And Now For Some Good News … Milwaukee

Uncategorized

When people ask me if Marquette University is in Michigan, and I tell them my alma mater is in Milwaukee, they sometimes say, “What’s the difference?” – Steve Rushin

Steve Rushin is among my favorite sports writers because he takes such joy in the play of words, as evidenced in his timeless jest – “Happy 110th Birthday to Frank Zamboni who left us in 1988 but who still resurfaces periodically.” Understated and smart. His offhanded defense of Milwaukee strikes just the right tone as well; he leaves room for the reader to be amused but feels no need to hammer home the obvious observation that one of the partners in that conversation is an idiot, and it’s not Steve Rushin.

To be fair, Milwaukee is generally underappreciated. Yes, the mind leaps to the obvious points of celebrity, Beer, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, the oldest bowling alley in America, the Harley-Davidson Museum, the world’s largest dinosaur skull, the massive collection of microphones including that used by Hitler in the Eagle’s Nest, and, of course, the statue of Arthur Fonzarelli (The Bronze Fonz), but to the uninitiated, Milwaukee resides in popular estimation as a very small market sports town. Think Milwaukee, think Sacramento, Toledo, Stockton, Boise, Reno. Even Clevelanders presume themselves a more populous sports base, that’s from two major sport Cleveland, actually roughly two hundred thousand people short of Milwaukee’s population.

Why this paean to Milwaukee? Why now?

Well, we could start by noting that at the present rate, Christian Yelich, the reigning NL MVP, is on pace to hit 162 home runs. That’s a hypothetical prediction, of course, but in the here-and-now, the Brewers have a roster that should give NL pitchers bona fide Wisco fits. For the last two seasons, three Brewers have hit more than thirty home runs; in 2019, it’s entirely possible that six Brewers (Yelich, Shaw, Aguilar, Braun, Moustakis, and Grandal) could become thirty plus roundtrippers. Pitching looks solid, fielding excellent ( Lorenzo Cain’s game winning grab at the wall on Opening Day! ), and spirit is sky high.

And then… The Milwaukee Bucks are almost certainly the Number One seed in the Eastern Division NBA playoffs, likely facing the Magic, Nets, or Heat in the first round, then dealing with whatever carnage the Raptors, Celtics, 76ers, and Pacers wreak upon each other. Just as MVP Yelich sets out to repeat as MVP, the Bucks mega-star, GIannis Anteokounmpo is the only player other than the prolific scoring James Harden contending for the NBA’s MVP award, which, if God is in his heaven, he should win. It’s fun to watch Harden score; it is inspiring to watch Giannis control every game in which he plays.

I was not fortunate enough to have been raised in Milwaukee or as a Brewer or Bucks fan. Neither team existed as I came up; the Braves arrived in Milwaukee when I was seven and shoved off for Atlanta by the time I had become a rabid Yankee fan terrified of Spahn, Burdette, Matthews and Aaron, terror made real in 1957 as the Braves beat the Yankees in the World Series, Spahn tossing a 5-0 shutout in the seventh game. It’s taken some time for me to catch up with Milwaukee’s teams as a fan in late-adulthood (senescence), but I’ve come to admire and respect the franchises for a host of reasons.

Another of Wisconsin’s finest products, J.J. Watt, put it simply in describing himself, a description that I extend to Brewer and Bucks fans as a group: “I’m a Wisconsin kid, so I like brats and burgers and stuff like that. Cheese curds.” With that confession in mind, I encourage all fans of baseball to make a pilgrimage to Maryvale, a small community within the Phoenix, Arizona city limits, to a ballpark that seats about seven thousand, next to playing fields operated by the city, the high school,and the Brewers training facility. Ticket prices vary; most games run from eight dollars to twenty-five, but when the Brewers play the Dodgers or the Cubs, prices leap to twelve to thirty-eight dollars a seat, and there is not a bad seat in the house.

Spring Training has become big business in the Cactus League as the number of teams has grown and as almost all of the stadiums have been modernized. The amenities at all are now impressive, and the menus distinctive. The Rangers and Royals serve Cheese Steaks and Barbecue, the Dodgers no Dodger Dogs but a sorry replacement, the Chicago Dog. The Mariners and Padres live large with Salmon Caesar Salad and Baja Fish Tacos, while the Indians trot out six varieties of hot dog – the Jumbo, the Chicago Dog, the Arizona Dog, the Cleveland Dog, the New York Dog, and the ever-popular Cincinnati Dog.

Brats and Beer. Throw in some Cheese curds. Wisco cuisine at its finest. Maryvale does Brats, Klements Bratwursts. One of my favorite rites of spring is the annual photo of the three Racing Sausages (The Polish Sausage The Hot Dog, and Brat Johnsonville) with suitcases in hand, ready to board the team plane for Phoenix. They race at every home game, before the sixth inning, bringing the crown to its feet every time.

My son and I like to sit behind home plate in Maryvale ($14.00 for a Mariner game) nestled in among Brewer fans and scouts with stopwatches and World Series rings. The scouts talk among themselves, but Brewer fans manage to keep track of the game while catching up with far-flung friends and family, creating mini-Milwaukee for folks flying in from LA and Denver. You can take the Badger out of Wisconsin, but … you know. Yes, beer is spilled and brats occasionally roll to the front of the stands, but these Brewer fans are the warmest, kindest, most welcoming groups of people we’ve ever encountered. They’re happy to chat at length, probably the only fans we’ll encounter who wear a Seattle Pilots’ Saint Patrick’s Day ball cap, devoted to Milwaukee but true to the team’s origin.

By the end of the third inning, we’re up to date on the entire lineup and the hardcore Brewer fans turn to prospects ripping up the Carolina League with the Mudcats, or the Midwest League with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, playing now in Grand Chute. The Rattlers are no joke; a partial list of alumni includes David Ortiz, Boog Powell, Dean Chance, Alex Rodriguez, and Goose Gossage. Keep an eye on Keston Hiura, a second baseman with an OPS of .875.

An afternoon in Maryvale reminds me of why baseball calls me back year after year. I love the clean symmetry of the field and the remarkable athleticism of the players, but it’s the buzz in the stands, the spontaneous catching of breath as a ball almost clears the center field wall, the happy hum of families taking on those brats that allows me, a fugitive from all other parts of the country, to feel at home in the midst of Brewer Nation.

LeBron and the Lakers , Antonio Brown and the Steelers, Bryce Harper and Nats fans – too much sturm und drang. I’ll take the Bucks and Brewers, thanks, and remember why I love sports.

 

Playing With Pain

Uncategorized

I was living fairly close to Los Angeles in 2008 when a friend from Jacksonville tipped me to the imminent arrival of Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ hot prospect who had been mowing through batters  for the Double A Jacksonville Suns.  As a determined “I’ll believe it when I see it” student of the game, I expected the usual fanfare and flourish followed by this Kershaw fellow’s settling in to a respectable career in Dodger blue.

And then … he turned out to be Clayton Kershaw, the most dominant pitcher in the league and among the most highly esteemed pitchers in the last 25 years.

Kershaw’s been placed on the DL this week, the back strain again, after throwing in the mid 80’s recently.  I wish him every success in his recovery, but it’s unlikely that he will regain the pop in his fast ball.  He has a wicked curve, and with time he might be able to become the Greg Maddux of his generation, an artist, a tactician, but he’ll be a different Clayton Kershaw.

All of which got me thinking about the small number of truly exceptional athletes for whom the second half of their career, the post-injury portion of their career, was superb although less sparkling than it might have been had they remained healthy.  Tiger’s flame-out was spectacular, and his recovery has yet to establish him as a golfer to be feared in every tournament.  It could happen, but he’s clearly not the Tiger of legend … yet.  Peyton Manning survived having his neck bolted together, became a FrankenBronco and took his team to the Super Bowl, but was never really a dominant quarterback again. 

And yet, Buster Posey.  Adrian Peterson. Paul George. Giancarlo Stanton.  Mario Lemieux, Drew Brees, Sue Bird, Lindsey Vonn, all came back to a successful career.

I’m interested in the “what if” conversation about athletes who did recover well, who continued to make the All Star roster, who won championships, who perhaps found an easy path to induction in a Hall of Fame, but whose skills were then merely mortal, and my reflections begin, as might be expected, with Mickey Mantle.

First round Hall of Fame, 12 trips to the World Series, 7 championships, three-time MVP, Triple Crown, third all-time in home runs when he retired (536) … pretty good resume, particularly given what might have been a career-ending injury in the 1951 World Series, at the end of Mantle’s rookie year.  The account of the injury is, literally, the stuff of legend.

Mantle had an impressive rookie year; he was an accomplished fielder, probably the fastest base runner in the game, and hitter with pop who was expected to take over Joe DiMaggio’s role as the Yankee Clipper limped into retirement, an eventuality DiMaggio met with crusty resignation.  Crusty may be an understatement as Dimaggio literally did not speak to Mantle until the second game of the World Series.  Manager Casey Stengel had told Mantle that Dimaggio was fading fast and instructed him to go for every ball hit to right centerfield.  Willie Mays lofted a fly ball, Mantle raced to get it, and there was no doubt he would be in place.  He heard DiMaggio call out that he had the ball and not wanting to run into him, Mantle tried to stop, slammed his foot into an uncovered drain and went down hard.  From the moment he hit the ground it was clear he would not be getting up.  Writhing in agony as his twisted knee was folded at an impossible angle,  Mantle moaned as DiMaggio approached and spoke to him for the first time that season.

“They’re coming with the stretcher, kid.”

Mantle played in pain and at half speed for the next seventeen years, was the face of that Yankee dynasty, and remains one of the iconic ballplayers of his era.  I’m a hopeless Mantle fan, stuck somewhere in the 154 game, 16 ball club version of baseball, and for me, the stats simply do not tell the story.

Athletes play with and through pain; highly conditioned competitors will be injured, most many times over the course of a career.  Some, like Mantle, Tony Romo, Grant Hill play with pain, and some like  Bo Jackson, perhaps the most impressive multi-sport athlete of the modern age, take performance with pain to a new level, popping his own dislocated hip back in its socket, causing necrosis of the hip-joint.  That ended his football career, but he signed with the White Sox after being cut by the Royals until his body finally gave out.

So, Clayton Kershaw the most dominant pitcher of his era, toting his tendon damaged arm, shuffling to the mound with a strained lower back, has a $93,000,000 contract through 2021 with the LA Dodgers.  It’s gonna hurt, but the hope is that we’ll see a craftier, nastier Kershaw not as fast, but worth every penny to a Dodger team aching to climb back to the top of the heap.





Rings? We don’t need no stinkin’ rings

Uncategorized

So I’m standing at the Pearly Gates, the video of my life playing in the background, a team of celestial functionaries leafing through my file, smirking with ill-concealed amusement at my presumption in expecting a happy outcome as I face the final judgment.

“Ah. there’s not much to go on here,” the senior gatekeeper taps the folder.  “No good deeds we missed in compiling this, eh?”  I shake my head.  “Well you certainly were alive for much of your time on Earth, but in terms of purposeful …”  He shakes his head.  “You must have done something with the years you were given?”

No need to drag this out any longer. I make it easy for him. “Sports.  I watched a lot of sports.”

I’ve got no regrets, for the most part, but I probably don’t need to watch one more set of talking heads beating the same conversations to death.  I certainly don’t need to hear a retired athlete celebrated as an authority because he’s got a ring, or three, or five.  I don’t need to hear another argument in which an athlete’s legacy is determined by the number of appearances in championship games and the number of championship rings carried away.

The practice of distributing rings dates back to the 1927 Yankees, arguably the most dominant team in the history of baseball.  A few years earlier, Yankees had been given pocket watches after a World Series victory, and in subsequent years players asked for more practical tokens of appreciation. Frankie “The Crow” Crosetti, the Yankees’ shortstop from 1932 to 1948 and Yankees’ third base coach until 1968, participated in 23 World Series and took away 17 World Championship rings.  It’s no wonder that early on The Crow asked that he might be awarded a shotgun instead.

The greater objection to the fetishising of rings is that many of the most remarkable athletes of their era finished their career without winning a championship, and some of those athletes are in my personal pantheon.   I’m not talking about  the Charles Barkleys or Sergio Garcias, very good players whose place in the history of their game will be noted among others of equal ability, but the remarkable players – Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Dick Butkus, Ernie Banks, Dan Marino.  Barry Sanders retired without a ring as did LaDainian Tomlinson.  Some dynastic franchises had a few off years so that Elgin Baylor never won a title with the Lakers and Don Mattingly never with the Yankees.

Oh, and Eli Manning has two rings; Peyton has one.  One of them is among the greatest modern quarterbacks; the other has two rings.

This peeve of mine emerges as Spring Training is about to begin again, and Mike Trout may end this season, and the next, and the next without claiming any hardware or jewelry.  It isn’t easy for me to admit this after a lifetime of loyalty to Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra, and relatively recent loyalty to Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, but Mike Trout is one of the three ball players I most admire, the other two being Ichiro Suzuki and Ken Griffey, Jr..  What do these three have in common, besides baseball genius?  Yup, no rings.

Baseball’s never been better, and there are some notable phenoms playing at a level never seen before.  Altuve, and Stanton, and Votto, and Judge, and Ramirez, and Blackmon, and Gordon may end up at the top of the heap by the end of their careers.  I love the long ball, the stolen base, the hit-and-run as much as the next person (which reminds me that Rod Carew never bagged a ring, and he’s about as slick a batsman as we’re likely to see), but I’m a particular fan of players who sew up a defense, players whose defensive skill changes the character of a team.

Some names arrive easily and immediately –  Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Tris Speaker, Brooks Robinson, Ozzie Smith, Omar Vizquel, Mike Schmidt, catchers Johnny Bench, Pudge Rodriguez, maybe first baseman Keith Hernandez.  Among the less recognized outfielders as fielders, Bonds, Yastrzemski, Richie Ashburn, Al Kaline.  Had he not become among the most fragile infielders, there is no doubt Troy Tulowitzki would be in the mix.  Kevin Kiermaier’s gonna be a monster fielder, Billy Hamilton too.

My nomination for most undervalued fielder of the modern age is Jim (Jimmy Baseball) Edmonds, a pretty fair hitter as well.  He ended up with a .284 batting average and 393 home runs, more than respectable.  Any of us who saw him pull certain home runs out of the air, particularly those who remember him as a Cardinal taking away a shot hit by Jason LaRue of the Reds, think of him as the most exciting fielder of his time.  LaRue hit a blast to center field,  Edmunds turned, his back to the ball, raced to the warning track, climbed the center field wall and somehow stretched well beyond human stretching capacity to rob LaRue of a homer.

I’d take Jim Edmonds with his single ring (2006 Cards), Griffey, Ichiro, and Trout anytime. Meanwhile, we missed our shot with Frankie Crosetti, the most be-ringed if all time.

Here’s Edmonds as a rookie grabbing a Cal Ripken shor:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Chicken for All Seasons – A Fond Tribute to America’s Best Mascot

Uncategorized

After more than 5000 performances, 510 in a row for the San Diego Padres, Ted Giannoulas finally hung up his beak in 2016.  Giannoulas first put on the feathers in 1974 as a stunt sponsored by a San Diego radio station; his first gig was handing out Easter eggs to kids at the San Diego Zoo.  From that humble beginning Giannoulas created a mascot that has earned a spot in the pantheon of great mascots, to many observers, the greatest mascot of all time.  Baseball fans in San Diego count The Chicken as their own, and his work with the Padres established him as the capon crusader, but almost from the start, he also supported the Clippers who then played in San Diego.

The San Diego Chicken evolved into the Famous Chicken when Giannoulas fled the coop, taking his show on the road.  At this point, he’s flown more than a million miles, and, boy, are his arms tired.

As a student and sports fan at San Diego State, Ted Giannoulas wanted to bring fans of all ages a way to enjoy a game, particularly during the “down” moments, between innings or before the first pitch.  Mascoting is a rare art; few are able to bring a costumed character truly to life.  Ted Giannoulas was a star from the start, almost immediately winning the hearts and minds of San Diego’s fans.  So devoted were San Diegans to Giannoulas’ Chicken that they massed in protest when KGB radio fired Giannoulas in 1979.  In what must have been a virtual barbecue, fans loudly booed the replacement pullet, driving him to defeat and obscurity.

Once restored to his rightful place in the pecking order of mascots, Giannoulas kicked his performance into an even higher level of confrontive gymnastics.  In describing his oeuvre, Ted Giannoulas is quick to assure his fans that he has been the only performer in that suit since his restoration in 1979.  He admits that he can no longer do the splits as he once did as a spring chicken, but says he stills starts down until he collapses, adding yet another piece of schtick to the aging chicken’s routine.

I’ve seen The Famous Chicken in ballparks from coast to coast, and have had the particular pleasure of seeing Giannoulas take on other mascots in almost every setting; they simply do not have a chance.  With his customary brio, The Chicken approaches his foe with a deliberate and challenging heavy step.  A flick of the wing invites battle:  Bring It On, Lehigh Valley Pig Iron!  Whatcha Got, Modesto Nuts?  Hey, Topeka Train Robbers, I Gotta Whole Lotta Sumpin’ For You!

I lived in Huntsville, Alabama, home of the Huntsville Stars, during Michael Jordan’s break from basketball.  When he and the Birmingham Barons came to town, it was on, even though the teams’ mascots were unprepossessing.  Their lame mascot, “Babe Ruff” looked like a Pound Puppy on Welfare.  The Stars weren’t much better; “Homer, the Pole Cat” was as significantly shabby.  At that time, the Stars were the A’s Double A franchise in the Southern League having recently sent Jose Canseco up to the majors after an MVP season in Huntsville.  Jordan was the main attraction, of course, and the games were sold out, but the mascot battle paled next to the stunning display of Jordan’s largesse in providing his team a luxury bus so they could travel in comfort and style during the steamy southern summer.  The bus cost Jordan $350,000.00 and can be yours at auction with an opening price of $20,000.00.  At the time, however, it was a thing of wonder, and many fans missed the first innings walking around the bus in the parking lot.

In  addition to the Barons, the League did present some notable franchises and notable mascots.  The Tennessee Smokies had colorful mascots, Homer, Slugger, and Diamond (really); The three bear”ish” things were actually more garish than colorful, kelly green, navy blue, and mango.  The Montgomery Biscuits, however, provided built-in drama.  Monty the Biscuit was chased by Big Mo a biscuit-hungry … thing.  The big news from Montgomery is that, while Mo stays, Monty has been replaced by a miniature pot-belly pig entitled, The Duchess of Pork.

The Chicken was henpecked in court following a series of ill-advised match-ups, one of which I was privileged to witness.  My kids had been entranced by Barney, the much beloved (by them) purple dinosaur, but fortunately had just outgrown their allegiance as we attended our last game in Huntsville.  The Memphis Chicks were in transition, finishing their relationship with the Royals and just about to become an affiliate of the soon-to-be defuncted Expos.  As a result, their mascot was AWOL, and a good thing too, as Blooper,  had been designed when the Chicks were the Chickasaws (nice).  As noted, Homer the Polecat was not an impressive specimen, so spent most of the game walking through the crowd, looking for some sort of validation.  The main event, therefore, was a tussle between something that looked an awful lot like Barney and The Famous Chicken.

It probably goes without saying that Barney took a beating from one side of the diamond to the other.  My kids still talk about the chicken scissor kick that propelled Barney into the Chicks’ dugout.  Whoever was in the Purple suit did a good job of feigning injury, although I’m pretty sure I heard him pleading, “No mas, no mas”.

What do I say to a chicken that is one of my children’s happiest memories?

Thank you, Ted Giannoulas, and I hope you’ve put away a nest egg commensurate with your contribution to the great game of baseball.

The Greatest?

Uncategorized

In the interminable weeks between the end of the conference championships and the start of Super Bowl LII sports commentary waxed hyperbolic, having no real reporting to offer, resolutely chewing on the same theme hour after hour.  Tom Brady, The Greatest Quarterback of All Time, would carry the New England Patriots to yet another Super Bowl victory, despite having recently managed to wedge his throwing hand into a crevice in running back Rex Burkhead’s helmet, despite the likely loss of  Brady’s favorite target, a man described as “a self-aware lump of protein powder”, pass catching Golem Rob Gronkowski, despite the glaring weaknesses in the Patriot’s defense, and despite the best efforts of the talented and well-coached Philadelphia Eagles.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick is also Greatest of All Time, an honorific now somewhat diminished when squashed into the acronym and meme GOAT.   The Patriots themselves are occasionally termed the Greatest Football Dynasty of All Time, and in empty hours in sports journalism, strident argument rages as the case is made for LeBron James or Michael Jordan as, you know, the Greatest of All Time.

We (sports fans) were charmed by the effrontery, the chutzpah, with which a young Muhammad Ali declared himself The Greatest, but cringe a bit when Wayne Gretsky is still termed, The Great One.  Those who survived the Depression and fought in World War II are the Greatest Generation, and I’m told Alexander, Catherine, and Gatsby were all pretty Great.

Then, in addition, Time, I believe, is something of a mystery, perhaps vulnerable to manifold topology, but maybe not, an obscure way of observing that even the most prescient of us has a fairly limited set of experiences against which to judge the absolute standard of performance in any sport.  The same holds true for actors and entertainers, but we seem less compelled to deify even the most obviously superior.  Is Meryl Streep the Greatest Actress of All Time?  Dunno.  Maybe.  Doesn’t seem to matter as much as the LeBron/Jordan battle.

I’m not sure why this need to wax hyperbolic has set in; perhaps having known what might have been the best of times and now sliding into what feels like the the worst we find comfort in speaking with absolute certainty ?  Maybe the ferocity of competition and the necessity to keep score inherent in sport as we know it demands final judgment.  My guess is that since we experience the great moments of sport from a distance, second-hand, our sport becomes the championing of one athlete or team over another, a game that never ends.

In those long weeks before the NFL championship game, sports outlets routinely drag out whatever football footage they happen to have in the can.  Over a period of two days, I saw clips of Walter Peyton, Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, Gayle Sayers, Marcus Allen, Tony Dorsett, LaDanian Tomlinson, Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, Jerome Bettis, and Earl Campbell. Nobody’s screening O.J.’s scrambling breakaways at USC, but I remember them well.

Want to pick one as the greatest?

Go ahead, but don’t forget the runners whose feats may not have been so meticulously preserved on film.  I’ve seen grainy footage of Red Grange breaking loose for a touchdown, but only have the sportwriters’ words to describe the heroics of Jim Thorpe, Glenn Davis, Doc Blanchard, and Doak Walker.

I keep my collection of Mickey Mantle memorabilia close at hand in case someone drops by and wants to see a copy of his rookie contract or my well-oiled 1959 Rawlings Mickey Mantle baseball glove, and I treasure my memories of him in the field and at bat, but is he the greatest of all time?  A version of this sort of question came up as a friend of mine who had attended Bolles School in Florida as did Chipper Jones asked if Jones, a first ballot Hall of Famer, had a place in my list of the ten best third basemen of all time.

I have two lists, of course, the best to play the position for the New York Yankees and the ostensible best to have played in the major leagues.  In responding, I was aware once again that I take a player such as Adrian Beltre for granted as I took Paul Molitor and Ron Santo for granted.  I knew Wade Boggs was a heck of a third baseman, but thought of him primarily as a hitter as I did George Brett.  The Braves weren’t on television every day back when they played in Milwaukee, so I didn’t see enough of Eddie Matthews.  Writers assure me that Hall of Famers Pie Traynor and Jimmy Collins should be in the mix.  In the end, however, it comes down to my memory of Mike Schmidt’s dominance in his era, particularly in the Phillies’ world series victory in 1980, and my reverence for the fielder known as “the vacuum cleaner”, Brooks Robinson.

All of that said, Chipper more than earned a spot in the top four or five.  Will Kris Bryant, Manny Machado, Kyle Seager, or Josh Donaldson make the cut twenty years from now?  I hope so.

As for the Jordan/LeBron argument, the game is still afoot.  Steak or lobster?  Pie or ice cream?  Valhalla or Olympus?  I have only this to add to the conversation:  Jordan played on his high school’s junior varsity team until his junior year; LeBron averaged more than 20 points a game as a freshman.  I saw LeBron play for St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School.  In my mind, case closed.

Except … I also saw Jordan literally fly.