Monday, July 28, 2014

Hall Call: My memories of Big Hurt, Maddux, Cox, La Russa and Torre

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A year ago, here's who was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame: early 20th century umpire Hank O'Day, 19th century ballplayer Deacon White and Jacob Ruppert, who owned the Yankees from 1915-39.

Yep, it was quite a day filled with baseball memories for all those whose average age was deceased.

The 2014 class more than made up for it, thank goodness.

What a group: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox

I had pretty good conversations over the years with five of the six - all but Glavine, who rarely pitched in games I covered.

Here are my impressions and memories of baseball's newest Hall of Famers ...

FRANK THOMAS

When I was a 30-something sportswriter in Minnesota, I remember watching The Big Hurt put a big hurtin' on the Twinkies, turning to the guy in the press box next to me and saying: "Frank Thomas might be the best hitter I've ever seen."

I had that thought many other times over the next several years. I'm pretty old, but not quite old enough to have seen the likes of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle in their primes. And I wasn't even born when many of the greats of the game were long retired. So Thomas looked pretty damn good to me.

If you think I'm exaggerating, here was The Big Hurt's stat line his first 10 full seasons in the big leagues (1991-2000): .320 BA, 1.020 OPS, 34 HR per year, 115 RBI per year. He won two MVPs and finished in the top three 3 more times. What a stud.

He got old and injuries started biting him, but he still had some great seasons. When he was 38 with Oakland and 39 with Toronto, he totaled 65 HR and 209 RBI.

I also will remember Thomas as a sensitive guy who sometimes claimed he didn't care what others thought but who obviously cared very much about how he was perceived. So it wasn't surprising that he had to fight back tears during his induction speech.

Big Frank was a me-first guy, as many superstars are, and could be quite a whiner and excuse-maker. But he mellowed as he grew older. I remember how outwardly happy he was in the clubhouse when the White Sox won the 2005 World Series. Still, I could tell he was disappointed that an injury prevented him from really being part of that team.

Thomas also was a central figure in one of my favorite Karma's A Bitch incidents:

The Sox won the division in 2000 but got off to a poor start in 2001. Making matters worse, Thomas got hurt in early May. Tub of goo pitcher David Wells, who was brought in to give the team "an edge," opined on his radio show that Thomas was a baby who refused to play with pain. When Thomas ultimately was diagnosed with a torn triceps that required season-ending surgery, Wells refused to apologize. Fittingly, the corpulent Wells sustained a back injury that ruined his season. I guess the big baby couldn't pitch with pain.

GREG MADDUX

As instant replay gets used more and more frequently, occasionally somebody brings up the possibility that cameras and computers might one day replace the home-plate umpire. The next Greg Maddux had better hope that never happens.

Maddux lived just outside the strike zone. Because he had such pinpoint control, he was given calls that few other pitchers got. He was smart enough to take advantage of it, working that outside corner for all it was worth.

And it was worth a lot, including 355 wins and 3,371 strikeouts. 

The myth is that Maddux was a lobber for the entirety of his career, making those 3,000-plus K's even more incredible. The fact is that for more than half of his career, Maddux could pop the catcher's mitt pretty darn good - I'm talking 92, 93 mph with regularity. His control and speed changes made his fastball seem ever faster, too.

Maddux made the majors in 1986, one year after I became a full-time sportswriter. However, I was only an observer from afar until the Cubs brought him back in 2004.

Fanfare? Hype? Please! Those words don't come close to the all-out giddiness Cubbieland was going through when the team added Maddux to a pitching staff that carried the team to the NLCS the previous year. Sports Illustrated put 'em on the cover and predicted an end to the 95-year championship drought.

The question wasn't if the Cubs would have the best starting rotation in baseball. It was: Where does this staff rank in the history of baseball? Heck, some even argued that the Cubs had the best-hitting and best-fielding rotation of all time. What? Not the best-looking, too?

After the Cubs signed Maddux, I wrote that it obviously was a great move but it guaranteed nothing because they still had shortcomings at catcher, shortstop, in the bullpen and at the top of the order. Wow ... did I get a lot of angry email over that one - including one from the managing editor of the newspaper we owned in Peoria. He wanted to know why I couldn't be more "positive."

My response was that I was positive ... that the Cubs were still the Cubs, and no living person had ever lost a dime betting against the Cubs winning a championship.

The Cubs didn't have the kind of postseason choke job that they had the previous year ... because they choked down the stretch in 2004 and missed the playoffs entirely. The Cubs lost 7 of 8, and Maddux was rocked in his start during that span.

Over the next few years, I interviewed Maddux many times. He was bright and had a very dry wit, but he was extremely guarded around most of the media. I often would finish a 10-minute interview and think I had something interesting to write, only to listen to the recording and realize he had said mostly 10 minutes of nothing.

Having said all of that, Maddux was an amazing pitcher for most of his 23 years and casting a Hall of Fame vote for him was an absolute no-brainer.

Finally, something positive!

TONY LA RUSSA

I never particularly liked La Russa. He is buddies with Bobby Knight, Bill Parcells and others in the Bully Your Way To Success Club. It pained me to watch the talented and dedicated St. Louis press corps have to tiptoe around him, carefully asking questions lest they tick off King Tony.

The man could manage a ballclub, though. He sometimes tried to reinvent the wheel - as when he insisted upon batting the pitcher eighth for about a year and a half - but he usually had fantastic instincts. He definitely commanded respect from his players, including those who didn't particularly care for him.

I was several years from arriving in Chicago when he was a young White Sox manager and I rarely crossed paths with him during his time in Oakland, but I covered a lot of Cardinals games with him at the helm, including numerous dust-ups with the Cubs when the Cubbies actually were contenders.

He never backed down, trading barbs with Dusty Baker and even with Lou Piniella, whom he considered a friend.

Sadly, he turned a blind eye to the rampant steroid use that took place right under his nose in Oakland and he got in the face of anybody who dared mention that Mark McGwire was juicing. McGwire lied to La Russa's repeatedly and totally hung his manager out to dry - truly one of the worst parts of McGwire's stained legacy.

La Russa could hold a grudge with the best of them, so it was interesting and admirable that he hired McGwire as his hitting coach near the end of La Russa's run in St. Louis.

BOBBY COX

I used to like when the Braves would come to Wrigley Field and I had the opportunity to sit near Cox in the visitor's dugout a couple hours before the game. He would talk baseball with anybody who happened by, and I always felt like I learned something.

Otherwise, I didn't know him very well, but I am glad he won a World Series and I am surprised he didn't win more than one. 

In his Hall of Fame induction speech, he looked at Maddux, Glavine and John Smoltz - who was in Cooperstown as a TV commentator and who should join that Braves trio in the Hall next year - and said: "I can honestly say I would not be standing here if it weren't for you guys." 

That's true, of course, but it also demonstrated the humility that many say characterize Cox.

JOE TORRE

Including spring training and the inevitable postseason run, Joe Torre sat down 200-plus times per year with the massive New York media mob. Every time, he had something to give. 

An astute observation. An explanation of strategy. A diffusing of a touchy situation. A level-headed remark despite the furor swirling around him.

As much as Torre won with the Yankees, I'm sure many folks - especially younger fans - might not realize how much losing he did in his first 14 years as a manager with the Mets, Braves and Cardinals. Some criticized George Steinbrenner for hiring a thrice-fired "retread" to manage the Yankees. It turned out to be perhaps the best baseball decision the bombastic owner ever made.

Torre knew baseball plenty well, but what he really knew was how to deal with people. In that way, he was baseball's Phil Jackson - as much psychologist as strategist. Rarely has a manager or coach fit his team's personality better than Torre did the Yankees' of 1996-2007.

My favorite memory of Torre is this one:

On Sept. 11, 2001, the White Sox were in New York, where they were supposed to play the Yankees that night. The game obviously was never played and many White Sox were shaken up by being so close to the tragedy. When baseball resumed its season a week later - this time with the Yankees visiting Chicago - Sox manager Jerry Manuel sounded absolutely despondent. He wondered out loud if baseball even mattered anymore. I wanted to hug him.

Then I walked over to the other dugout to hear Torre, who recently had survived prostate cancer and whose brother had made it through a heart transplant.

"One thing I learned a few years ago is to enjoy things more. Don't worry about life. Let's live it right now, folks, take it as it comes and deal with it.

"Our lives have been changed forever, things we have taken for granted, things that happen on foreign soil that we say, 'How lucky we are that those things don't happen here.' Well, they can happen here. I told my team, 'We really don't know how to deal with this because we've never had to before.'"

He was asked what if baseball is interrupted again by another terrorist attack or even by World War III.

"I can't worry about what's behind the door. That's no way to live. That's like sitting around waiting for an earthquake. You simply can't allow that to happen. That would only add to the tragedy.

"We've been through so much. I think we're ready for baseball."

How good is this guy? If I were a ballplayer these last three decades and could choose my manager, I would have chosen Joe Torre, a Hall of Famer in ever sense of the word.
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Friday, July 11, 2014

I would have paid to see Cavs owner grovel at The King's feet!

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Good for Cleveland.

And good for LeBron.

When we last saw King James on a decision-making day, he was the lead actor in "The Decision," the ridiculous, narcissistic 2010 ESPN show on which he announced he was taking his talents to South Beach.

On Friday, he couldn't have been classier, penning an article for SI.com in which he explained his emotional ties to Northeast Ohio and said the draw to return home was just too great for him to resist. He complimented the Heat organization, called Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade his "brothers" and came out looking so much bigger than Dan Gilbert.

You remember Gilbert, right? He's the ass-hat of a Cavs owner who four years ago posted an infamous and infantile rant on the team's Web site in which he questioned LeBron's courage and character. Laughingly, he also predicted that he would would win a championship in Cleveland before LeBron did for Miami.

That LeBron returned to Cleveland anyway - for less money than he would have gotten from the Heat - practically suggests he should change his moniker from King James to Saint James.

Gilbert supposedly threw himself on the mercy of King James' court a few days ago, begging forgiveness and apologizing relentlessly. It must have been quite a scene, Gilbert groveling at the feet of the man he ripped four years earlier.

Of course, Gilbert wasn't sincere. He had four years to remove that tripe from the Web site and to apologize like a man, but he left it up there until just a few days ago - when, much to his surprise, James started sending out signals that he would return to Cleveland despite Gilbert.

Almost as funny as Gilbert's pathetic pleas for forgiveness: the conspiracy theorists who think that this was all an NBA plant. Not only did the Cavs win some draft lotteries lately, they now also have LeBron.

Oh, absolutely. Forget having viable teams in New York, L.A., Chicago, Miami, Philly and Boston. The one thing the NBA desperately wants is a winner in Cleveland.

As for what's left of the Heat, reports started surfacing Friday afternoon that Bosh would spurn the Rockets to stay in Miami (for more money, of course) and that maybe Wade would stay with him (though the Bulls also want Wade, and why wouldn't they?). The East is so weak that a Bosh-Wade pairing, surrounded by decent role players, probably would win 45-50 games next season.

Bosh and Wade come out of this smelling like roses, too. Both were willing to wait for James to finalize his decision before they did anything, and both apparently were willing to take major pay cuts had LeBron opted to stay in Miami.

The focus now is on Carmelo Anthony. He supposedly favors going to Chicago because the Bulls are so much better than the Knicks, but he'd be leaving some $50 million on the table to do so.

Fifty-million bucks! I mean, we're talkin' Nadel Money there!!

Now, I never begrudge anybody for going for the money; just don't take the money and then try to claim it's all about winning. Because if it's all about winning, he'd go play with Joakim Noah and a healthy (?) Derrick Rose instead of with a bunch of stiffs in New York.

It's been a fun week of speculation, and with Carmelo still a free agent it isn't done yet.

I genuinely am happy for my friends in Cleveland, who deserve to watch the greatest player in the world again. I only wish Dan Gilbert wouldn't be a major beneficiary, as well, because he deserves nothing but scorn.
^

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Learning hoops and catching zzzz's

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I took not one but two naps this past week. And I could have used more.

Oh, and I normally am not a napper!

What made me so doggone pooped?

Well, the better question would be "who," and the answer would be the 15 girls in this photo:


The occasion was the inaugural Scholars Academy Girls Basketball Camp. After having some experience working at camps, this was my first opportunity to run one. Most of the girls, who will be in 4th through 8th grades next year, are students at Scholars. Only three played for my team last season. (A fourth former Eagle, Maddie, is to my left as you look at the photo; she is on her sister's back. Maddie graduated just a couple of weeks ago and served as my assistant at the camp.)

We had a lot of fun and learned a lot of basketball. And when I say "we," I mean it, because I learned a lot, too.

One thing I learned was that running a camp is an incredibly time-consuming undertaking requiring significant planning! I knew it would be going in, but it was all that ... times two.

And so when I got home each day, I was thoroughly exhausted ... and a couple of times I gave in and crashed. I'm glad I did, because I needed the zzzz's, but the naps meant I would have to stay up late those nights planning the next day's session. Which made me tired the next day, as well. Lather, rinse, zzzz-peat!

If it seems as though I'm complaining, I don't mean to be doing so. It really was a "good tired" each day because I had a great time and I felt we accomplished so much. Watching the girls improve from one day to the next -- heck, from one hour to the next -- was truly satisfying.




Camp got me stoked for the 2014-15 season. I wish I didn't have four months left until tryouts!
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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Today's High Five: U.S. Open and other endings

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5. Martin Kaymer reminds me a lot of myself.

No, I'm not talking about his wire-to-wire victory in the U.S. Open, his incredible putting, his bunker play, his 310-yard drives, his good looks, his physique or his overflowing bank account.

I'm talking about his apparent disdain for using wedges around the greens. Like me (and many other high-handicappers), the man putts everything he possibly can.

On one hole, Kaymer could have tried a tricky chip from a tight lie over a bunker into a pin near the edge of the green. Instead, he actually putted backward through the fringe, leaving himself with a long par putt from off the green. He two-putted from there for a bogey, and seemed quite happy to get it.

With a huge lead over the field, he knew that the only way he could lose the tournament was by experiencing a few horrific holes. He knew that the best way to avoid that was to stick with the club he trusted most. I loved it because I do the exact same thing. (And not only when I am leading the U.S. Open.)

What I didn't love was Kaymer lapping the field. I dig fantastic finishes, and watching dramatic U.S. Open battles has become a Father's Day ritual. So Tiger being hurt, Phil stinking up Pinehurst, Rory failing to find any magic, Bubba missing the cut and everybody else being unwilling or unable to challenge Kaymer turned the tournament into the Who S. Open and ruined my Father's Day.

Ruined it, I say!

Actually, that's not close to being true. I had a lovely, relaxing day. Roberta, Simmie and I took a long walk and visited with some goats and a donkey at a nearby hobby farm. I saved nearly $40 on a $12 grocery store bill - I am not making this up! - and even received a $10 instant rebate for buying a $5 pie. That's right: They paid me 5 bucks for taking a key lime pie off their hands! Later, I thoroughly enjoyed the Copper River salmon I grilled on a cedar plank for dinner. (And pie for dessert!) Of course, I also took several moments to fondly recall my many happy times with my father, truly a great man.

Kaymer even saved an otherwise anticlimactic U.S. Open for me by putting from off the green - well off the green - on at least a dozen occasions.

The next time I'm playing with my buddies and they scoff at me for putting from 15 feet off the green, I'll just smile and say, "It worked for the Who S. Open champion!"

4. And speaking of anticlimactic, it sure would have been nice if the Heat had bothered showing up for the last three games of the NBA Finals.

You know what? Instead of totally ragging on the losing team, let's give a big thumbs-up to the winners.

The Spurs were the NBA's best all season and they underscored their dominance in the Finals. They are talented and savvy and well-coached and deeper than the Grand Canyon. They wore out LeBron & Co., outplayed them, outclassed them and outscored them by 20 points per game after the series was tied 1-1.

There was a lot of talk about players' legacies going into this series, specifically revolving around LeBron James and Tim Duncan.

Despite all the haters' blah-blah-blahing, LeBron's legacy is fine. He has won two titles, has carried two organizations to a total of five Finals appearances and already is one of the top 10 basketball players ever.

Duncan? You know, he's pretty good, too!

3. The U.S. Open and NBA Finals weren't the only things to end Sunday. I already miss Game of Thrones.

It might be time to put my HBO subscription on hiatus for a little while.

2. And while we're on the subject of endings, this weekend marked the end of my Little League umpiring season. 

Here in Charlotte, it is too hot and humid to make the kiddies play all summer, so they have spring and fall seasons.

I had a lot of fun in my first full season behind the plate and in the field. And hey, I only ejected one coach all year - and I let him hang around for at least three innings of whining longer than I should have.

My highlight: During a brief time-out while one of his teammates was tying a shoe, a 10-year-old catcher turned around and asked me: "Do you umpire MLB, too?"

I was so stunned, I didn't even have a clever retort. I probably even blushed. Umps don't get compliments very often, especially one quite like that!

1. The weekend's first ending, the L.A. Kings' clutch performance against the Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final, served as a happy reminder of something that happened to me 20 years earlier.

That memory actually started 21 years ago, when Wayne Gretzky and the Kings lost in the 1993 Final to the Canadiens. I was the lead hockey writer for AP back then, and my coverage earned the Will Grimsley Award for best body of work.

Flash forward to '94. This time, the Rangers were in the Final, and prevailed over the Canucks in a thrilling seven-game series to break their 54-year championship drought.

About two weeks after covering that series, Roberta and I were flown to a resort in southern California, where I received my '93 award at the Associated Press Sports Editors conference. Because I happened to be the first AP writer called to the podium, I had the stage to myself for about a minute while my peers applauded.

Twenty years later, I still consider that minute to be the pinnacle of my AP career ... and one of the great things to happen to me in what I acknowledge has been a very lucky life.
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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Finally time for the Finals!

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The NHL is the most egalitarian league. If you make it to the playoffs, you have a chance. Not a chance only in a cliche kind of way - I mean, every team that makes the playoffs in every sport thinks it has a chance even though the opposite is true - but a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup.

Look at what the L.A. Kings, who finished sixth in the Western Conference during the season, have done to reach the Stanley Cup Final. They fell behind the Sharks 3 games to none but stormed back to win the series, taking Games 5 and 7 on the road. They then met the Ducks, the No. 1 seed, and fell behind 3 games to 2 before winning the last two games. Then came the defending Cup champion Blackhawks. This time, the Kings got the 3-1 series lead and let Chicago back in it before rallying from a late Game 7 deficit to win in OT.

On L.A.'s winning goal, Al Martinez flipped a soft 50-foot shot from the point. The puck appeared to nick somebody's stick in the shot, changing directions slightly. Its trajectory continued upward until it hit the shoulder of Chicago defenseman Nick Leddy. That changed the direction of the puck yet again, and it fluttered past goalie Corey Crawford and into the net. Wow!

When was the last time an NBA team made it to the Finals on a basket that deflected off an opponent's shoulder?

Whereas David Tyree's catch in the 2008 Super Bowl is considered one of the most miraculous (and fortuitous) plays in sports history, goals like Martinez's happen ALL THE TIME in the NHL. Luck is a bigger factor in hockey than in any other sport, as the puck takes wild bounces constantly. Then there's the goaltender factor - a hot goalie can (and has) carried seemingly inferior teams to great heights. There is no real equivalent in other sports.

So with the Kings getting great goaltending from Jonathan Quick - a native of my hometown of Milford, Conn. - and getting even greater bounces at the most crucial moments, they were able to win three Game 7s, all on the road. Amazing.

By comparison, the Rangers had an easy road to the Final, although the Eastern Conference's No. 5 seed did have to overcome a 3-games-to-1 deficit to defeat the heavily favored Penguins in the second round.

So the Final, which starts Wednesday, will pit the clubs that had the league's 9th- and 12th-best records.

Is it a total cop-out to predict that the luckiest team will win?

Yes? Tough, because that's the best I can do!

+++

Meanwhile, it was far easier to predict what happened in the NBA, where the team with the best regular-season record (Spurs) will meet the two-time defending champs (Heat). What else is new?

I can't remember the last time the NBA produced a true surprise at this stage - and that's fine, too. We have the NHL for that. The NBA tends to reward teams for proven, sustained excellence.

I enjoy watching the Heat thanks to the amazing LeBron James. Plus, his second fiddle is Dwyane Wade, arguably the greatest basketball player in Marquette history.

Even with those stars, however, Heat games sometimes are boring because they can be slow-paced defensive battles. LeBron and Wade also tend to go 1-on-1 quite often, which leads to a lot of standing around by their teammates and a lot of 3-pointers jacked at the 24-second-clock buzzer.

The Spurs, on the other hand, are almost always a pleasure to watch. They share the ball beautifully and play sound fundamental basketball. They also are much taller than the Heat, helping to create even more of a contrast of styles.

The teams met in a memorable NBA Finals last year. The Spurs seemingly had the title won in Game 6 but a questionable coaching decision by the usually outstanding Gregg Popovich helped cost his team the game and, eventually the title. (Popovich inexplicably benched Tim Duncan down the stretch, leading to Chris Bosh grabbing key offensive rebounds, including one that set up Ray Allen's tying 3-pointer.)

Now Popovich and the Spurs get a chance at revenge ... and it says here that they'll get it.

The Spurs have homecourt advantage, which is always huge but is even bigger now that the league has returned to a 2-2-1-1-1 format for the Finals. The change (from 2-3-2) means the Spurs will be home not just for Game 7 if necessary but also for the always pivotal fifth game.

Beyond that, I just like the way the Spurs match up with the Heat. Popovich can go big and the Heat really can't answer that. Popovich can, however, match the Heat if both teams want to go small. Kawhi Leonard is an excellent defender who will make LeBron work for everything, and if Manu Ginobili's shot is on, he will cause big problems for the Heat.

And I just talked about two Spurs difference-makers without even mentioning future Hall of Famers Duncan and Tony Parker.

The Heat will need Bosh to justify his $100 million salary and also will need major contributions from several supporting players, most notably Allen, Mario Chalmers and a couple of bigs.

I'm saying Spurs in 6, and they won't even need a basket that deflects off of Udonis Haslem's earlobe to do it.
^

Monday, May 12, 2014

Game of Thrones: Greatness ... and dragons, too!

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Just when you think you have it all figured out, along comes something new.

OK, now in its fourth season, Game of Thrones is hardly new. But it's new to my "Best of Nadel" list, and what else really matters in life?

The acting is brilliant, from leading actors such as Peter Dinklage (who won an Emmy as wise-cracking dwarf Tyrion), Lena Headey (Cersei) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister) to supporting players Jack Gleeson (the recently departed King Joffrey), Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) and Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), all the way down to the bit players.

The story-telling is wonderful, weaving in themes of angst and forbidden love and terror and longing and hubris and bile and guile. Oh, and damn cool dragons, too!

HBO, which had been flagging a little since The Wire went off the air, has struck gold with Game of Thrones, which has the network's highest ratings since The Sopranos.

My biggest beef is that friends who have read the books always want to tell me what's going to happen next. Hey! I don't want to know who is next to get beheaded, to be saved, to be damned. For me, a good TV show is like a good athletic event -- I hate it when I accidentally learn the final score of a game I've recorded. It's all about the drama!

I'm happy to put Game of Thrones on the pantheon of all-time great HBO dramas ...

1. The Wire. There are those who think this is the greatest series in television history, and it's hard to argue with that ... even if the fifth and final season can't quite keep up with the first four. I know I can't think of a show that has captured the hopelessness of inner-city life any better.

2. The Sopranos. The standard against which all cable TV series must be judged. It had a couple of mediocre seasons, and the final scene will be debated forever, but the series brought us Paulie Walnuts, gabagool, Artie Bucco, Father Phil, manacot, Pine Barrens, "Waddayagonnado?" and so many other memorable characters, phrases and scenes. "Iconic" is an overused word, but it fits here.

3. Game of Thrones. Fun, exciting and all of the stuff I said earlier. If it lasts long enough and doesn't have a bad season -- so far, so great -- it could ascend to No. 1.

4. Deadwood. Turns out, the Wild West was even more wild than we thought! Ian McShane's Al Swearengen truly is one of the great characters ever: vile, repugnant, unapologetic and maniacally vain. Lots of great supporting characters, too.

5. Six Feet Under. The show about a family of undertakers was always so much more about life than death. A tremendous ensemble of actors, including Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose (my personal favorite as the eye-rolling, deep-sighing youngest Fisher, Claire) and Richard Jenkins, as well as "guest-regulars" Kathy Bates and James Cromwell.

Honorable Mention: Rome, Boardwalk Empire, Oz, In Treatment, True Blood (Season 1).

Top 5 HBO Comedies: Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Larry Sanders Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, Veep, Entourage.

Worst HBO Series Ever: John From Cincinnati. Yes, I actually watched the entire series, waiting for something to happen. The joke was on me ... nothing ever did. Thankfully, a second season never did, either.

There. I have said it, so it must be true!
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Friday, May 2, 2014

On Donald Sterling, Jewish bigots, free speech, privacy and consequences

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Not long after my Bar Mitzvah, I stayed at the home of an orthodox rabbi on a Friday night to see how ultra-religious Jews celebrated the Sabbath. I bunked in the same bedroom as the rabbi's son, who was about my age, and we talked for a little while to get to know each other. About a half-hour into the conversation, he was discussing the neighborhood his school was in ... and he used the n-word twice. I asked something like, "Did you have problems with them?" His response: "Nah, I just don't like (n-words)."

That pretty much ended our conversation. I wasn't confident enough in myself back then to admonish him on the spot or to tell his parents what he said, but I wasn't going to get swept up into this world. As the only Jewish kid in my grade school, I had heard plenty of taunts; as a guy who had befriended the few black kids in my neighborhood, I knew that racism existed and was ugly. I tried to go to sleep but tossed and turned until finally drifting off some time later.

The episode did affect my Jewishness. As a newly minted teenager, I already was questioning my faith (among other things). And now here came this son of a rabbi, and he was filled with hate. He didn't even have a reason for it. I remember thinking, "This is somebody who professes to be Jewish, somebody who claims to believe in a benevolent God?"

Which brings us to Donald Sterling. His real name is Donald Tokowitz. And, as we all know by now, he is a Racist with a capital R.

I'm always amazed when a person whose lineage traces back to a long-persecuted people can be so hateful and bigoted toward another long-persecuted people. You'd think Jews would have empathy for blacks and other racial, ethnic and religious minorities. When the Jewish person instead is filled with bile, it is, in my mind, a little tragedy. It certainly doesn't speak well for how God supposedly oversees us all.

I won't go into Sterling's transgressions because we've all heard them by now. His punishment? He eventually will be forced to sell the L.A. Clippers, reaping a mere $1 billion or so on his original $12 million investment.

See? Jews are good with money!

Some are trying to make this a free-speech issue. It isn't. Sterling is free to say whatever he wants. And the private organization to which he belongs -- the NBA Board of Governors -- is free to punish him. If you work for a private company and you are overhead saying the exact same things Sterling said, hopefully your company will ban you for life, too.

Because Sterling was recorded by an angry girlfriend, who might have goaded him into showing his hateful self, some are trying to make this a privacy issue. It isn't. Just because those comments came out in such circumstances, it doesn't mean Sterling's peers should have ignored them. He DID say them. He obviously believes every word he said. If you send what you think is a private email to a co-worker belittling your boss, your boss has every right to fire you. You will not be protected by any kind of right to privacy.

Were this a court of law, he couldn't be convicted. But it isn't a court of law. He doesn't have the protections of speech and privacy. He signed a league constitution binding him to rules of order and he violated those rules of order.

Some have equated this to hateful comments that black NBA players have made against gay people or putdowns of white players. In the future, will the NBA also ban players for life for insensitive or bigoted remarks? Well, no.

For one thing, players are protected by a union. The NBA couldn't even make stick a year-long suspension of Latrell Sprewell, who famously choked his coach in front of witnesses. A player might get a slap on the wrist for racist comments, but there is no way he will be banned for life.

But that's a double-standard, isn't it? Perhaps, but the two situations are far more dissimilar than they are similar. A player has little power. He doesn't hire and fire coaches, he doesn't decide if a department manager should be promoted or demoted, he doesn't establish a pay scale for secretaries and janitors. His bigotry is distasteful, but he doesn't have the power to use it for evil.

Long before this incident, Sterling left a trail of discrimination lawsuits, allegations of mistreatment and the like. His NBA peers have long wanted to rid themselves of him. This latest incident gives them an "in" to do it -- kind of like Al Capone finally getting nabbed for tax evasion.

Well, how about those who worry that this is a slippery slope? Will every owner who is caught on tape saying something disparaging that he thought was private be forced to sell a franchise he worked so hard to build?

Certainly, precedent now has been set. But let's not get overly dramatic here. Maybe people actually will start thinking before they talk. Now there's a crazy notion. We can't answer the broader question until we see how it plays out.

Finally, given Sterling's history, one person who comes out looking particularly bad is recently retired NBA commish David Stern. While his replacement, Adam Silver, has come out of this looking golden for the swift, strong stance he has taken, Stern has the smell of an enabler who turned a blind eye toward Sterling's longstanding racist acts.

Stern certainly wasn't afraid to ruffle feathers. He fined Mark Cuban so much and so often for ripping referees over the years that the Mavericks' owner might as well have set up direct deposit from his bank account to the NBA's coffers.

Here's hoping Stern wasn't giving Sterling a pass because they share the same religion.

Being Jewish never has been easy. Beyond the overt and covert bigotry that has persisted for thousands of years, entire nations and religions want nothing more than to eliminate all Jews from the face of the earth.

So it's especially sad and disheartening when Jews are guilty of narrow-mindedness, intolerance and hate.
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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Draft Day doesn't delight, but Old Man Softball does

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I recently saw Draft Day, Kevin Costner's ode to The Most Overblown Event In Sports, implausible storylines, ESPN, unpassionate love and, of course, himself.

OK, that sounds like the movie was horrible, and it wasn't. It was easy enough to watch, it maybe offered a little insight into the NFL Draft for those who don't follow football and there was nothing offensive in it.

Roberta said it felt as if she were watching a made-for-HBO movie. That's a pretty apt description, but I'd rather watch any episode of Game of Thrones.

Let's just say it wasn't one of Costner's best.

Costner is the general manager of the Cleveland Browns and he is feeling pressure to produce a winner after some lackluster seasons. The owner (played by Frank Langella, by far the best performance of any actor in the film) mostly wants to make a splash in the draft by trading up for the No. 1 pick to select the hot QB, while Costner -- son of a legendary former Browns coach -- wants to create a legacy for himself. Denis Leary plays a coach at odds with the GM, but comes across mostly as Denis Leary playing himself.

I don't want to give too much away here in case you still want to see it, so I will send out a SPOILER ALERT warning right now ...

Costner's wheeling and dealing as GM is so unrealistic that it borders on the ridiculous.

Actually, let me amend that: The border was crossed into abject ridiculousness.

Costner trades away a boatload of high draft picks (including the Browns' 7th-overall selection) to Seattle for the No. 1 pick -- OK, that kind of thing has happened, albeit rarely. He then uses the pick to select not the QB but the guy he wanted to take at No. 7 anyway. Farfetched? You betcha. And it gets even sillier.

Costner then trades two second-round picks to acquire the No. 6 overall selection (even with the great QB prospect still on the board). As if that isn't a dopey enough plot twist, he trades that pick back to the Seattle GM who fleeced him in the first place. Not only does Costner get back all of the draft picks he gave away but he convinces the Seattle GM to give him a great punt returner, too.

What, he couldn't get Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch, too?

And then there's this: Jennifer Garner is the Browns' salary-cap expert. She also is Costner's love interest, although there couldn't have been less chemistry between the two.

The kiss they shared at the end of the movie? Put it this way: Mike and Carol Brady had more passionate smooches 30 years ago than the Costner-Garner kiss -- and Mike didn't even like girls!

On my 1-10 ratings scale, I give Draft Day 5 Bald Heads. Which is my way of saying, "Meh."

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Here's something that gets a far better rating: The Sons of Pitches are back, baby!

Yep, it's springtime in Charlotte, and that means it's time again for Old Man Softball.

I'm pleased to report that the Sons of Pitches are 3-0. Thanks to timely hitting and some clutch defense, we have won our three games by a total of five runs. Most importantly, none of us has had to be rushed to the Emergency Room.

We play the two other unbeaten teams over the next three weeks, so we'll see how good we really are.

As for yours truly ...

For the second time in three seasons, I'm my team's youngest player. That's right, The Kid. I need to cherish that "honor," because I'm miles from being the most talented player. Still, I did go 3-for-3 yesterday, with two solid singles to right-center and a fortuitous bloop (that looks like any other line drive in the box score). I'm batting .667 so far -- another thing I need to cherish while I can.

We have a great group of guys. We enjoy each other's company, we like to give each other crap and we even play some pretty good softball occasionally. Joining this league, and specifically playing for this team, is one of the most enjoyable things I've done since moving to N.C.
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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Mortal Lock for NCAA title: Either Kentucky or UConn!

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Well, I've embarrassed myself enough trying to make tournament picks, so I'll just slink away from basketball prognosticating for now!

Still, I do love the NCAA tournament. I love it when everybody is wrong, even when one of those everybodies is me. It is the one sporting event that never, ever disappoints -- and this year's tourney has been one of the best ever.

Funny that Kentucky and UConn, two of the most successful, big-time, big-name programs of the post-Wooden Era, have become underdog darlings, no?

Obviously, I wish Marquette had been one of the two darlings remaining, but we Warrior Eagle fans got our surprise a few weeks ago when Buzz Williams took less money to take an inferior coaching job, at Virginia Tech. There's way more to this story than we've been told, because that kind of thing simply doesn't happen.

Buzz gave us five excellent seasons (and one not-so-excellent season) and was an improvement on his predecessor, Tom Crean. And now I'm hoping our new guy, ex-Dookie Steve Wojciechowski, is an improvement over Buzz.

Awww ... who am I kidding. I'm just hoping I don't have to spell Wojciechowski too often! Let's go with "Wojo" from now on, OK?

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Finally, appropos of nothing, I received a bit of an honor a few days ago when a highly respected Seeking Alpha writer named me one of the 25 best authors on the financial Web site.

I'm not gonna lie: It's always nice to have folks say nice things about you!
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Friday, April 4, 2014

NCAA hoops pick: Don't do as I say, do as I dont!

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I've been busy vacationing with my family in Vegas and Arizona. A lot more fun than blogging for free!

My NCAA bracket, like pretty much everybody else's, blew up a long time ago.

For the Final Four, I'm saying Florida handles UConn fairly easily while Wisconsin beats Kentucky in a close game featuring teams of contrasting styles. Then, Florida takes down Bucky Badger to win another title for Billy Donovan, the best coach (regardless of sport) that just about nobody talks about.

In other words, bet everything you have on UConn!
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