and Pippen, John Stockton … and then/but then  … the lockout.  Jordan to the Wizards. Kobe and Shaq.  Isaiah Thomas and Jim Dolan.  Practice, we’re talking about practice.  Ron Artest.  Tanking otherwise known as “the process”.  Players demanding trades from small markets.  Players firing coaches.  Personalities larger than teams. Teams out of the chase before the season began – Phoenix, Memphis, Dallas, Sacramento, Atlanta, Chicago, Brooklyn, New York, Charlotte.

Back to Kobe.  As others have noted, unimpeachably brilliant player (at times), probably no more silly and egomaniacal than many superior athletes, but somehow allowed by the Lakers’ owners to run a dynasty into the ground.  Kobe sucked the air out of the league and replaced competition with contention.  There were still great players on the floor, but the tone of the game had soured.  Yeah, I’m blaming my disaffection with the league on Kobe, although the game itself had grown stale and formulaic.  Remember, this was the era in which the Spurs were an outlier because they played as a team.

My son and I saw LeBron James play in his senior year at Saint Mary’s High School in Akron, Ohio.  At least three of St. Mary’s games were televised that year, pretty much the only regular season high school games broadcast at that time, but LeBron had already moved into the pantheon of remarkable athletes sometime between his junior and senior year.  Sure, it was high school basketball, and some of the play was spotty, but this 6’5 high school kid ran the floor as if he was literally a man among boys.  His physical presence was notable; he had grown four inches since his freshman year, and he was less bountifully muscled than he has become, but rock solid and capable of bouncing defenders at will.  To use the scouting lingo, he had hops, a smooth stroke, and saw the floor.  What most impressed me though, in addition to this kid’s mature charisma, was his ability to dish the ball to teammates with stunning precision.  I’d seen Shaq play at LSU, and he moved well for a 7 foot kid approaching 300 pounds, was clearly a force of nature, but did not have LeBron’s mastery of the game.  Shaq could rebound and drop a hook shot, but he played in reaction to the game around him.  Even as a high school senior, LeBron created the game.

OK, willing to endure Stephon Marbury, Allen Iverson, Dwight Howard, and Kobe, to see how the phenom would turn out, and that meant watching the Cavs who were not good, so not good, that there was talk that Carmelo Anthony and Dywane Wade were more likely to emerge as stars.  By the end of his second season, LeBron had pulled the Cavs above .500 and was averaging almost 30 points a game, despite being the only threat on the floor for the Cavs.  “The Decision” broadcast in 2010 took LeBron to Miami and created the first of the athlete controlled “super” teams, interesting in the abstract, but indicative of the character of NBA basketball at the time; the Spurs remained the only team operating as a team.  I lost interest in seeing Kobe and Carmelo hog the ball and spent my winters hoping the Red Wings could figure things out before sliding into irrelevance in the NHL.

LeBron’s return to Cleveland awakened my curiosity, (do you remember the East before the Celtics and Sixers were reanimated?) and the drive toward a championship season had all the elements of mythic battle, particular to the City of Cleveland and to LeBron.  He had come of age, had multiple MVP seasons and All Star appearances behind him, and was now returning home to do for Cleveland what no other player could have done.  He was bigger, more focused, humbled by the response to his decision, ready to carry this franchise on his back.  There were other impressive players in the league, but none took the team’s success as personally as did LeBron James, and in the playoffs against the Warriors he rose (literally – remember his chasing down Iguodala and blocking the lay-up in game 7?) to the challenge.

LeBron is smart and still sees the floor better than all but one or two guards in the league.  He is 6’8 of ball handling acumen with the ability to crash the boards, go to the rim, loft a three, float a short shot, and sink a fade-away jump shot as the clock winds down.  He is a master of the game with unmatched skill and yet, for all his attainments, LeBron  is a beast – durable, tough, imposing, physical, and driven by a fierce will to win.

The conversation, then, turns to Steph Curry, born in Akron, Ohio, the son of Dell Curry, then playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but with the exception of that accident of birth, the mythos of these two players could not be more unalike.  If LeBron is a force of nature, Steph is the play of sunlight on the water.  OK, that’s out there, but there is joy in Steph’s play even as he takes the role of the baby-faced assassin.  In a sense, for Steph basketball is play and the court a playground.  This is not to say that he lacks competitive fire; he is a relentless competitor, but even in the heat of battle, there’s nothing grim about his play, determined, for sure, but not grim.

Curry was good in high school, very good.  He had played competitive club basketball in Toronto when his dad was with the Raptors and later for Charlotte Christian School, taking them to three state playoffs while winning all conference and all state honors.   Whereas some part of LeBron’s dominance is in being “roughly the size of a barge”,  Curry wore the number 20 on his high school jersey because the 30 jersey was too big for him.  He tipped the Toledos at 130 pounds and stood 5’7  as he began his career at Charlotte Christian.  His games were not televised nationally, but there are some clips available that show him in at the start of his high school career.  From a quick glance and from the testimony of his teammates and coaches, it is clear that Steph had the ball handling skill and shooter’s eye that would distinguish him throughout his collegiate and professional career, but he was small enough, that he had to hold the ball at his shoulder to begin his shot and often had to jump to get a shot past a taller defender.  Even in his high school years it was clear that the only defense against his sharpshooting was to swarm him, suffocate him before he could loft a three.

Coming out of Saint Mary’s, LeBron was the undisputed first pick in the NBA draft.  Curry had hoped to follow his dad in playing for Virginia Tech, but was considered too small to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference.  Lightly regarded by the other members of the strong ACC including Duke and Wake Forest, Steph was recruited by Davidson College, then a formidable member of the Southern Conference.  Davidson with an enrollment just under 2000 is among the most highly regarded academic institutions in the South, routinely called “The Princeton of the South”, and it’s had its moments in the athletic arena as well,   Celebrated coach Lefty Driesell took the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament in the 1960’s, earning a Sports Illustrated’s rank of number one in the nation in 1964.  The next wave of Wildcat fever peaked during Steph’s 2008 season when Davidson knocked off Gonzaga, Georgetown, and a tough Wisconsin team to meet Kansas in the elite eight thanks to Steph’s 30 plus points in each of those games.  At the end of his junior year, Curry was the leading scorer in the nation, a seasoned point guard and the seventh overall pick by the Warriors.

Conjecture runs wild in any conversation about sports and about the composition of teams in particular.  Does the team have chemistry, the players complementary skills, veterans who show composure under pressure, the right coach for the right star, a happy locker room?  And the answer for great teams is, sometimes.

There’s no kind way to describe the Warriors’ franchise that Curry joined in the 2009-2010 season.  Things had been rocky in the prior decade, but in Steph’s first season, the Warriors called up five D League players signed on a ten-day contract.  Yes, the Iowa Energy, the Idaho Stampede, and the Sioux Skyforce coughed up three starters that season.  Nevertheless, Curry averaged 17.5 points a game and was runner-up to Tyreke Evans as the Rookie of the Year.  Injuries plagued Steph throughout the 2011 season, allowing backup, Jeremy Lin, to take the floor when he escaped captivity with the Reno Bighorns.  Curry only appeared in 26 games that year, and many basketball cognoscenti thought the Warriors made a mistake in giving injury-prone Steph Curry an extension on his contract for the 2012 -2013 season.

But here’s where the addition of one player can make an outsized difference.  Klay Thompson joined Steph in the backcourt, and, as the “Splash Brothers”, they rained three point shots on opponents, leading the Warriors to their first playoff in 13 years.  Curry dropped 252 three point baskets that season, combining with Thompson for a total of 483 treys, and the Warriors appeared in the NBA playoffs for the first time in 13 years.

Steph was averaging 24 points a game, had earned the title of “baby-faced assassin” and was still splashing with Thompson as the Warriors got a second playoff sixth seed in the 2013 – 2014 season, but the Warriors current success as a team began to gel when Steve Kerr, the NBA’s most precise three point shooter of all time took the helm in 2014 – 2015.

And here’s where I fall into the adjectival abyss in a lame attempt to evoke the impact of Steph Curry’s shot on me, on the league, on the game, on the future.  It may not matter that his release is as unfailingly elegant as it is, or that the arc is so geometrically precise that the moment the ball leaves his hand we know that Steph’s shot is clear and clean, or that he’s taken the shot from just short of mid-court.  Yes, his shots are beautiful, and yes, I see them in my dreams, but it is in the moments just before the shot that Steph Curry causes one to catch one’s breath.  What words suffice?

Here’s a brief account of how Steph gets space in order to shoot.  He starts with a crossover (ok, not the only crossover in the league) between his legs, followed by a step back, into a cross back, which sounds simple enough (!) except that he has already dribbled past two defenders and shrugged of a third before sensing that the range is right, the defender off-balance, the ball coming off the dribble in just the right ascendency.  He’s moving forward, back, side to side, and then up.

Don’t take my word for it.  An article in the New York Times profiled several ballet dancers who have become basketball fans after having seen Curry in action.  One of these, the director of the Oakland ballet, put it this way, “…he’s not even trying to do something beautiful.  His coach doesn’t tell him how to land, but he does.  It’s innate.  His whole body knows what to do in the air and in the return.”

Steph has already changed the game; his team passes frequently, creates motion and space, and wins consistently.   As we speak, a twelve-year-old somewhere is working on his crossover and another dribbling with two basketballs.  The next generation of basketball players will come up shooting from behind the three point line and handling the ball in an attempt to recreate Steph’s magic.

At the end of this rhapsody, it occurs to me that I’ve come full circle, from boyhood appreciate of the wizardry on the best ball handler of his time (Cousy) and the most physically imposing player of his time (Russell) to LeBron and Steph.  So, in the end, I have to admit that LeBron is also a beauty and Steph some kind of beast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SIS BOOM BAH

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Times have changed, certainly, but lest we forget those who once stood poised by their megaphones, ready to lead a spirited locomotive cheer, let’s remember, shall we, the men of cheer..

Yes, mascots slam dunking off trampolines are among the more amusing spectacles available at halftime, and, yes, the national cheerleading championship broadcast from Disney World does feature impressive pyramid building and endless tossing of small girls into the stratosphere, but doesn’t it all feel contrived, really?

Fired Up and Bring It On took us inside that heartless world of cheer competition, but like the Disney version of cheering, school spirit seems secondary if mentioned at all.  Satan’s Cheerleaders expanded the scope of the genre, but again, was much more about a secondary issue (sacrificing virgins) than rooting a team to glory.   Apparently cheering as cheering lost traction somewhere along the way.

I suppose a modern cheer take on the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland “Hey-let’s-paint-the-old-barn-and-put-on-a-show” montage would present the moment in which the college’s notably mousy librarian jumps from the bleachers as the final minute ticks down, the home team scores, she drops her specs, strips off her cardigan sweater, displays the college’s colors, and leads the crowd in a furious snake dance around the goal posts.  I suppose she could as easily mug the opposing team’s mascot, toss an overweight bobcat to the ground and plant the school’s flag somewhere near its nether bits.  Or not.

Back to the locomotive, a cheer rarely heard on the sidelines these days.  It’s simplicity itself; fans simply follow the leaders in spelling the school’s name, deliberately at first, gathering steam as the cheer is repeated – like a locomotive – get it?  Not too tough on the sidelines at Yale, a bit more challenging at Susquehanna.  Simple, perhaps, but the energy behind the cheer comes from the urging of cheerleaders, men in letter sweaters virtually foaming at the mouth as the cheer grown in intensity.  Toss away any misconception you might have about the popularity of male cheerleaders in the day; these guys were BMOC, Aces,Keen. Mr.Charisma grabbed a microphone, threw his shoulders back, and tossed out the first word. That was enough. That’s all it took.

In the 1880’s Princeton’s lads developed what would come to be known as the skyrocket cheer –

Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!
Tiger. Sis, Boom. Bah Princeton!

In Austen, in 1892, eager Longhorns “borrowed” a cheer in use at Philips Academy Exeter (NH), a school known as PEA:

Hullabaloo! Hoo-Ray! Hoo-Ray!
Hullabaloo! Hoo-Ray! Hoo-Ray!
Varsity! Varsity! UTA!

And the familiar refrain?

Rah! Rah! Rah!
Sis! Boom! Bah!

… It is rumored that the first modern cheer of this sort originated at the University of Minnesota where six male cheerleaders kicked this genre into gear.

Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-u-mah, Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Varsity, Minn-e-So-Tah!”

OK, that was fine as far as it went, but some colleges brought a higher level of erudition to the field. Imagine if you will the Britons of Albion College rousing the crowd in 1884 as Olivet came to town:

Io Triumphe! Io Triumphe!

Haben, swaben, rebecca le animore

Whoopy, whoopty, shellerdy veridy;

Broomdy, Ralldy, eyedy pa

Honeka, heneka, wack-a wacka;

Hob, bob, boldibara, boldibara,

Con slomaday, hob, dab, rah!

Albion! RAH!

Occidental borrowed that one wholesale, and others traveled equally well, as did this gem from Mercer University in Georgia.

Ricker-chicker, Boom! Ricker-chicker, Boom!
Ricker-chicker, Ricker-chicker, Boom ! Boom ! Boom !

Even more institutionally specific is the cheer used by years by the fun-loving pranksters at Cal Tech:

Cosine, tangent, secant, sine

Logarithm, logarithm, hyperbolic sign,

3-point-1-4-1-5-9

slide rule, slide rule

Tech, Tech, Tech.

Fun is fun, but every once in a while a college has to step up and celebrate its core values, as is done on the sideline at Indiana’s Earlham College, one of the nation’s most Quakerly of Friends colleges:

Fight, Fight, Inner Light!
Kill, Quakers, Kill!
Knock ’em Down, Beat ’em Senseless!
Do It til We Reach Consensus!

For years, Earlham’s mascot was “Mr. Quaker”, a portly figure the virtual twin of the character shilling for Quaker Oats. Today, however, that bastion of Quakerism has become, “Big Earl”, a fearsome if highly principled avatar.

Who WERE these guys, these captains of cheer squads? Here are but a few: George W. Bush (Head Cheerleader at Andover), Jimmy Stewart (Head Cheerleader at Princeton), Dwight D. Eisenhower (Varsity football star who cheered while injured), Franklin D. Roosevelt (Harvard Cheerleader). What’s changed over the years? Somehow this activity, once entirely controlled by men was transformed, sometime in the 1950’s as pom poms began to replace megaphones. The ranks of women who once cheered is perhaps even more celebrated (Halle Berry, Vanna White, Sandra Bullock, Madonna …. and … Ruth Bader-Ginsburg).

Sis! Boom! Bah!

 

My Brain Is On The Clock

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The NFL Draft captures the attention of 45 MILLION viewers, draws more than 70,000 people who attend in person, lasts for three days, and occupies the hearts and minds of the nation’s most erudite students of sports from the moment the Eagles hoisted the Lombardi Trophy to the moment Roger Goodell chuffs into the microphone to kick off the festivities.

Let’s think about this for a moment … starting with the 45 MILLION, many of whom  admittedly start out watching the draft but fall away somewhere around hour five.  Still, that’s an extraordinary number of people watching what is essentially football bingo.  Just to provide some perspective, slightly more than 18 million tuned in to see the Astros defeat the Dodgers in the last game of the World Series, the Cavs and Warriors averaged about 20 million last season, fewer fans than watched the year before, when the Cavs took the championship, almost 8 million follow professional bowling, and a mere 2.4 million ponied up $100.00 apiece to watch Floyd Mayweather fight Manny Pacquiao.

There are some interesting questions in any draft season, as there are this year.  Premium quarterbacks establish the success of a franchise and there is some doubt that this year’s crop has the goods.  The top four or five this season are decidedly less promising than some in other years, but, hey, someone has to take them, and at least two will go in the first round if not in the first five picks. Case in point -Josh Rosen. Jim Mora, controversial  former coach at UCLA, tossed Rosen, one of the top two quarterbacks in the draft and his former QB, under a bus by suggesting that as a privileged intellectual millennial, his passion for the game has to be questioned.  Rosen may not be a tough-town quarterback like Johnny Unitas or Brett Favre, but the NFL has welcomed a host of qbs from snappy backgrounds, all of whom could be modeling for Ralph Lauren in the off-season.  If the charge is that Rosen is too smart to stay interested in football, which is what Mora seems to have charged, the best quarterbacks on the field right now would be Chris Leak, now in the CFL,  or Terrelle Pryor, both of whom had single digit scores on the Wonderlic test.

So that’s interesting.

Then there’s Saquon Barkley.  Barkley, Penn State’s running back extraordinaire, is a true freak of nature and the most exciting football phenom since Barry Sanders.  Picking up almost 4000 yards and 43 touchdowns is noteworthy, but anyone who saw Barkley play knows that this guy can bust into daylight with or without an opening.  Rumor has it that Penn State really only had two running plays, which, if you have a Saquon Barkley, is really all you need.  This year’s hot question is whether an NFL franchise will use a top pick on Barkley, knowing the half-life of running backs is about two years and remembering that in the last two seasons top running backs came from the middle of the draft.  Several teams could conceivably pass on the most talented athlete in the draft.

So that’s interesting.

In red-hot franchise news, The Cleveland Browns,perennial doormats of the league, have a bunch of nifty picks and could conceivably jump-start a franchise that has been mired in misery.  The NY Football Giants face the inevitable replacement of Eli Manning and may chose to use their highest pick to land one of those three quarterbacks of questionable value.  Do the Giants take a last shot at a playoff with Manning or shoot the moon for the next franchise qb?  How many quarterbacks do the Broncos need this year?  The Jets … ’nuff said.  The Cards have a plan to keep Sam Bradford on the field for 16 games next season; it involves adamantium and homeopathic treatments in which his knees and ankles will be routinely hit with soft mallets.  Oh, so they could need to draft as well.

That’s pretty much it, so one wonders what will draw the millions to the event once again.  It’s been a while since the end of the football season, but colleges will be playing their spring games at about the same time, the NBA and NHL are starting to shape up the playoff slots, and baseball is in full swing (as it were).  Any excuse for a party?  Makes sense, at least on the sports bar and giant tv screen level.

This may be mere cynicism, or more likely the annual squealing of a fan whose franchise will be drafting nothing but interior linemen, but I suggest that the draft allows us, the uninitiated and unpaid fans, the luxury of second-guessing the analytics guys, the scouts, the coaches, the trainers, and team doctors.  I’ve already mentioned the Browns once; their draft history is so appalling that any of us could certainly have done a better job.  Will they self-destruct again this year?  45 Million people will be tuning in to watch it happen.  Want to make a football junkie drool in anticipation of juicy controversy?  Just trot out the list of top draft quarterback flops; it’s a catnip canape for fans of all ages.

Ryan Leaf (2nd overall),  Jamarcus Russell (1st overall), Akili Smith (3rd overall), David Klinger (6th overall), Tim Couch (1st overall), Joey Harrington (3rd overall), David Carr (1st overall), Vince Young (3rd overall), Jeff George (1st overall),

There are more serious issues to be considered in these parlous times; perhaps brains could be employed in service to other more pressing humanitarian efforts, but, no. Apparently we will once again clamor to see young men, only recently mud spattered and bloody, striding to the stage in thousand dollar suits to shake Commissar Goodell’s hand, jam on the ill-fitting team cap so that ears are flattened and spread, and flap a Cleveland Browns jersey with feigned glee.

If only there were some mechanism that allowed us to check the results with a quick scan of a screen, say, or even on the phone we carry in our pockets.  It’s essential, of course, to have the results in real-time as there are only three months between the draft and the first exhibition games.  I suppose we’ll all just have to settle in for the three-day marathon.marathon starting on April 26th.

 

 

 

 

 

Murderer’s Row

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Meat.  Cold Beer.  Home Runs.   Prime Man Cave fare.  Fans like to see people HIT things.  If we wanted hours of static posing on pristine fields of grass, we’d watch soccer.

The 1927 Yankees boasted a lineup so daunting that their first six hitters (Earl Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, and Tony Lazzeri) made up a “Murderer’s Row”, six batters no pitcher could face without peril.  Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig still live in baseball legend; Ruth hit 60 home runs that year, and Gehrig drove in 173 runs, besting Ruth’s record of 168 in 1921.  Combs’ batting average was .356 that year, Meusel’s .337, Lazzeri drove in 102 runs, and Koenig picked up 150 hits and scored 99 runs, including one from third base as Ruth pounded his 60th homer.  The Yankees won 110 games that year and 101 the next, when a schedule included 154 games.

This comes to mind as the Yankees welcome Giancarlo Stanton to a lineup that already presented considerable slugging power.  This year’s version of a murderer’s row will include DH Brett Gardner (21 home runs, .350 OBP) as leadoff, followed by Aaron Judge (52 home runs), .420 OBP), Giancarlo Stanton (59 home runs, .376 OBP), Gary Sanchez (33 home runs, .345 OBP), Aaron Hicks (15 home runs, .372 OBP), Didi Gregorius (25 home runs, .318 OBP).  The strategy allows Judge, Stanton, and Sanchez maximum opportunities to hit and allows fans to dream of 111 or more home runs again between Judge and Stanton alone.

And that’s exciting.  And about time, as baseball comes under intense scrutiny from those who find it hard to market the game.

Is this an era of great pitching?  Yup, and only baseball purists tune in to watch a 1-1 pitcher’s duel.  Are fielders more impressively acrobatic?  Yup, and we’ll catch those web gems on ESPN at eleven.

Meat.  Cold Beer.  Home Runs.   Prime Man Cave fare.  Fans like to see people HIT things.

If we wanted hours of static posing on pristine fields of grass, we’d watch soccer.   So, yes, booming bats is a good thing for baseball right now.

There have been some impressively stacked lineups that have tallied some large numbers over the decades, and not they have not always been the Yankees. A few curiosities have emerged, teams with power that did not establish dynasties, but which captured the imagination of their era.

The Tigers in the 1930’s, for example,  had Hank Greenberg, known as Hammerin’ Hank, also as  “The Hammering Hebrew”, a sobriquet unlikely to be found today.  Greenberg had refused to play on Rosh Hashanah at the end of the 1934 season, causing beleaguered Tiger fans to moan, “Rosh Hashanah comes every year, but the Tigers haven’t won the pennant since 1909.”   Greenberg was a gentle monster whose 58 home runs in 1938 stood as second only to Ruth until Roger Maris set the new mark of 61 in 1961.  The Tigers lineup was impressive, not quite a row of murderers, but not bad.  Greenberg batted second behind Rudy York, a .275 career hitter who played catcher that year and first base for most of his career.  York was one eighth Cherokee, a fact which allowed one insensitive newsman to describe him as, “part Indian and part first baseman.”  Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer, the Tiger’s exceptional second baseman, batted third,  Known as “The Mechanical Man,” Gehringer put together seven seasons with more than 200 hits, ending up with a career batting average of .320.  After Gehringer, the lineup trailed off considerably.  Dixie Walker, passing through Detroit on his way to the Dodgers that year hit for average but not for power.

Similarly, The Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Red Sox saw Jimmy Foxx sock 534 home runs in his career, 58 of which came in 1932 with the Athletics.  Foxx was the youngest to reach the 500 home run mark until Yankee, Alex Rodriguez, swept past him in 2007.  Foxx was a physical specimen of some reputation; “He has muscles in his hair,” quoth Lefty Gomez.  The A’s lineup included leadoff second baseman Max Bishop, a .270 hitter, George William “Mule” Haas, an outfielder batting close to .300, Mickey Cochran, catcher after whom Mickey Mantle was named, a .320 Hall of Fame hitter, and Al Simmons, “Bucketfoot Al”, whose performance in 1931 won him a second successive batting title, .390 with 25 home runs.  The A’s led the league for three years, winning two World Series Championships, but the Athletics sold Simmons to the White Sox on 1932, and retreated back to the ranks of ordinary, very good teams.

The oft-discounted Chicago Cubs trotted out one of the most dynamic duos from 1929 to 1932 when slugger Hack Wilson was joined by Rogers Hornsby, perhaps the most successful pure hitter of all time.  Hornsby finished his career with a lifetime batting average of .358, second only to Ty Cobb who was far from elegant, a slap hitter who bullied pitchers into giving him a ball he could hit.  In 1924 with the St. Louis Cardinals, Hornsby batted .424, still the highest seasonal batting average in the modern era.  He was the only player ever to hit 40 home runs and bat over .400.  Cubs fans know that Hornsby still holds the record for the Cubs’ highest batting average (.390) and for runs scored (156).  Hack Wilson was a wild man, frequently arrested for what were called his “festivities”.  He alleged that he never played drunk, but he did scramble into the box seats to fight a spectator who had been heckling him.  Despite his personal foibles, and despite his curious physique (5’6, 195 pounds with an 18 inch neck), Wilson could hit the ball a mile.  In 1930 he hit 56 home runs, batted .356, and drove in a record setting  191 runs.  The only players who approach Wilson inhis day were Lou Gehrig (184) and Hank Greenberg (183).  Joe DiMaggio hit 167 for the Yankees in 1937 and Manny Ramirez punched out 165  for the Cleveland Indians in 1999.  Wilson’s record, like DiMaggio’s hitting streak and Johnny Vander Meer’s consecutive no-hit games, has been considered untouchable.

It’s not easy to find contemporary lineups with comparable power.  Individuals, yes.  Teams, not so much.

Hank Aaron was baseball’s all-time home run king (755 home runs) until Barry Bonds crept past him with 762.  Unlike Bonds, who hit 73 home runs in 2001, the current single-season record, Aaron never had a 50 home run season.  Neither Aaron or Bonds were surrounded by power.  In that 2001 season, the Giants next best hitters were Jeff Kent (.298/ 22 home runs) and Rich Aurelia (.324/37 home runs).  In Aaron’s MVP season, 1957, the Braves lineup included Eddie Mathews, a hard hitting third baseman who would end up with a total of 522 home runs but who hit 32 that year.  Wes Covington was the third most potent batter, driving in 65 runs.  The Braves pitching was spectacular, but this was no murderer’s row.

Willie Mays, 5th on the all time home run tally with 666, won the MVP with the Giants in 1955, hitting 51 home runs.  Mays is among the most complete players in the history of the game, but his Giants were a relatively underpowered team; next on the roster in 1955 was Hank Thompson with 17 dingers. In later years, the SF GIants added Willie McCovey to the lineup, but by that time Mays was hitting fewer than 20 homers a year.  In 1998 when Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs by knocking 70 into outer space, the next most threatening Cardinal batter was Ray Lankford, who hit 37 home runs and drive in 105 runs.

So, murderers not lining up in rows in recent years?  Actually, two modest candidates emerged in the 1990’s:  The Seattle Mariners and the Cleveland Indians.

The 1998 Mariners had considerable pop as Ken Griffey, Jr. hit 56 home runs and Alex Rodriguez knocked out 42.  Griffey had 146 rbis and Rodriguez 124.  DH Edgar Martinez hit .322 that season and popped 29 home runs.  Griffey and A-Rod would leave the Mariners, but the 2001 Mariners won 116 games, 59 of which were won by more than four runs.  2001 was Ichiro Suzuki’s first year in MLB, obviously NOT a year of adjustment as he hit.350 that season.   Other batters hitting over .300 included John Olerud, Brett Boone, and Edgar Martinez.  The home run count was down that season, but Boone, Mike Cameron, and Martinez each drove in more than a 100 runs.

The 1995 Indians lead the majors in virtually every offensive statistic – runs scored, hits, home runs, slugging percentage, batting average, runs batted in, fewest strikeouts.  The entire lineup may not seem that formidable, but the consistent strength in the middle of the order sets this team apart:  Jim Thome, .314/ 25 home runs, Omar Vizquel, .266/ 56 rbis, Albert Belle, .317/ 50 home runs / 126 rbis, Kenny Lofton, .310 / 53 rbis, Manny Ramirez, .308/ 31 home runs / 107 rbis, Eddie Murray, .323 / 21 home runs.  That Indian team won its division by 30 games over the Kansas City Royals, swept the Red Sox in three games, and defeated the Mariners in the American League Championship.  The Indians lost to the Braves in the World Series, but few in the American League forgot that Indians lineup.

I write this piece in early April.  Hicks is out for more than a month, Judge has one home run and Stanton three.  Not murder yet.  On the other hand, out on the west coast, Mike Trout has hit two for the Angels, and pitcher/hitter Shohei Ohtani also has two home runs as well and is 1-0 from the mound.  The Nat’s Bryce Harper has already hit four home runs and the Astros’ Jose Altuve is hitting .414.

Should be a great year in the man cave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

UConn

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I’m writing today about women’s basketball, and you know that because “UConn”,  the title of the piece, now brings to mind women’s basketball, but the remarkable accomplishment of a team from a relatively small and absolutely unheralded Northeastern university speaks to more than the Huskies’ dominance in the sport.  Most recent conversation about UConn has been about the danger of a single team’s prominence and its stranglehold on the national championship, even though a feisty Mississippi State team knocked UConn out in the Final Four last season, an anomaly that did not silence the debate.

“Is UConn bad for women’s basketball”?  Back and forth like a series of turnovers at midcourt.

Here’s the thing:  If you have to ask the question, the answer is there wouldn’t be a conversation about women’s basketball without UConn’s transcendent legacy.

Have women’s collegiate sports come of age, particularly since the implementation of Title IX?  Absolutely?  Are women’s sporting events as well attended as men’s?  Not usually, or almost never with a few significant exceptions.  US National Women’s Soccer game tickets may be hard to come by, and final matches at the US Tennis Open are up by more than 30% as more than 690,000 attended in person, in part because American women in addition to the Williams sisters have moved up the ranks.  The highest attendance of any US women’s professional team belongs to the Portland Thorns FC of the NWSL who have averaged about 13,000 per game and a high of 17,653 last season.  In the WNBA, the highest numbers showed up for the 2000 All Star game in Phoenix (17,717) and for the final game between the Minnesota Lynx and the Atlanta Dream(15,258).

At the collegiate level, the University of Utah Gymnastic team leads the pack with an average attendance of 15,000, although as many as 15,600 packed into an arena with a capacity of 15,000 to see the Red Rocks take on the Bruins of UCLA.  The next contender is also a gymnastic program, at the University of Alabama, averaging more than 13,000 per game.  Where’s UConn’s women’s basketball program?  Behind South Carolina, Tennessee, and Iowa State.

So, bad for women’s basketball?  Apparently not, and here’s the argument that carries the most weight.  Although there may not be parity in women’s basketball, and although UConn blows out teams like St, Francis in the first round of the tournament by a score of 140 – 52, leading the St. Francis Red Flash by 94 – 31 in the first half, every televised slamma-jamma-fast break- three point-outlet pass victory brings more viewers to the sport, more attention to the game, and more intensity to the coaching and training of female high school and collegiate basketball players.

Tennessee held the crown for decades.  Coached by Pat Summitt, one of the toughest and most revered coaches in any collegiate sport, the Lady Vols have appeared in all 36 tournaments, 34 Sweet Sixteens, and 18 Final Fours.  In 1988-99, a year in which they won a National Championship, the Lady Vols went 35-2.  Other programs, Baylor, Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Stanford, Notre Dame have risen to join Tennessee as contending programs in any year, and any of them could conceivably beat UConn as Mississippi State did last year.

But UConn’s women hold the top two longest winning streaks in collegiate basketball, winning 111 consecutive games from 2014 to 2017 (buzzer beater loss to Mississippi State) and a streak of 90 games from 2008 to 2010.

111 consecutive games.  What talented young woman would not want to be a part of that dynasty?

Coach Gino Auriemma arrived in Storrs, Connecticut in 1985.  I grew up in Connecticut, and I can find Storrs on a map, but I would bet that most of my readers would need some help to pinpoint the Mecca of women’s collegiate basketball.  Storrs is a sleepy town in the agricultural northeast of the state with a population of about 15,000, and UConn was one of the New England state universities that enjoyed brief flashes of celebrity as one of the men’s basketball teams bounced out of the American Conference and into the limelight.  Julius Erving took the University of Massachusetts to prominence at the end of the 1960’s, and John Calipari and Marcus Canby resuscitated the program in the early 1990’s.  It was UConn’s men who first brought attention to the university winning the NCAA championship in 1999, but by 1995, the women had climbed to the top as well, defeating a Pat Summitt coached Tennessee team with the help of Rebecca Lobo, Kara Wolters, Jennifer Rizzotti, Nykesha Sales, and Jamelle Elliott.  The strength of both programs allowed UConn to become the only college to sweep the tournament with both men’s and women’s teams, in 2004 and 2014.  The men rank sixth all-time in NCAA tournament success, but few of us mark the calendar to watch them play.  Even fewer tune in the hope of seeing them lose.

And that’s where I think the UConn women’s team has had a salubrious effect on the quality of the game as a whole.  They face some strong competition during the season of course, but for every other team, the UConn game is THE game of the season.  Not only does UConn make regular season basketball compelling (and few teams do), they push every opponent to the highest level of their game.  The game is elevated, the stakes are high, and the sport becomes a topic of conversation as is true of no other women’s sport.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, UConn plays superb team basketball.  They shoot threes with the best of the best, but also speed in transition, steal a lot of balls, find the open player, grab rebounds, play killer defense, and never stop scrapping.  They play an elegant, furious version of basketball that reminds me why I love the sport.

Last season’s team had lost outstanding players, played younger, and had to scrap a bit harder.  The loss to Mississippi State ended the streak, but pushed both Mississippi State and South Carolina into greater public attention and brought heightened drama to the current season.  In regular play, the Huskies were 16-0 in conference this year and 19-0 against teams outside the conference.  Maybe not all that much drama.

They face South Carolina tomorrow and, should they move along, either Mississippi State or UCLA in the final game.  I watch golf when Tiger plays and I watch basketball when UConn plays.  I’m hoping they keep this streak alive, race to the finish and play basketball as basketball was meant to be played.

Go, Huskies!

 

 

 

 

And yet,