Monday, September 15, 2014

I wasn't too distracted to write this

^
"Distraction" is a media invention. A player or team is faced with some kind of off-the-field issue, and, through their line of questioning, writers and broadcasters immediately look to give the player or team an out.

"Coach, are you worried your guys will be distracted by ... "

What a crock.

Yes, it will distract them if they are weak-minded losers. If they are strong-willed winners, however, the situation at hand actually will serve to motivate and unite them.

The Ray Rice drama played out in Baltimore for months, with the three-time Pro Bowl tailback and fiancee abuser finally getting cut one week ago. For the next three days, coaches and players were incessantly asked about how the situation would distract the Ravens on Thursday night, when they were to play the Steelers.

Well, the Ravens crushed the rival Steelers. Rice's replacement, relative unknown Bernard Pierce, rushed for 96 yards.

As the Rice episode unfolded, here in Charlotte folks were concentrating on All-Pro defensive end Greg Hardy, who was convicted by a judge for assaulting his girlfriend. Hardy has appealed and his case eventually will be heard by a jury. Neither the NFL nor the Panthers suspended him because they said they felt they should let the legal course play out.

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson got all choked up as he spoke publicly about his strong stance against domestic violence, but Hardy remained on the active roster for yesterday's game against Detroit. "How much of a distraction is this?" was the most-asked question at team HQ.

Finally, the day of the game, the Panthers decided to deactivate Hardy. They then went out and throttled the Lions, holding one of the NFL's most explosive teams to 7 points. Hardy's replacement, Mario Addison, had 2 1/2 sacks.

The Ravens and Panthers refused to be distracted. They refused to cave in to the perception that they couldn't live without star players. Whether or not one likes the way Ravens and Panthers management handled the situations in the days and weeks leading up to their decisions regarding Rice and Hardy, one has to be impressed with the way players and coaches responded once the ball was kicked off.

As Thomas Davis, one of the Panthers' defensive captains, told the media after the game: "We've got to continue to come to work and do what we're paid to do."

Remember these results the next time your favorite team takes the media's bait and plays the distraction card.
^

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Today's High Five: A wonderful time of the year!

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Man (and woman), do I love this time of year! So much going on in the wide world of sports - and that's a very welcome distraction with what's going on in the wide world of non-sports.

5. OLD MEN AND THE SEE-I'M-NOT-DECREPIT-YET

My old-dude softball team, the Sons of Pitches, is 4-0 in the fall league after beating the other previously unbeaten team last night.

We not only won, we won by slaughter rule ... and we won with style, baby!

In the top of the second inning, we turned a TRIPLE PLAY. Yep, a triple-freakin-play! Runners on first and second; the batter hits a sinking line drive to right-center; the runners take off, certain they will be scoring on the play; our RCF Wayne makes a running catch; Wayne throws to SS Tom for Out No. 2; Tom fires to 1B Bob for Out No. 3. Yowsa!

We then come up in bottom of the inning and celebrate by scoring the maximum 5 runs, with Pat - our coach, pitcher and Penguin-run-alike - hitting a three-run homer. Way to go, Ron Cey! (Or is it more like Burgess Meredith?)

We have such a fun group of guys it will be sad when the season ends - and our two-year run as a team ends with it. There will be a new draft next spring and our guys will be cast about the league.

But we still have a lot of fun to go this season. It really isn't even fall yet, we're undefeated, and we have a championship to win!

4. CHICAGO'S HOPELESS

The Cubs are in last place, 16 games out. The White Sox are in next-to-last place, 15 1/2 games out. And the Bears found a way to lose their season opener at home to the Bills.

All of which can only mean one thing:

It's September in Chicago!

Fans from my former hometown at least can celebrate that Derrick Rose, who is playing for the U.S. National Team, is experiencing no knee problems.

Yet.

Meanwhile, my Panthers kicked butt and took prisoners in their opener at Tampa Bay, even without the injured Cam Newton.

The Panthers aren't a great team, but I think they're pretty darn good. I don't like talking much about Fantasy Football because people who play it never shut up when they start talking, but if Kelvin Benjamin happens to still be available in your league, you'd be wise to snag him. He's well on his way to being a stud.

3.  PAIN ... AND NOT MUCH GAIN

The last Little League game I umpired, on Sunday, I took a foul ball to my right shoulder. The pain was so intense that I thought the ball must have somehow gotten under or over my chest protector's shoulder-pad attachment. But it hadn't. The ball just was hit hard and caught me in the "perfect" spot.

The next inning, I was hit by a pitch when the left-handed catcher didn't quite reach across his body enough to catch a ball that was barely out of the strike zone. The ball hit me just below the middle knuckle on my left index finger, an area that is now a lovely shade of purple.

And the next inning, a kid fouled one back off my right shoulder - again. The ball got me within an inch of the previous injury, and I was seeing stars for a few seconds. Ever the trooper, I shook it off and continued. That's why I get the big bucks.

I guess all that punishment was payback for joking around after I had taken a relatively innocuous shot off my shin guard in the first inning. A coach asked if I was OK, and I responded:

"I'm fine. My wife hits me harder than that!"

2. AND SPEAKING OF RAY RICE ...

Why is being fired by the Ravens and suspended the NFL an appropriate punishment for treating a woman like a punching bag?

Why isn't this guy in jail?

OK, I know why he isn't in jail. He is rich enough to afford a good lawyer. That being said, Rice clearly is a bad human being, he can't control his temper, he is super strong, and he almost surely is armed. You can't convince me he is not a threat to society.

Those who know me well know that I'm a softy - and a big believer in second chances. But this criminal should have to sit in a small cell for at least a few months before he gets his second chance.

1. VALUE = VICTORY

The NFL season is underway. So is the college football season, and now that there's an actual playoff system waiting at the end, I might even watch a few games. Tennis just played its U.S. Open and golf's Ryder Cup is just around the corner. Soon enough, NHL teams will report to training camp, NBA teams will do likewise and college basketball teams will hold their Midnight Madness sessions. And in soccer "friendlies" all around the world, guys with one name are pretending they were shot in an attempt to draw penalties against opponents who didn't touch them.

Things are so sportarific in September, and baseball is the sportarificest of all.

One of the things I miss most about Chicago is that I no longer live in a town with big-league baseball (or whatever it is that the Cubs and White Sox claim to play). With the Internet, ESPN and the MLB Network, I can keep up with the game pretty well, but it isn't quite the same as having not just one but two teams right in the city.

I have been enjoying the division and wild-card races, but mostly I have been thinking about the MVP awards in each league.

In the AL, the best offensive player has been White Sox rookie Jose Abreu, who came from Cuba and started hitting the second he set foot in Comiskular Park. But you know what? If I had a ballot this season, he wouldn't even be one of the first five guys I'd vote for. He might not even be in my top 10.

For me, an MVP candidate has to be on a team that at least contends for a postseason berth. He has to have come through in games that have meaning - either early- and mid-season games that have helped his team to a big division lead, or late-season games that have given his team a chance at the playoffs.

How can Abreu be the Most Valuable Player in his league if his team hasn't played a game "of value" since May? Yes, he has value to the White Sox. Yes, he deserves Rookie of the Year in a runaway. MVP of the entire league? Please.

Mike Trout seemed a lock for the award at midseason but he slumped pretty badly in August. Still, he leads the league in RBIs, he has helped his Angels roll past the once-dominant A's while compiling the league's best record, and he is dynamic both in the field and on the bases. He's still the choice over Detroit's Miguel Cabrera and Baltimore's Nelson Cruz.

Things are even more interesting in the NL, where the absence of a hitting superstar on any winning team has put a pitcher atop the MVP heap.

And what a pitcher. Clayton Kershaw has had several outstanding years, and he's now having one for the ages: 18-3 with a 1.67 ERA. He is in Koufax/Gibson territory, and he is the main reason the Dodgers overcame a slow start - Kershaw missed April and it took him most of May to shake off the rust - to surge past the Giants in the NL West.

Valid arguments can be made that a pitcher who makes 30 starts shouldn't win an MVP award ahead of everyday ballplayers, but Kershaw has been so dominant and has so obviously lifted the Dodgers, that he is an example of why it should be rare but possible.

For stat-heads who like advanced metrics, Kershaw leads all MLB players in Wins Above Replacement, and the guy in second (somewhat surprisingly, Oakland's Josh Donaldson) isn't very close behind.

The Marlins don't even have a .500 record and they are only on the fringes of the wild-card race, but if they can make a legitimate push over the last couple of weeks, Giancarlo "Don't Call Me Mike" Stanton could make it a two-man MVP race. Stanton leads the league in HR and RBI and he's a great all-around player. He's put up his numbers not in a Rockies-style thin-air-aided bandbox but in Miami's spacious, pitcher-friendly ballpark. Very impressive.

Stanton's best chance is if the Marlins make a big move in the next two weeks and if Kershaw loses some votes to teammate Adrian Gonzalez, who has been hot of late and is right behind Stanton in the RBI race. I suppose Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen could go wild down the stretch and steal the award, but I don't see it happening.

Right now, Kershaw is a pretty easy choice for MVP, Cy Young and, hell, let's make him governor of California, too. Jerry Brown can't have more than another decade or three in office, right?
^

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Hey Tiger: Hire me as swing coach!

Tiger Woods
Former Majors Champion
The Woods Compound
Orlando, Fla.

Dear Mr. Woods:

It has come to my attention that you need a new swing coach (again), and I am sure I would be perfect for the job. Here is my resume:

1985 -- Underwent back surgery to repair a herniated disc. After that, my golf game only improved over the years ... to the point where I often break 100 on public courses now. I'm sure I could improve your game every bit as much as you deal with a bad back.

1996 – Demonstrated great motivational technique while on a Michigan golf junket with former Copley columnist Gene Seymour.

Gene (standing over 3-foot birdie putt): This is just like the one I missed yesterday.

Me: That’s a great thought to put in your mind. Just shut up and make the putt. (He did!)

1997 -- Covered the Western Open at Cog Hill, and my mere presence inside the ropes obviously inspired you to victory.

1998 – Became a columnist and took advantage of the spare time I suddenly had to revamp my swing, turning my fade into a draw. OK, so it really was turning a banana slice into a duck hook, but it still showed an openness to explore different styles. That fall at Mistwood, I used my new form to make 7 pars in an 11-hole stretch, as witnessed by Tim Cronin. You, too, could enjoy that kind of consistency.

1999 – Made a downhill 25-footer to birdie Medinah No. 3’s famed second hole on PGA Championship media day. Had the ball not gone into the cup, it probably would have ended up in the lake. Later parred 12 and 17 - all part of my nifty 101. You have to admit, not many pros are capable of shooting a 101.

2000-08 – Regularly contended for third place in weekly golf games organized by myself, Phil Arvia and Teddy Greenstein. As a bonus, I got to drive back to Chicago in rush hour. Those 2-hour slogs built my character and proved my resolve.

2000 – Birdied consecutive holes at The Merit Club during U.S. Women’s Open media day. Given that I didn’t make anything better than a bogey on the other 16 holes, this showed my ability to rise to the occasion.

2001 – Playing the 16th hole at Mill Creek Golf Club in Geneva, Ill., with three fellow golfers on the tee box and four more standing near the green, I yanked my tee shot into the water. I then re-teed and hit a big hook that landed on the far right side of the green, bounced several times and went into the cup on the left side of the green for that rarest of shots: a hole-in-3! Although one of my playing partners, Gene Chamberlain, carded a birdie - meaning I didn't even have honors on the next hole - this demonstrated my ability to respond to adversity.

2003 -- Beat Nick "Woosie" Pietruszkiewicz by a stroke on the front 9 at Buffalo Grove Golf Club. So what if he beat my by 13 strokes on the back 9? I showed that for a couple of hours, if I'm playing my best, I can outplay a good golfer playing his worst.

2005 -- Playing Pelican Point in Gonzalez, La., the day after a Bears-Saints game - and less than three months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans - I scored an 81, my personal best for a "grown-up" course. I started with four 6's but then went par or better on 10 of the next 12 holes. The stretch included a career-high six straight pars. It also included a chip-in birdie; those familiar with my short game might argue that was rarer than my hole-in 3 back in '01. Even though I finished bogey-bogey to ruin my bid to break 80, I don't know how you or any pro could look at such an achievement and fail to be impressed.

2006 -- Birdied No. 18 at River Oaks (a.k.a. Fuddruckers National) to win several dollars - more than 1, less than 10 - off of Arvia and Greenstein. I know you like to gamble when you play, and I definitely will give you a run for your money ... if you give me enough strokes ... 18 per side should do it ... or maybe 24.

2007 -- Played 108 holes in 72 hours in Michigan with Tony Pellikan and Tom Chodzko. Talk about toughness and resilience!

2009 -- On consecutive days while golfing in Phoenix, I saw a coyote, a roadrunner and Alice Cooper. You, too, could benefit from my keen powers of observation.

2010 – Following my move from Chicago to Charlotte, I began a three-year stint working in customer service at country clubs - first River Hills, then Ballantyne.

During this time, I practiced hard to get rid of my trademark draw/hook. Now, I have no idea which direction the ball will go once it leaves my club, which speaks to my spontaneity and sense of humor.

I also routinely gave playing tips to members and their kids, the most effective being: “If you want to be any good at all, watch me and then do things the exact opposite way.”

2011 -- Started drinking beer again, a must when dealing with the likes of you.

2012 – After cutting the corner with a long drive and dropping a 5-iron within 2 ½ feet, I made the putt to eagle the 490-yard 11th hole at Ballantyne CC. This tale of my only career eagle surely would inspire any golfer to greatness, so I will be happy to recount my heroics weekly. Or even daily, if you insist.

2014 – Stopped working at Ballantyne CC to concentrate on landing a job as your swing coach because I knew it would be only a matter of time before you blamed Sean Foley for your problems.

So how about it, Mr. Woods … hire me, employ my proven What Not To Do swing techniques, and start winning majors again!

Sincerely,

Mike

Monday, August 18, 2014

What I Did On My Summer Vacation


The worst part about vacations is that they have to end. As I write this, Robbie is back at work and I am getting ready to go grocery shopping, pick up our held mail and handle a stack of bills that accumulated in our absence. Ugh.

Still, we had a great trip to visit Katie in Seattle and to chill out with our forever friends, Elizabeth and James DeVault, in Park City, Utah.

The trip didn't start very great, as our Southwest flight to Seattle on Aug. 4 was canceled due to mechanical problems. Every 20-30 minutes, an employee went on the intercom to say, "The mechanic has not yet arrived," or "The mechanic just arrived and is assessing the situation," or "The mechanic is now trying to determine if we have the necessary parts to remedy the situation," etc. Finally, after about 5 hours at the airport, we learned the flight was canceled and everybody lined up to receive alternate transportation. 

They wanted to put us on a flight early the next morning. We would have had to gather our luggage, call for the shuttle to take us back to the remote lot where we parked our car, drive 40 minutes home, get as much sleep as we could, wake up at 3:30 a.m. the next day, go back to the airport, park the car, check the luggage, go back through security, etc. It was not an inviting solution.

It dawned on me that I had enough American miles to book new flights and, sure enough, there was one leaving in a couple of hours. Because we were booking on short notice, they charged us $75 each for the right to use our miles. Plus, because we weren't flying on Southwest, they charged us $25 each for our two bags. So it was $200 PLUS 25k miles. But at least we wouldn't have to leave the airport.

Naturally, THAT flight was delayed by about 3 hours. By the time Katie picked us up at the Seattle airport and drove us to her apartment, it was 1:30 a.m. - Seattle time. Meaning 4:30 a.m. for our tired bodies!

Fortunately, getting started was by far the worst part of our vacation. We had a great time in the great state of Washington ... and did so without even sampling their newest legal product.



Robbie and I at the top of Rattlesnake Ledge, 
part of the Snoqualmie National Forest. 
We had amazing views of  Mount Washington, Rattlesnake Lake and 
Chester Morse Lake, making the 2-mile climb worthwhile.


While in Seattle, Robbie and I celebrated our 31st anniversary. 
Doing so with Katie made it extra special. 
She even treated us (mostly) for our great dinner at Cutter's.


We also got to meet Katie's boyfriend, Ben. 

Hmmm ... same name as her brother, same hairline as her father ... a shrink's delight!

Later in the week, we strolled through Pike Place Market, took a whitewater rafting trip - I won't say who fell out, but her name starts with an R! - ate well and drank merrily.

After five fantastic days with Katie, we said our farewells and flew to Salt Lake City. There, we met up with Elizabeth and James, our longest-tenured married friends. Elizabeth and Robbie met shortly after we got married and moved to Madison, where they both worked in a bank's student-loan department. James was going for an advanced degree in economics at Wisconsin and I was in the early stages of my AP career. We've been close ever since, and we try to get together once a year or so. For a long time, the families had mass gatherings, but now that our kids are on their own and the DeVault kids are mostly grown, it's usually just the four of us.

Why Park City? Good question. We had a timeshare week to use and that was the best place we could trade into. It was a pretty mountain area, and we could see why it's popular in the winter. Our Marriott resort had a lot of amenities, and the area was beautiful in the summer, too. We mostly chilled out but did a few more active things.


Here, Robbie and I (and James to the left) are at the Homestead Crater, 
a cavern with mineral water that is at a natural 90 to 96 degrees. 
The picture is fuzzy because we were treading water to try to stay in one place.


Robbie climbs aboard Buttercup for our horseback ride at Antelope Island State Park.


Poor Joe drew the short straw and had to carry me.
I ate so well on the trip that I think I gained 5 pounds. 
I don't know for sure; I'm too chicken to step on the scale! 


Here we are... the Four Horsepeople of the Apocalypse!

Antelope Island State Park is home to hundreds of free-roaming bison, and we saw dozens of them. We also saw a few antelope ... unless they were mule deer. We're still not really sure which. 

The park also borders the southeast part of the Great Salt Lake. I had been to Utah three times - for the 1993 NBA All-Star Game (where my assignment was to cover Shaq's appearance as a rookie) as well as the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals. Despite all that time there, I had never even gotten a peek at the Great Salt Lake. So this time, I made sure I not only saw it but experienced it.


This photo of Robbie and I provides an accurate account of how massive the lake is. 
We only waded up to our knees because, frankly, the water was filthy!

The other major activity we did in Utah was a tour of the Mormon temple grounds in Salt Lake City. We weren't allowed in the temple, but we viewed it from the outside and got to go into a few associated buildings. It's a massive complex, and we learned that more than 60% of the state's population belong to the church. The tour was interesting but I was less fond of the prosthelytizing. 

The rest of our vacation was spent sunning at the pool, relaxing in the hot tub and eating well.

Oh, and playing games. When we get together, Elizabeth, James, Robbie and I play a lot of games - board games, card games, trivia games, etc. OK, so we're not the most happening couples on the planet ... we still have fun. 

On this trip, the ladies discovered a new passion - table shuffleboard. Did I say passion? Maybe addiction is more like it. Elizabeth actually went online to price a table for their house. I think she concluded that it would be too big for any room other than their bedroom, and James wasn't thrilled about that idea!

One day, the table was covered and had a note saying it was out of commission because somebody had broken it. We took a look and saw it only had a minor flaw, one we could fix temporarily with the folded-up cover of a pizza box. 

As we gathered near the elevator to go play, pizza box in hand, I said, "Yep, we're four rule-breaking bad-asses." 

Four 50-somethings setting their own rules so they could play table shuffleboard ... it doesn't get much more bad-ass than that! We laughed about that remark for days, with Elizabeth saying she could just see a Saturday Night Live skit based on the idea. I think it could work, with Will Ferrell returning to play me, of course.

"Don't mess with us ... we're bad-asses ... we're heading for the shuffleboard room ... we've got a pizza box and we know how to use it!"

Our trip wrapped up Saturday and we went our separate ways - Elizabeth and James back to Easton, Pa., where he is an economics professor, and us back to Charlotte. As always, it was sad saying goodbye but we'll have bad-ass memories to last us decades.

For some reason, flights from Salt Lake City to Charlotte were outrageously expensive, so a few months back I decided to use American miles to book the flight. Regular reward seats weren't available, so I said, "What the hell," doubled the miles and treated us to first class. It had been a long time since I had gotten an actual meal on an airplane, and this time, because of our plane change in Dallas, we got breakfast AND lunch! Not bad, either.


An egg "scrambler" with cheese, veggies and potatoes, 
fresh(-ish) fruit and a warm banana-nut muffin. 
I've had worse breakfasts, I can tell you that.

Our flight was on time, there were no problems at all, and boy was Simmie happy to see us!


I tried to upload a video of Simmie going crazy as soon as she saw us, but Blogger wasn't accepting it. So this photo of her on her favorite resting spot - the landing where the stairs take a turn - will have to do. Even though she looks like a puppy here, this was just taken a few weeks ago. Like Robbie, Simmie looks much younger than her years!

Upon our return, we also got to meet our new next-door neighbors, David and Jean. The Burleys, the fun family who lived next door for our first 3 1/2 years in the neighborhood, have moved to be closer to the school their three sons attend. We'll miss them but are happy they sold their house to such nice people!

Though no longer on vacation, we plan to enjoy the rest of our summer. Here's hoping your summer has been great, too.
^

Monday, July 28, 2014

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

^
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.
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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.
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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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