And Now For Some Good News … Milwaukee

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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.

 

Really? Coke Bottle at EVERY press conference?

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This week’s brouhaha surrounding Alabama’s coach, Nick Saban, has to do with his decision to start and play Tua Tagovailoa in a meaningless game against The Citadel, a team that has already lost to Wofford, UT Chattanooga, Towson, East Tennessee State, and Furman.  Tua is injured.  He’s the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore.  He will likely be the top draft pick whenever he decides to enter the draft.

There are arguments to be made on both sides.  We’ve seen players of great promise (Robert Griffin III) whose careers have been upended by injuries aggravated by playing  when not fully recovered.  On the other hand, coaches believe the team’s morale is undermined when a star gets to sit out; everyone is playing with injuries, they’d say.  Holding out a star player essentially admits that the upcoming game is hardly worth playing, demeaning the opposing team.

Cut to the chase – The Citadel already knows they are lambs about to be slaughtered; it’s not news to them.  Tua’s teammates know that he is special, special enough to be essential in their bid for a national championship.  What’s worse for morale?  Sitting Tua or carrying him off the field?

What rankles this week, as it does with every Saban press conference, is the condescending arrogance with which Sabin meets questions from reporters who cover his team.  He is the most successful college football coach of this era without doubt.  He is adored by Crimson Tide fans; there is a statue of Saban outside Bryant-Denny Stadium.  The venue was built in the 1920’s and was named in honor of Alabama’s president, George H. Denny, but then the universe righted itself, football took its proper place as the heart of Alabama’s cultural life, and famed coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant’s name was added in 1975.  Bryant racked up 323 wins in his career; Saban has 228 but is tied with Bryant for most national championships.  He makes eight million dollars a year in salary and another three to four million in assorted other football related enterprises.

Life is good for Nick Saban.

He does have to deal with idiotic questions about “his” team, but that gives him the opportunity to grouse from the podium about how little fan support Alabama gets at home games, not-very-patiently-putting up with reporters, the developmentally challenged serfs somehow able to get past the moat at Castle Saban.  And, it gives a place of prominence to the sixteen ounce unopened bottle of Coca Cola placed at this right hand.

I am stunned by his shameless shilling for Coca Cola, placing that full bottle on the lectern, label prominently facing cameras, a silent nod to the income streams that swell the Saban bankroll while hapless reporters wither under his thinly veiled contempt.  He’s arrogant, but many of the most successful coaches are; they live in the football bubble, protected by boosters and fans.  As the dreadful and sad end of Joe Paterno’s career with Penn State proved, even the most despicable acts cannot dissuade the true believers from canonizing coaches.

He’s got a statue too.

At least “Joe Pa” didn’t act as a huckster for Klynveld Peat Marwick Goesdeler (KPMG) the auditing firm based in the Netherlands, Rolex, Workday, Inc., Callaway, Mizzen + Main (performance menswear).  That’s Phil Mickelson, professional golfer and billboard.  Saban’s brand of product placement is more subtle (!) in that he doesn’t wear the logo on his hat, jacket, shirt, and shoes, but … really?

I confess I may have forgiven some excesses on the part of coaches I like. ..

Actually, no, I haven’t, because my teams are coached by coaches rather than corporate robots, coaches who understand that they have a special relationship with the fans (and reporters) who give themselves heart and soul to the sports we love.

Alabama will probably roll again, with or without Tua Tagovailoa, Nick Saban will probably emerge triumphant one more time, and I ‘ll probably sit alone and friendless, wearing a Michigan Rose Bowl shirt (2008 – USC, L 18-32), eating Doritos and drinking Pepsi.

If I were a betting man …

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It was not that long ago that I was shocked to learn that  friend of mine was scrambling to come up with cash to pay off his bookie.  Who knew a bookie?  How would one even find a bookie?  And, really, who would bet on baseball on a daily basis?  Come on.

Bookies lived in the shadows, I thought, tempting Shoeless Joe, Paul Horning, and Pete Rose, but were generally not travelling in polite society.  I had seen Newman and Redford as con men in The Sting, had wallowed in one of HBO’s best series, Luck, and had long admired the wordsmiths who write about the nether world of horse racing and gambling, many of whom wrote with an immediacy missing from accounts of other sporting events.

Damon Runyon gave us Brandy Bottle Bates, Nicely Nicely, Harry the Horse, and Nathan Detroit, mixing strikingly vivid gambling jargon in prose that was unfailingly elegant and always in the present tense.  The following exchange was not included in Guys and Dolls, the adaptation of Runyon’s story,  “The Idyll of Sarah Brown”, but includes much of the breathless urgency of Runyon’s prose.

“ONE of the first guys out of Mindy’s and up to the crap game is Regret, the horse player, and as he comes in Brandy Bottle is looking for a nine, and The Sky is laying him twelve G’s against his soul that he does not make this nine, for it seems Brandy Bottle’s soul keeps getting more and more expensive.Well, Regret wishes to bet his soul against a G that Brandy Bottle gets his nine, and is greatly insulted when The Sky cannot figure his price any better than a double saw, but finally Regret accepts this price, and Brandy Bottle hits again.”

“The Race Track” ran in The New Yorker from 1926 to 1978.  The byline used the moniker Audax Minor, but the writer was George F.T. Ryall, regular contributor to the New Yorker and frequent contributor to Town and Country as he also wrote about auto racing, polo, and mens’ fashion.  His prose was less breathy, more contemplative, as befit a writer writing to the New Yorker crowd, but it too captured the affection of writer for the sport of horse racing, a sport that belonged to breeders of throroughbreds and the railbirds who bet on them.

“There was something about Belmont that raised it above the level of other racecourses. It wasn’t merely the historic races that were run there, for richer stakes were to be run elsewhere, and it wasn’t just the excellence of the track itself, which gave every runner a fair chance. But Belmont seemed to show racing at its best, in a spacious setting. Whatever the reason, it also brought out the best in horses, and winning at Belmont was was something that a stable could be justifiably proud of.”

Charming, but lest we find ourselves simply waxing nostalgic, let’s recall that these enterprises of great pith are attached to gambling, an issue which is very much on my mind as the Supreme Court tosses out the federal ban on sports betting, the NFL waffles on its policies about gambling in its usual down-the-rabbit-hole fashion, mumbling its disapproval while planning the development of NFL fantasy football empires, and as network radio sports hosts tout betting sites on air. CBS, ESPN, and Fox Sports regularly report the betting lines set on the weekend’s games; talking heads and Vegas gamblers debate the value of taking the over or under on the game’s point spread.

Approximately ninety-five billion dollars will be bet on NFL and college football this year, not counting the three hundred million that DraftKings will collect in entry fees.  Given the behavior of sharks when chum hits the water, we can reasonably expect that the scent of billions in transit is more than enough to tempt serious investors to nudge the outcome of games, if only slightly, just enough to beat the line.

A high stakes gambler doesn’t have to fix a game, just shave a few points.  I have to wonder how much a fluffed field goal is worth at the end of the game where a point or two does not change the outcome of the game but does change the spread.  Kickers get no respect; the temptation could be irresistible.

Point shaving and game fixing have been around for as long as games have been played I suppose.  Boxers have taken a dive, jockeys have pulled up on the reins, tight ends have dropped a pass, ballplayers have let a fly ball drop.  Easy.  Well, easier to fix in less closely scrutinized circumstances.  Fix the World Series, for example, and someone might notice; fix CCNY  or BC basketball, Northwestern football and the harsh light of public inquiry is less likely to shine.  Oh, wait.  All three of those rigged enterprises were discovered.  Major League Baseball works with Genius Sports to monitor betting on all games; even the benighted NFL keeps track of the lines.  The bad news for the NBA was that referee Tim Donaghy gambled himself into debt and made up some of his losses by betting on games he officiated; the good news is that he got caught.

True confession.  I drop $25.00 a year on DraftKings, setting up my fantasy lineups with great care and high hopes.  If my imagined roster does well, I “win” $3.00 to $5.00 bucks which allows me to continue to play for a week or two more.  These stakes are low and the impact on the economy slight, but I am an example of a reasonably avid football fan who once watched my team play on Sunday and tuned in other games at playoff and championship season.  To be candid, I did not give a rat’s tail about how the Cowboys were doing, as long as they were losing.  This Sunday, however, as the balance of my account is now at $11.68 (I know, huh?), I will be keeping track of the Rams defense, Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph, and, of course, watching the Lions … and wide receiver Golden Tate.  Whew!  Full day of football ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Twenty Four Days Until Kickoff

College Football, Sports history

I receive the occasional urgent message from and about University of Michigan sports, primarily alerting me to the importance of the next football, hockey, basketball, or volleyball game.  I scan them all, which is odd in that I did not attend the University of Michigan, have not sent children to the University of Michigan, and have very few friends or acquaintances who are connected with the University of Michigan.  And yet…. on game days I sit in my living room in Oregon wearing my lucky Wolverine cap and any one of my Michigan t-shirts or jerseys.  I wear a less lucky, sweat stained Michigan cap out in the world, responding to those who recognize and share my fondness for the university with a hearty “Go Blue!”.  Two of my children have grown up with my elaborate game day rituals and have become Michigan fans, slightly less likely to wear Michigan gear and much less likely to stop strangers on the street to talk Michigan football, but loyal to the Blue nonetheless.

I’m not entirely sure how it is that sports keep me sane, and my game day behavior certainly does not look like measured sanity, but for a few moments I’m not keeping track of global warming, the loss of species, political chicanery,  inequality, injustice, and the looting of America.  Thoughtful observers of my quasi-fanaticism will argue that we’re talking more than a few moments, as I do enjoy the four-day ramp up to the next game and allow myself a day or two of celebration or consolation after the last game.  I enjoy those pick up conversations as well, some of which are with fans of other programs.  I don’t have much in common with several acquaintances, but I do know that they are as captivated by sport as I am.  I know who their team faces on Saturday and am more than willing to run through their lineup even if we never get around to my current favorite topic: Michigan’s chances in the opening game against Notre Dame.

I’m not stupid.  I know that Michigan’s chances against Notre Dame aren’t great.  Well,  I know, but how can I?  Who really knows?  Hope springs eternal.  One leg at a time.  And so on.

I experience a second level of puzzling emotional instability even as I name Notre Dame or more frequently, Ohio State.  I do have friends with attachments to those universities.  They are good people; they have not poisoned my pets or stolen my identity.  And yet I loathe their alma maters with unvarnished ferocity.  This does seem marginally unreasonable.  And yet …

I’ve lived in each quadrant of the United States and have found that with one exception, each asks a newcomer to commit.  Duke or Carolina?  Alabama or Auburn?  Florida or Georgia?  I grew up in New England where state universities served their constituents well but had not attached themselves to signature athletic programs at the national level.  As I travelled through the greater world then, I had no ready rejoinder when put on the spot.  I have significant memories of the years I lived and worked in Michigan.  One of my children was born there.  Ann Arbor was within easy driving distance and season ticket holders were generous, inviting me to Michigan’s stadium, The Big House.  I sat with 107,601 rabid wolverines and gave my heart away.

It’s been a bleak summer here in Oregon; the heat is brutal and fires continue to funnel smoke into the Rogue Valley.  The Red Sox are running away with the division title and LeBron is going to the Lakers.  Bleak, I say,  and unlikely to change, but when the “24 Days to Kickoff: alert hits my mailbox, the fog lifts, the clouds part, and for a moment, all is right with the world.

I do have a life outside of Michigan football, one in which I care for my family, consider the great questions and think long thoughts.  I read a fair bit and write as well.  There’s the grounds work to do and dogs to romp.  After all, game day is just one day … except that I’ve just committed to writing for GBMWolverine again, bringing the older fan’s perspective to a young man’s game.  I think that will be ok; an hour or so a day is relatively easy to grab, especially as I have followed the Marie Kondo’s advice and actively begin the art of tidying up, keeping only those things that “spark joy”.  I’ve got another box of books in the car, mostly history books untouched since my college years.  I remember them fondly but not a lot of joy sparking when I took them down from the shelf.

I’m a work in progress.  Keep the flannel shirt?  Time to admit that I really don’t need three sets of golf clubs?  The Barbie Michigan Cheerleader set?

A work in progress.

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.