I’m ready for my close-up, Coach Parseghian

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Man Cave movies about sports?

We who love sports like to think we hold filmmakers to a high standard, but as I began to pull together a compendium of great sports films, I realized that critical discrimination is actually least likely to be found among those of us who will gladly watch the first round of Little League playoffs or the Barbisol PBA Players Championship.  Grizzled, hard-bitten sportswriters spit a chewed cigar on the floor and plump for Major League, Caddyshack, The Bad News Bears, The Sandlot,  and Rudy.  

The title of this piece is an oblique reference to Gloria Swanson’s poignantly unbalanced, egomaniacal line in Sunset Boulevard (not a sports film) and Sean Astin’s role as Rudy Ruettiger as the inspirational Notre Dame walk-on in Rudy.  Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is a film classic; Rudy is schlock, maybe inspirational and emotionally satisfying, but fairly standard Hollywood Horatio Alger/pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps/little guy overcoming great odds fare.

OK, maybe “schlock” is a bit heavy-handed; let’s go with intending to “please by playing upon the emotions of the viewer”.  Does that work?  Rudy never fails to put a good-sized lump in my throat.  As the crowd chants his name, I tear up.  Time after time.  Joe Montana, however, who was quarterback at Notre Dame while Rudy was walking on and who knows the unvarnished story, probably will not tear up.  The investigators at the SEC who indicted Ruettiger for stock fraud probably will not.  None of that changes my emotional response to a film about a good guy working hard to chase a dream; the more the world tells our little guy that the dream is out of reach, the more satisfying it is when he reaches it.

Hmmmm.  I have to wonder if there is a group made up of films that are essentially man cave films, pretty much admired and defended by guys because, on some level, they speak to the confusing and unarticulated complex of emotions that emotionally muffled men have a hard time explaining, to themselves or others.

For example, my son and I both started to blubber while watching The Rookie, the true story of Jim Morris, a high school baseball coach whose arm had blown out after a brief stint as a single-A prospect.  He’s coached his team to a state championship by encouraging them to follow their dreams, and, after taking them to the top, keeps a promise to follow his at the age of 36 by trying out with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.  This is yet another of the “odds are against the little guy” tales and particularly rich in the “dreams we’ve kept to ourselves” category.

The real Morris trotted out a 98 mph fastball, got a contract, played his way up to the Bigs, and ended up appearing in 21 games, posting 13 strikeouts, a 0-0 record, and a career ERA of 4.83.  Dennis Quaid, our version of Jim Morris, is on the verge of quitting before the try-out, fearful that he could no longer throw a good fastball. He’s rigged up an old radar gun, and throwing as hard as he can, seems to register pitches somewhere in the low 80’s.  He’s ready to quit when the radar screen splutters, digitally coughs, and adjusts itself to an accurate reading of 98 mph.

Cue the tears.

Where do they come from?  We’re sitting in a darkened room watching what might as well be a digital thermometer, and slubbing in our seats as though our own lives had suddenly been touched by a magic wand.

Films about baseball outnumber the total number of films about any other sport for reasons that probably have something to do with the unique metaphoric resonance baseball has for fans and writers.  Poets write about baseball as Donald Hall does in “Fathers Playing Catch With Sons”:

“We listened on the dark screen porch, an island in the leaves and bushes, in the faint distant light from the street, while the baseball cricket droned against the real crickets of the yard. We listened while reading newspapers or washing up after dinner. We listened in bed when the Tigers were on the West Coast, just hearing the first innings, then sleeping into the game to wake with the dead gauze sound of the abandoned air straining and crackling beside the bed.”

Having listened to ball games on a radio I built from a kit, tented in under blankets so as to avoid being caught after lights-out, I’m immediately back in unquestioning fan mode again when a story or a film catches the kid in me and pulls me into a world I long to inhabit.

I’ve written about Field of Dreams elsewhere on this site and hold the opinion that it is the film that most completely captures the sustaining magic of the game.  It is a movie about fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, opportunities lost and opportunities grasped.  It’s a far better film that Rudy, and one I return to virtually every year, but I won’t even begin to apply the standard critical tools to the film as film.

In my cave, some things are better left alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Play Ball!

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I wrote this piece when I still had plans to get to Spring Training.  Not looking good this year, so here’s a wistful memory.

Today, February 22nd, the world starts over again.

In Phoenix, Arizona at the beautiful new Salt River Field, the Arizona Diamondbacks take on the Grand Canyon University Antelopes, the Lopes, in the opening game of Spring Training in what is known as the Cactus League, pre-season major league baseball in Arizona.  Tomorrow, in the Grapefruit League, the Detroit Tigers play Florida Southern College’s Water Moccasins at the recently renovated Publix Field in Lakeland, Florida.  Times have changed as increasing numbers of fans fleeing the end of winter follow their teams to sunshine, and Spring Training facilities are spiffier, ticket prices higher, T-shirts and hats more expensive, and autographs harder to snare.  Nonetheless, the relaxed pace of training games, the appearance of rookies who might turn out to be stars, genuinely splendid weather, and the opportunity to see the best players in the game up-close and personal, all of that is catnip to baseball fans.

Today you can cheer for the Lopes or Diamondbacks for $6.00 and drop another six bucks tomorrow when the Brewers take on The University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Panthers at my favorite park, Maryvale Baseball Park, a scaled down park tucked into a neighborhood that seats about seven thousand laid back Brewers fans, the most loyal and cheerful fans in Arizona.  I’m not a Brewers fan, but I love sitting in the midst of a Wisconsin family reunion, cousins from Kenosha, twins down from Janesville, Uncle Bub from Green Bay now living in Appleton, the newlyweds from Eau Claire.  They rib each other mercilessly and send the kids out for the park’s signature Klement’s bratwursts.  The Brats are fabulous, but Klements hasn’t stopped there;  they not only offer other irresistible and distinctive sausages, they suit ’em up and race them.   Bets are laid down when the five costumed racing sausages (Brat, Polish Sausage, Italian Sausage, Hot Dog, and Chorizo) appear before the home team bats in the sixth inning.

Maryvale is a small town within the western city limits of Phoenix, but so gently removed from city life that an unprepared visitor can drive right by the park, confusing it with the Maryvale High School’s fields unless you stop for lunch at Wendy’s .  The park offers shaded seating, a necessity on some sun-baked afternoons, but for $8.00 a fan can camp out on  the grassy berm that extends from the third base bleachers to the first base bleachers, looking down into the bullpens cut into the berm on each side.  I watch baseball on television because I can’t get to games during the season, but I miss the distinctive pop of a fastball hitting the catcher’s mitt only a few feet from my place on the berm.

Actually, of course, I miss it all – the sweep of grass in the outfield, the puff of dust when a hard hit ball skids past second base, the smell of impending thunder as the grounds crew drags the tarp over the infield.  There’s even more to miss about baseball during Spring Training.  My son and I shared a section of the stands with scouts from twelve major league teams, sitting close to home plate as they clocked fastballs and counted the corners each pitcher could paint with consistency.  Until that afternoon, we had never seen a World Series Championship ring up close; that day we saw twenty.

We sat behind Peter Gammons, Groton and UNC educated sportswriter and ESPN baseball analyst, one of the three or four most respected baseball guys of our time, a shameless Red Sox homer, but capable of balanced reporting nonetheless.  My son showed precocious grace in not asking for an autograph but offering a handshake as Gammons attended his first game since recovering from a life threatening brain aneurysm.

We were behind home plate when a Cuban refugee named Aroldis Chapman first pitched for the Cincinnati Reds in a game against the Dodgers.  We had heard he threw hard, but until we saw the blur from mound to plate, pitch after pitch, some of which were actually strikes, we could not have imagined what a 105 mile an hour pitch looked like from the batter’s point of view.  We literally stood ten feet behind  Ichiro Suzuki at the Mariner’s park as he nailed runner after runner from deep centerfield, including a peg to FIRST base that clipped Jim Thome in stride.

Sadly the Cubs quirky stadium, HoHoKam Stadium in Mesa has been replaced with a shiny new park in Mesa, and the Athletics have moved from downtown to a refreshed HoHoKam; probably for the best that one of the most dangerous viewing experiences has been taken out of circulation.  We sat above the third base dugout, happily hoping we might see a foul tip and go home with a ball, when Aramis Ramirez skinned a foul line drive over the first base dugout literally knocking a patron out of his seat.  From that point on, we sat behind a net or paid v.e.r.y. close attention to each at bat.

With no expectation other than catching a game, on March 21st, 2009, we drove in heat and painfully slow-moving traffic from Peoria to Surprise, a western suburb.  The Rangers and Royals share the park, one of the prettiest, and on that evening, the Rangers hosted the Dodgers in what was a fairly uneventful game, until the crowds parted, the atmosphere turned electric, and a procession emerged.  Muhammad Ali supported by his wife, Wayne Gretzky, George Brett, and Joe Torre.

And we got to see a ball game as well.

Spring Training has a rich history including some exotic choices for pre-season locale back before Arizona and Florida claimed the season.  At the turn of the Twentieth Century, Hot Springs, Arkansas hosted the greatest number of teams (Chicago White Stockings, Cleveland Spiders, Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Boston Red Sox).  Fans who travelled to Hot Springs in 1918 would have seen a Red Sox pitcher shoved into emergency duty in the outfield.  Babe Ruth looked promising, knocking two home runs, including one  that is alleged to have soared more than five hundred feet, landing in a nearby Alligator farm.  Mr. Wrigley’s Chicago Cubs trained on Catalina Island in the 1920’s, a convenience for Wrigley as he owned the island.  The Dodgers trained in Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

The Cactus League exists because Bill Veeck, one of baseball’s greatest showmen and innovators having trained his Boston Brewers in Ocala, Florida, where segregation was harshly enforced, in 1946 took his next team, the Cleveland Indians to Tucson and convinced the Giant’s owner to train in Phoenix.  A year later Veeck signed Larry Doby, the second African-American to play in the major leagues, the first to come directly from the Negro Leagues,  and the first in the American League.

I’m pleased that spring baseball in Arizona has its roots in an owner’s farsighted and humane vision, pleased that eight National league teams and seven American League teams meet in pre-season play, and pleased that an ambitious fan can pack a lot of baseball in a fairly short trip.  And, it’s worth noting that whatever Saint Patrick’s Day might look like back in Chicago, the Cactus League version is much less about green beer and much more about familiar team hats decked with shamrocks and presented in rich Kelly green. You ain’t seen baseball hats until you’ve seen a green rattlesnake forming the familiar Diamondback “D”.

I’ll close with two thoughts.  The first was written by Jim Murray, Pulitzer Prize sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times:

Spring is the time of the year when the ground thaws, trees bud, income taxes fall due, and everybody wins the pennant.

The second, a thoughtful, perhaps unexpectedly reflective statement from Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, a remarkable player and widely known for referring to himself in the third person, as in “Rickey needs a hit tonight”.

I love playing this game and every spring training feels like the first.

 

 

What I thought I’d do and how that worked out

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I like to write about sports.  I certainly like to read about sports, and, whereas I rarely have anything to say about the condition of the wider world, soul-crushed as I am this year, I find myself holding passionate opinions about the relative strength of SEC football and Big Ten football, the chances of the Dodgers next season as compared to those of the Indians, and the demotion of Eli Manning from franchise quarterback to benched backup, opinions nobody in this household wants to hear.

So, I began writing for Fansided, a network of sports and entertainment related sites ranging from those following the NFL (Dear god, the Browns actually made a good decision) to endless discussion of Game of Thrones (Emilia Clark dyes her hair blonde).

After submitting several examples of my sports blathering, I was welcomed to several of the Fansided channels, beginning my sportswriting experiment with GBMWolverine, a site dedicated to University of Michigan athletics and to Michigan football.  In my short tenure there, I wrote something like twenty-four articles, some fulminating as a fan and some analyzing with precision exactly where the fifteen million dollar a year coaching staff had missed the mark.  My last opinion piece is exactly the sort of subject that kills conversations in all but three living rooms in the universe – “Has John O’Korn crushed Jim Harbaugh’s legacy at Michigan?”

You don’t want or need to know.

Eager to spread my sportswriting wings, I have moved on to the Fansided news desk, from which assignments reflecting breaking stories are dished out to reporters hovering like harriers over a field filled with scampering rodents.  I’m the lowest of the low, a bottom feeder, dished stories such as “Scott Frost and his staff will coach UCF in the Peach Bowl”, and “Giancarlo Stanton will not be a Giant next season”.

My last piece was “Herm Edwards stunned by size of ASU game jerseys”, an assignment I mangled as I am unfamiliar with the bells and whistles necessary to the publication of a media friendly posting, Search Engine Optimization, and so on.  It was that piece that has convinced me to let other, more savvy digital experts take on stories of that sort.  When assigned, I begged to explore the many and improbable aspects of Herm Edwards’ appointment as head football coach at Arizona State University, but my editor wanted 300 words on jerseys – no less, no more.  Should you wish to know why my fascination with Herm Edwards remains unslaked, please watch this, his first press conference as head coach.

I’ve been swatted when submitting articles with attitude or, as the editors describe my relentless fits of whimsy, “editorial content”, but that’s what I intended to offer in writing about sports.  Real reporters are breaking stories, hoorah, and I’m sitting in my living room in southern Oregon fulminating.

 

Army plays Navy this weekend, Tiger’s playing golf again, NHL players won’t appear in the Winter Olympics, Marvin Lewis has to go, Russia is barred from the Winter Olympics,  How can LeBron not be MVP  this year, the US may not participate in the Winter Olympics, Dennis Rodman reports on Kim Jong Un’s true intentions, if Baker Mayfield wins the Heisman Trophy (he will), Oklahoma fans want to erect a statue representing Mayfield’s planting a flag on the Ohio State logo – more than 4000 petitions have already been collected.

And that’s just today’s sports news.

Stay tuned, sports fans, it’s time to explore the wonderful world of sports clichés.  If you got ’em, send ’em my way.  After all, it’s not over until a good defense beats the best ooffense and the fat lady sings.

The Cleveland Browns are on the clock

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There are three or four corridors of desperation for sports fans, or at least for sports fans who follow sports commentary.  Baseball’s All Star game break is the worst – no baseball, basketball, football, hockey, golf, tennis, sailing, horse racing, or battle of the NFL wives.  The Home Run Derby is ok, but there’s not much to say about it in advance.  The two weeks before the Super Bowl could be better as both basketball and hockey are in play, but sports radio and tv land almost exclusively on Super Bowl prognostication,  and interviews with celebrities who follow sports and athletes not playing on the contending teams get tedious in the extreme.

The first week is almost over, and even though NOTHING is happening in the Hot Stove League, I think I’ll have more than enough going on after the Super Bowl in  the other sports to keep me sated until the NFL Draft.

Remember last year?

Seventy-five THOUSAND football fans stood outdoors in Philadelphia last night to witness the selection of the most highly regarded college football players by NFL teams eager to concuss them.  Worst teams pick first, which sounds absolutely fair until we notice that the same worst teams seem to get the same slots in the lottery.  Well, it’s actually the same team, the Cleveland Browns, feeding off the bottom year in and year out.  Browns fans, and they do exist, were on pins and needles until the first selection was announced as the front office has picked non-functioning quarterbacks with stunning regularity.

Why do I hover over the Brown’s pick?

A.  Because it doesn’t matter – the Browns will be awful.

B.  Because there were no other real issues.

C.  Because in delivering the announcement of the selection, universally despised Commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, faced the full-throated disapprobation of seventy-five thousand haters.  Full-throated hating is what Philadelphia does best, and viewers were not disappointed.  Goodell appeared unimpressed with their efforts, however, perhaps because he pulls down thirty-four MILLION dollars a year.

The draft provided no drama or gripping tension, and yet, we have had three weeks of non-stop prognostication from “experts” who have analyzed every vertical leap, every second shaved in the forty yard dash, every misdemeanor and felony.  The human bobble-head, NFL Draft Guru, ESPN’s Mel Kiper, had grappled with every possible contingency, assuring everyone within the sound of his voice that he absolutely with complete certainty and aggressive assurance knew precisely which players would be chosen by which teams and in which order.

I may be flying in the face of long-held convictions, but my experience has been that weather forecasts, economic forecasts, palm readings, burnt entrails, and recent Presidential polls have all performed with about the same level of success.

So, last year Kiper landed about twenty-two percent of his predictions.  How did Nostradraftsmus do this year?  Let’s just take the first ten to keep computation simple.

Team                         Kiper                                                      Actual

Browns                     Mitch Trubisky QB                               Myles Garrett DE

Bears                         Solomon Thomas  DE                          Mitch Trubisky  QB – moved up

49ers                          Myles Garrett DE                                 Solomon Thomas DE

Jaguars                       Leonard Fournette RB                       Leonard Fournette  RB

Titans                         Jamal Adams S                                     Corey Davis  WR

Jets                              O.J. Howard  TE                                    Jamal Adams S

Chargers                    Deshaun Watson  QB                           Mike Williams  WR

Panthers                    Christian McCaffrey  RB                      Christian McCaffrey  RB

Bengals                       Jonathan Allen DL                                 John Ross WR

Chiefs                          Evan Engram  TE                                   Patrick Mahomes QB – traded

So, twenty percent, which is to say, he correctly guessed that the two running backs would go to the teams needing running backs in the order in which running backs were evaluated.  What he, and the entire gaggle of pundits, forgot is the NFL’s fondness for offense and the passing game in particular.  Lots of talk this year about a weak quarterback class, an insanely strong group of defensive players, and the idiocy of drafting running backs in the first round.  Less talk about the first ten turning out to include two quarterbacks, three wide receivers, and two running backs.

Are there moments of grace beyond the greeting given Commissioner Goodell on EVERY announcement?  Well, despite anchor Trey Wingo’s unfortunate confusion of Sasquatch with Chewbacca, we were spared the nasal wit of long-time host, Chris Berman, whose fondness for punning nicknames was legendary.  He, after all,  came up with Sammy “Say It Ain’t” Sosa, Mike “Pepperoni” Piazza, Miguel “Tejada They Come, Tejada They Fall” and his finest (?), Chuck “New Kids on the” Knoblauch.  There is no doubt we would have been treated to his wry dubbing of the Houston Texan’s pick at quarterback, Deshaun “Elementary My Dear” Watson.

Enough for now.   The Lions are on the clock.

Saint Thomas of Foxboro

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His Holiness will see you now, but, please, only for a few moments.

Yes, of course.Thank you.  Uh, I brought Francis a …

His Holiness Pope Francis, Most Holy Father …

Ok, yeah.  So I brought a Pats sweatshirt, “You Hate Us ‘Cause You Ain’t Us.”  I figure he’s a large?

I’m sorry, your business with His Holiness?

Well, we figured he’s the guy to see about getting Brady his sainthood early, you know, before he checks out.

Before he dies?

Before he retires.  Like in eight or nine years.

I’m not sure …

It should be a snap.  We’ve been reading up on it, and the miracle thing is pretty clear.

I’m sorry.  The miracle thing?

From what my wife found out, Brady moves from Venerable to Saint when we present the miracles and the Pope drops the hammer.

Are you suggesting that this Father Brady be canonized?  If so, the process begins …

Not Father Brady.  Tom Brady.  Tom Terrific, California Cool, GOAT.

You want to propose the canonization of a goat?

G-O-A-T.  Greatest Of All Time.  Brady.

And he performs miracles?

Does he perform miracles?  Is the Pope … never mind.  Sure, miracles.

Water to wine, I suppose, loaves and fishes.

Fishes?  What?  No,  and not just miracles; he’s been martyred.

So, deceased?

Nah, Remember 2016?  The four games?  Deflategate?

I’m sure I should know what that means.

It means Goodell and the whole league had it in for him … and the Pats.

So, alive then?

Certainly.  According to Giselle… heheheh.

I fear you have misunderstood the process by which a Servant of God is beatified then venerated …

OK, let’s start with the 92.9 completion percentage in the 2007 playoff with the Jaguars.

This Brady was more than 90 percent eaten by jaguars?

No way.  24-20 Pats.  And, how about this?  Brady can’t run, you know?  His 40 at the combine was ridiculous, but 2006, against the Bears …

Bears?

Urlacher’s ready to rip him a new one on the 20, and Brady, Brady jukes him.  Jukes Urlacher!

These are miracles?

Ok, maybe not miracles, exactly, but 2001, Drew Bledsoe is the franchise quarterback, Belichick’s second season, Pats 0-2, Mo Lewis out of nowhere, not only hits Bledsoe, he puts him in the hospital his chest filled with blood …

Oh, we have always considered stigmata indicative …

So, Brady goes in, the Pats go from 0-2 to the Super Bowl.  Against the Rams.  Greatest Show on Turf.  Miracle, right?

Uh….

Yeah, but, listen.  even Madden shut up when Brady takes the ball with 1:21 on the clock, starting at their own 17, no time outs, tied at 17, smart money said go to overtime, but no, Brady takes ’em down to the Ram’s 30 in 5 plays, Vinatieri nails it and second-string quarterback carries the Pats on his back to win Super Bowl XXXVI.

You don’t actually speak in Roman numerals?

I gotta.  But wait, there’s more.  Ok, fourth quarter Super Bowl comeback against the Legion of Boom?

You mean a Legion of Doom, apocalyptic visitation, the horsemen?

No, Boom.  Boom.  The Seahawks hadn’t give up more than 7 points in the fourth quarter all season, then Brady drops 14 leaving room for Butler.

I’m not …

No, ok, no question about this one.  Pats down to the Falcons 28-3.  third quarter, Super Bowl trophy definitely not going back to Foxboro …

Seahawks?  Falcons?

Down by 25 points and Brady has to pick up a long third down running the ball, himself,  start of the fourth quarter, and don’t forget, he’s been suspended for four games, his mom is fighting cancer, he’s the guy who barely got the start at Michigan, picked up by the Pats as the 199th pick in the draft, this guy picks up 19 in the fourth quarter and 6 in overtime.  Game over.  Good night, Falcons, enjoy the trip home from Houston.

This Brady is still alive?

Yeah, sure.  He’s got to play the Eagles in a couple of weeks.

We can’t … well, we don’t actually do anything.  Once deceased, the Servant’s life is brought to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and then…

New Orleans?

What?  No, Rome.  Rome.  I’m afraid the Pontiff will not able to hear your petition.

So, what?  We have to wait until he’s gone?

At the very least …

Yeah, the way things are going, that might not happen.

Everyone deals with the inevitable process of aging.

Have you been listening to me?  That’s another miracle.

I’m sorry, but I do have one question.

Ok, shoot.

Can we keep the sweatshirt?