Wednesday, July 29, 2015

We are the champions, my friend! (Cuz we kept on fighting till the end!!)

^
In the words of the immortal Johnny Drama:

VICTORY!

Yes, our bunch of old men -- The Sons of Pitches -- turned out to be the best bunch of old men in the Charlotte Senior Softball League. On Tuesday night, we won our semifinal game 5-4 and then followed with a dramatic 18-17 championship game victory. Both times, we came from behind late to prevail.

What's pretty freaky is that in 14 innings of play over the two games, we had exactly two leads -- when Jerry hit the walk-off, two-out triple in the bottom of the last inning of the semifinal ... and when Rick delivered his bases-loaded deep fly over a drawn-in outfield in the bottom of the last inning of the championship game.

Going into the bottom of the sixth inning of the championship game, we were trailing 17-12. Pat, our coach/pitcher, gathered us together and shouted:

"This is something we are gonna remember for the rest of our lives. And most of you mother-bleepers are only gonna live another five years, so let's go!"

OK, it wasn't Rockne ... it was better! And funny, too. Obviously inspired by our fearless leader, we proceeded to score four times to make it a one-run game. We shut out our opponent in the top of the seventh and then scored twice in the bottom, with Moe, the oldest Son of Pitch, knocking in the tying run to set up Rick's winning hit.

Then, merriment ensued -- complete with a champagne spray from Pat.




We Are The Champions, My Friend!

Back Row: Rick, Mike (a.k.a. "Good Mike"), Bob, Jerry, Pat, Moe, Rich, Gary.

Front Row: Joe, Doug, Wayne, Bruce, Yours Truly.


I'm trying to remember if I had ever previously won a championship game in any sport at any level, and I'm pretty sure the answer is no. I'd remember, right? (I did mention I'm old, though, and the memory ain't what it used to be.)

You'd think there would have been a rec league title or an intramural win somewhere.

My freshman year at Marquette, our floor won the dorm touch football championship ... but we lost a heartbreaker to the frat team for the overall title. I played center and because the league used "everybody eligible" rules, I caught a few TD passes and PATs during the season. After we scored our only touchdown of the night, I was wide open in the end zone for the extra point, but out very good QB simply overthrew me by a mile. (I'd be happy to poke fun at my vertical leap, but LeBron wouldn't have caught that one.) It was 6-6 after regulation and we ended up losing in overtime.

And I think that's the closest I got to a title of any kind. I was kind of the Ted Williams/Dan Marino/Karl Malone of overweight, undertalented wannabe jocks -- I couldn't win the big one. Until Tuesday!

I got close as a basketball coach just last season, as documented in The Baldest Truth back in February, but my Scholars Academy Eagles lost to our archrival in the title game. Katie and Ben won a few youth sports championships, but I don't think I coached any of those seasons.

Pat and I (as pictured below, with Pat holding the champagne bottle) joined the senior softball league the same year, 2012, and we have been together since -- on three different teams.



We actually won a couple of fall league titles, and I guess those count, but neither of those were won through a gauntlet of playoff games; we simply had the best record during the season, and fall league is less competitive than the spring/summer version.

So I'm gonna go out on a limb and say this was my first championship ever as a player or coach.

I thought it would be a bittersweet feeling because I wasn't active for the playoffs. I had shoulder surgery a few days before our quarterfinal victory last week and won't be able to play for at least another month. I was worried I wouldn't really feel like part of the team. But that wasn't the case at all. The guys were genuinely glad to have me (and our other injured player, Rich) at the games, and we did our part. I coached third base and first base, Rich provided in-game scouting of the opponents' at-bats. And we were vocally encouraging at every opportunity.

When Rick greeted me at first base after his title-winning hit, we high-fived. I bounded over to Pat for a quick hug before we went through the handshake line. And I definitely enjoyed my swig (or two) of champagne!

Counting four spring/summer league teams and three fall league teams, Pat and I actually have been together for seven seasons over these 3+ years. Although we really have been fortunate to have had great teammates every time, this is a particularly special group -- and I would have said that even if our season didn't have such a special finish.

Great guys to play with, to hang out with at the bar, to shoot the shyte with, and, yes, to celebrate with.

Here's to The Sons of Pitches -- a great bunch of winners!
^

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Big win for Sons of Pitches, big pain for yours truly

^
With our come-from-behind triumph last night, the Sons of Pitches finished our regular season at 7-4. Our victory clinched the No. 3 seed -- and first-round bye -- for the playoffs. I chipped in with a couple of singles, and I also drew a walk as part of our winning 5-run rally; it's always nice to aid the effort.

Of course I wanted to win, but I admit that the victory was a little bittersweet for me. I am scheduled to have arthroscopic shoulder surgery on July 16, so the clinching of the first-round bye means this was my last softball game of the spring/summer season.

Hopefully, the surgery will be successful, I will rehab quickly and will be ready early in the fall campaign. The guys need me -- no, not on the field, but to lead the charge to the post-game libations!

+++

The surgery will be for an "impingement" in my left shoulder -- I have trouble moving my arm laterally or raising it over my head. Meanwhile, my right shoulder also is sore, but the doctor thinks physical therapy will fix that. I hope so -- because I'm tired of throwing like ... well ... I don't even know how to describe it. A spastic T-Rex, perhaps?

+++

I haven't touched a golf club yet in 2015, and I haven't played a round in almost a year. Those who know me will find that hard to believe ... but it's not easy to concentrate on the golf game while yelling "Owww!" with each swing.

+++

My shoulder ailments join an increasingly tight left hamstring that makes it uncomfortable to sit for more than about a half-hour -- so you can imagine how much fun I was on our drive to and from Chicago. Many gymnastics were performed when I was in the passenger seat. I have a feeling that one of these days, I'm going to be running to first base and the hamstring is going to snap like a guitar string that was tuned too tight. Sproing! Can't wait.

+++

And yesterday afternoon, I went to the doctor to try to find a cure for an infection on my left index finger, something that has been bothering me for more than a year. It was my third trip to this doctor, a general internist, and almost certainly my last. If I don't get rid of this infection soon, it will be time to go to a specialist -- something I probably should have done already.

+++

How did all of this happen? I'm only 54 freakin' years old!!

I guess I have to look at it this way: All of the aches and pains remind me that I'm alive, which is vastly better than the alternative.
^


Monday, July 6, 2015

Can anybody use a record player ... or 7?

^
So much has happened in sports since my last post that I'm not about to try to play catch-up in that department. So ...

Robbie and I just got back from the Chicago area, where we spent a week cleaning out my 89-year-old father-in-law's townhouse (while he stayed with his niece in a different suburb). There are pack rats ... and then there is Frank, who merits a special category of his own.

Here is what we found -- AND I AM NOT MAKING UP ANY OF THIS:

++ 9 TVs, including what had to be one of the first gigantic projection TVs ever made, 3 TVs with screens so small viewers might have needed a magnifying glass to see the picture, and a TV/VCR unit designed to fit between the seats of a full-sized van. Ben got the newest TV of the bunch -- a 50-inch HD flat screen that Frank bought last year; Frank's niece's granddaughter got the small flat screen that was in his bedroom; and, aside from the projection TV that still sits in his living room (or, in Frank's parlance, his "parlor"), Robbie and I put the other 6 TVs by the curb with "FREE" signs on them. All 6 were taken by passers-by.

++ 7 record players. Again, my son took what appeared to be the best one -- which had a built-in 8-track player. Can't beat that! A neighbor claimed one of the others. We put the 5 others on the curb and 4 were snapped up. We ended up throwing away one that looked like it had been through several wars. Frank also has probably 5,000 albums -- 4,950+ of which he has never played. We haven't figured out yet how to get rid of those.

++ At least 100 flashlights, most cheap plastic ones Frank had gotten as freebies over the years. We threw out almost all of them.

++ Hundreds of batteries, most past their expiration dates and many corroded.

++ More than $1,000 worth of coins that Frank had collected in various desk-top banks and boxes, including $700+ in quarters alone. We took that to his credit union and got it deposited in his account. We then closed his account -- which had been paying him no interest -- and moved all of his money to an online account we had previously set up. The online account pays him 1.05% interest -- not much, but it's better than 0.00%!

++ Two orbital waxers that a UPS driver claimed from the curb, along with a huge bucket of car-care products. One waxer was still new in the box; the other had been used maybe once. Why did Frank need 2 orbital waxers? Because if he hadn't gotten the second, he would have only had one!!

++ A dozen or so heaters, fans and air purifiers of all shapes and sizes. These were popular items among the free stuff we left on the curb. Frank's house was so filled with dust, that he must have felt the air purifiers were a must.

++ An old elliptical trainer and an even older step-climber, neither of which worked. They sat for awhile but were eventually claimed. Frank was NOT an exercise guy.

++ Dozens and dozens of framed pieces of "art" -- if pictures of fake flowers, ducks and Dennis Rodman can be called "art." All the sports-themed stuff went to Frank's great niece, who is setting up a basement bar. The rest went on the freebie pile.

++ Tools, tools and more tools, most of which were claimed by family friends.

++ Bags and bags filled with clothes, many of which were still in their original wrappers. Frank wears a total of 2 pairs of pants and 3 shirts, so he doesn't need 200+ outfits. That clothing -- along with usable linens and kitchen dishes and utensils -- were donated to Frank's church for distribution to the needy.

++ Five boxes of self-help books, most of which were based on various conspiracy theories. Ugh.

++ Carpet-cleaning equipment and at least 4 bucket/mop combos. Frank used to be in the floor-cleaning business. Friends took some of the stuff, the worst junk got pitched.

I could go on, but I won't. Frank used to go to garage sales and flea markets and just buy crapola. I don't know if his goal was to sell it or what, but he must have done 100 times more acquiring than selling. He also was seduced by infomercials, magazine ads, etc. That led him to buy stuff like "exclusive Michael Jordan collector plates featuring genuine reproductions of the greatest player ever's autograph!" He was on every list, and he responded to far too many sales pitches. In addition to the needless stuff he bought, Frank had cases and cases of supplements, creams and other products that were supposed to ward off the aging process.

It's all a form of addiction. It gripped Frank and continues to grip many seniors like him. They are classic victims of those sales schemes.

All of the above referred to Frank in the past tense, even though he is very much alive. Why? Because his days of buying crapola are over. He no longer can drive and he is with us pretty much all the time, so there no longer is the opportunity. Thank goodness!!!

Although cleaning out Frank's place was extremely hard work -- I lost 5 pounds during the week despite daily consumption of a full breakfast, a nice dinner and 2 beers -- it did provide lots of laughs for me and Robbie. I'd be in one room and she'd be in another, and I'd hear:

"Why? Why? WHY? Why does he have 4 or 6 or 8 speakers in every room? Why? He never listened to music!!!!"

We dined three times with friends and twice with Ben and we always had plenty of fodder for conversation!

We are scheduled to go back in October as part of a whirlwind trip that also will take us to Philly for my brother's wedding. We will drop Frank off for an extended (4-6 weeks) with his niece and spend a day or two at his place -- maybe even get it listed with a realtor? Between now and then, I might go back for a long weekend, try to sell some of the furniture he has, arrange to have the rest of the garbage tossed, line up somebody to re-carpet and paint the place, etc. We'll see if I can swing it.

One thing for sure: This reinforced our resolve to NOT be collectors of crud -- so Katie and Ben don't have to go through this someday!!

++++

Upon our return to N.C., I had so much to do that my head was spinning.

One pleasant surprise: I have moved to No. 1 in readership "rankings" for Seeking Alpha's "Dividend Investing Strategy" category.

I'm long past needing my ego stroked for such things, but it's always nice to be No. 1 at anything!

++++

Right before our trip, I ran my week-long girls basketball camp at the school where I coach, Scholars Academy. Everybody had fun and improved a ton, and I might have a new prospect or two for next year's team!

++++

OK, I've got to run now and declare my candidacy for president. I mean, why should I be the only one not to do it?
^



Monday, May 11, 2015

LeBron throws coach under bus - then throws 21-footer into basket

^
The Cavaliers would be better off with no coach at all. The same might be true for the Rockets. As for my old Marquette classmate Glenn Rivers (we didn't call him "Doc" back then), he is showing why he is one of the most respected basketball coaches on the planet.

For me, one of the most interesting things about the NBA playoffs is watching the coaches. How do they handle the stress? Are they good punchers and counterpunchers? Can they deal with the egos around them?

Here's some of what I'm seeing ...

DAVID BLATT

He is in so far over his head that he might as well be operating from the bottom of a grave --  which is where his Cavs would be had he not been saved from himself twice in the final 10 seconds of Sunday's victory over the Bulls.

With 9.4 seconds left, Derrick Rose scored on a drive to tie the game for the Bulls. Blatt immediately signaled for a time-out, which is normal procedure -- except that the Cavs had no time-outs remaining. Had the nearest referee seen Blatt's signal, the Cavs would have gotten slapped with a technical foul that very well would have delivered the game to the Bulls. Fortunately for Cleveland, alert assistant coach Tyronn Lue grabbed Blatt and reminded him of the situation before the ref saw the time-out call.

"Yeah," Blatt later admitted, "I almost blew it."

And then he almost blew it again.

LeBron James drove the length of the court for a layup but missed and the ball went out of bounds with 1.5 seconds left. As the refs watched the replay to make sure they were right in awarding the ball to the Cavs, Blatt drew up a play that had the world's best player inbounding the ball to somebody else.

"I told coach there was no way I'm taking the ball out," James said. "The play that was drawn up, I scratched it. I just told coach, 'Just give me the ball.'"

Matthew Dellavadova threw it in to James, who had worked himself free in the left corner. LeBron caught the pass, rose high over Jimmy Butler and drilled a 21-footer as the horn sounded.

Blatt almost surely will be fired if the Cavs don't win the NBA title. You don't bring in a Ferrari and let Mr. Magoo drive it.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the unlikely event that the Cavs do win the title, though. The guess here is that he'd still be canned, and for good reason. The coach can't lose his head when the game matters most. And when the best player totally and publicly disrespects the coach, the coach has got to go.

KEVIN McHALE

The Rockets' coach has turned the Clippers series into a farce with his Hack-a-Jordan strategy.

Did DeAndre Jordan miss 20 of his 34 free throws? Yes. But the Clippers still won by a zillion points because the strategy made McHale have to use his mediocre bench too much, gave injured Clippers point guard Chris Paul ample time to rest and ruined the flow of the game.

McHale said he wanted to "muck up" the game because the Clippers are an athletic, fast-breaking team. But the Rockets like to play with a certain flow, too, one that includes a lot of transition 3-pointers. The mucked-up game ended up hurting them.

The Clippers are 19-2 when teams try the Hack-A-Jordan. The strategy didn't work back in Shaquille O'Neal's day with the Lakers, either.

What the strategy does is make a game un-watchable. I'd be stunned -- and disappointed -- if the rules aren't changed to make it illegal before next season.

DOC RIVERS

Some coaches might have panicked and taken Jordan out of the game when he was missing free throws, especially when the Rockets took an early lead while using the hack strategy.

But Rivers just let the situation take care of itself. For one thing, he knows the strategy almost always eventually fails. For another, he knows Jordan is the league's best interior defender and the Clippers are better with him on the court.

All series long, Rivers' Clippers have been the more physical, more hustling and more prepared team. And hey ... Rivers even gets bonus points for having fathered -- and traded for -- his son Austin, who has come up huge with Paul being banged up.

TOM THIBODEAU

The Bulls coach always looks as though his dad just told him he can't borrow the car.

I guess I don't blame him for being permanently perturbed.

Despite wringing a fine season out of an injury-prone team, despite coaxing Pau Gasol into his best performance in years, despite helping turn Jimmy Butler into an All-Star, despite his team always playing hard and never giving up, Thibodeau is viewed by many as the guy who is holding the Bulls back from true greatness.

It's widely believed he will be fired unless the Bulls win the championship or at least advance to the Finals.

Maybe it would be best for both sides. Thibodeau certainly will get another job -- Cleveland could do a lot worse. And maybe the Bulls need a new voice in the locker room because NBA players do tend to tune out the coach after awhile.

Still, it's hard to say the scenario has been fair to Thibodeau, who repeatedly has overcome major obstacles to keep the Bulls in contention. And it's hard to envision the Bulls hiring anybody better.
^

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Fun With Numbers

^
Here are some of the more interesting statistics and numbers I've seen (or experienced) recently ...

0-for-39

Shaq Thompson, a linebacker from the University of Washington who last week was the Carolina Panthers' No. 1 draft pick, also once was enough of a baseball prospect to have been selected by the Red Sox in the 18th round of the 2012 MLB draft.

In his very brief professional baseball career, however, Thompson arguably put up the ugliest statistical line in the sport's history.

In 13 Gulf Coast (Rookie) League games, Thompson went hitless in 39 at-bats -- with an incredible 37 strikeouts. He did draw 8 walks ... so in 47 plate appearances, he put the ball in play in fair territory exactly twice. Twice!

No wonder he's now an ex-baseball player. Michael Jordan was Babe Ruth compared to this guy.

^^^

4-0

That's the record of the mighty Sons of Pitches so far this season.

I'm not hitting squat (although I've got more hits than Shaq Thompson had), and I'll blame my bum shoulder for that (gotta have an excuse, right?), but I'm still having a blast being part of this talented and fun group of fellow 50-and-overs.

Maybe we'll do what Kentucky couldn't!

^^^

13

In his first game at Davidson College, Stephen Curry committed 13 turnovers. Folks had to be wondering if Wildcats coach Bob McKillop had lost his mind offering the skinny son of Dell Curry a scholarship. Winthrop had been Steph's only other Division I suitor.

I guess McKillop's decision ended up working out all right for Davidson, for Curry and for the Golden State Warriors. Steph was just named NBA MVP.

Here's what I wrote shortly before the 2009 draft:

NBA teams are in love with the potential of Spanish teen Ricky Rubio, who is expected to be either the second or third player drafted Thursday. 
Well, he might be the goods. Or he might not be. Nobody really knows.
Give me Stephen Curry. He can handle the ball, he's an excellent passer and he'll be a big-time 3-point shooter.
A stiff breeze could carry Curry into the next county, true, but we know he has a lot of game.
Can anybody really say as much about Ricky Rubio?

When healthy, Rubio has been a pretty good NBA point guard. Much to the chagrin of the Timberwolves and their fans, however, he hasn't been Steph Curry -- truly one of the great shooters ever to lace up a pair of sneakers.

Hey, even I get one right every now and then.

^^^


$99.95

The amount of money I'm very proud to say I didn't spend to watch Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao paw at each other for 36 minutes.

For one thing, I wasn't going to give a serial woman-beater and reprehensible human being like Mayweather one dime of my money.

For another, I used to love boxing years ago but I can't get into such barbarism now. I guess I've gone soft, and not just in my belly.

^^^

26-14-13

That was Blake Griffin's box-score line in the Clippers' Game 1 playoff victory at Houston.

L.A. needed its all-star forward to come through big-time with Chris Paul being unable to play due to a hamstring injury, and he delivered as the Clips stole home-court advantage from the Rockets

Will this be the year Griffin and the talented Clippers finally realize their potential? I am rooting for them -- and my old Marquette friend, Glenn Rivers (we didn't call him Doc back then). I hope Paul gets back in the lineup soon.

Those who say they "hate" the NBA for whatever reason, and therefore refuse to watch it, recently missed an instant sports classic: Game 7 from the Clippers-Spurs series.

Playing on one leg, Paul was incredible. He scored 27 points, including a last-second circus shot to win the game (and the series) in a performance every bit as impressive as Jordan's "food poisoning game."

Yes, your average January NBA regular-season game can be a bore, but playoff basketball is often sensational. These guys very well might be the best athletes in the world. Add in the motivation of a possible championship, and it's pretty special stuff.

^^^

60,000

Thanks to good initial readership, and then to links imbedded in subsequent articles, my Dec. 17 piece for the investing Web site Seeking Alpha just passed the 60,000 page-view mark.

I used to reach hundreds of thousands of readers back in my sportswriting days, so I'm not getting overly excited about this milestone. Still, 60K is a pretty big number for a single article on most financial sites. It's almost twice as many as any other article I've written has received.

I get paid per page-view, and the money I'll get from that article will help fund the new siding I just found out our house needs.

It's hard to beat that for a fun way to spend one's money! But hey, at least I didn't give any of it to Floyd Mayweather.

^^^

0

The number of declared presidential candidates for whom I want to vote.

If these men and women are supposed to be our best and brightest, that's pretty effin' depressing.

^




Wednesday, April 15, 2015

THE JOY OF SIX: The Masters, the presidential race and the return of the Sons of Pitches

^
6. How 'bout that Jordan Spieth, huh? Every time Phil Mickelson or Justin Rose or anybody else drew within a few strokes of him at the Masters, the 21-year-old Texan would birdie the next couple of holes and re-open a commanding lead. He ended up breaking a bunch of records and tying Tiger Woods' mark for best Masters score ever. Pretty impressive.

I know that I'm looking forward to many years of him dueling with Rory McIlroy, the reigning king who is only 25 himself. Then again, I remember Tiger and Sergio Garcia going toe-to-toe as youngsters in the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah and thinking, "Wow, it's gonna be fun watching these guys go at each other for the next decade or two."

How has that worked out?

^^^

5. At one point, CBS showed a list of the last 10 Masters champions -- reminding me that the one and only Masters I ever covered (or ever will cover) was won by the "least good" (to borrow a phrase from former Bears coach Dick Jauron) champion in decades. Maybe ever.

Despite shooting a 75 in the final round, Trevor Immelman beat a field that never really showed up. Woods tried to rally but got no closer than 3 strokes. Immelman hasn't won since and, since 2012, he has missed the cut more than he has made it. In 10 starts so far this year, he has made the cut twice.

Trevor Freakin' Immelman won "my" Masters. But hey, at least the weather was perfect and I got to see a golf course that actually exceeded my very lofty expectations.

^^^

4. It seems almost impossible that the race for the GOP presidential nomination could top 2012 for sheer craziness, but the candidates are off to a running start.

Ted Cruz is an absolute loony, which is fitting because he was born in Canada (unlike our current Kenya-born president). Rand Paul is supposed to be a Libertarian but he already is sucking up to the far right. Chris Christie just came out with Social Security reform that looks suspiciously like a liberal re-distribution plan. Marco Rubio is backtracking from his compassionate immigration policy because to the party base, there is no room for compassion in an immigration policy.

I already miss Herman "9-9-9" Cain, Rick "Oops" Perry, Mitt "47 Percent" Romney and Newt "I Guarantee $2.50 Gas" Gingrich.

And isn't there anything anybody can do to get Michele Bachmann to run again? She just predicted that Barack Obama's Iran policy would result in the End Times and usher in Jesus' return to earth, saying: "I believe the Bible is true. And believe what the Bible says is  that our nation and the people of our nation will reap a whirlwind, and we could see economic disasters, natural disasters."

I don't remember any mention of the U.S. of A. in either testament, but I admit I'm no biblical scholar.

^^^

3. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton finally stopped delaying the inevitable and announced online that she would be running for the Democratic nomination.

She's a piece of work, too. She actually might be a bigger liar storyteller than her hubby.

It's gonna be a fun 17 months until November 2016.

^^^

2. The Cubs paid $155 million to a left-hander who gets the yips every time he thinks about throwing to first to hold the runner. In Jon Lester's last start, he threw one so far over the first baseman's head it almost landed in the stands. It's the damnedest thing. So Cubbie.

Fortunately for the Cubs, the right fielder chased down the baseball and gunned the runner out at third base.

Obviously, it was a set play orchestrated by Joe Maddon, the latest Savior Skipper who for sure will take the Cubbies to the pennant.

^^^

1. My over-50 softball league's season has begun and I'm thrilled to be back with the Sons of Pitches. Our manager/pitcher, Pat, traded for me because he knows I'm the ultimate softball stud. Either that or he just wanted to be sure he had somebody to drink with after games. (OK, I guarantee it's not the "stud" thing.)

Pat and I entered the league as teammates in 2012 and played one season with the Blue Thunder. He decided to become a manager the following year and traded for me. The Sons of Pitches capped a very nice two-year run by winning the '14 fall championship, but then in accordance with league rules, we (and all other teams) were broken up for the league-wide re-draft.

For the SoP's latest incarnation, Pat did a nice job of getting 5 of us back together, as Pat and I are joined by Bob, Spike (the other Mike) and Wayne. Our 8 teammates seem like great guys and fine players. Definitely a fun group. I'd list 'em all here by name but I'm still getting to know them.

Our season started Tuesday and we promptly gave up the maximum 5 runs in the top of the first inning. It was a delightful combination of booted grounders, errant throws, walks and other assorted miscues. We only managed one run ourselves and gave up a couple more runs over the next 3 innings to fall behind 7-1 going into the bottom of the 4th.

Pat, who fancies himself as quite the motivator, yelled, "Do you guys wanna win or what?" Duly inspired, we scratched out 3 runs to make it a 7-4 game. We held our opponent scoreless in the fifth and I led off the bottom of the inning.

While coaching third base earlier in the game, I had a brief conversation with the opposing third baseman. He had a great glove and a gun for an arm, but he told me he was having knee problems and wouldn't be able to move very well. I joked that I was going to lay down a bunt.

Now, bunting isn't allowed in slow-pitch softball ... but swinging bunts are another story. I took a mighty cut and the ball traveled all of about 15 feet down the third-base line. Using my cheetah-like speed -- I mean, there's nothing faster than a bald, slightly chunky, 50-something Jewboy -- I beat out the infield hit.

"Real" hits -- the kind that actually leave the infield -- followed, one after the other, and by the time the 5th inning was over, we had an 8-7 lead. The umpire's timer went off during the inning, meaning the 6th would be the last. Pat retired the first two batters before giving up a hit, but he stranded the tying run by inducing a come-backer. After he threw to first, it was time to head to the bar.

There's nothing wrong with winning ugly, because there's no such thing as losing pretty.

The Sons of Pitches are back, baby!
^

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Mike's March Madness Mulligan

^
Those who golf with me know I'm not a big mulligan taker. I mean, if I shank my drive into the woods, re-tee, hit one down the middle and make a birdie, who am I fooling? I know I didn't really get a birdie. So why bother? I'd much rather scramble after a horrendous drive and hack my way to a "good bogey" than pretend I got a birdie. But hey, maybe that's just me.

So even if I go 15-0 with the March Madness Mulligan I'm about to take, I promise I won't pretend I did anything special.

Before getting to the MMM, I'll allow myself a couple of back-pats ... but only a couple: Nice job on N.C. State and Wichita State. OK, that was quick. I'd have had more success with my bracket if I had let my pooch Simmie make predictions with tail-thumps.

Now, here goes ...

MIDWEST

Kentucky easily over West Virginia ... Notre Dame's luck runs out against Wichita State ... The Wildcats chew up overmatched Wichita State.

WEST

Wisconsin survives a challenge from North Carolina ... Arizona crushes Xavier ... Bucky Badger beats Arizona in a thriller.

EAST

N.C. State pulls off another upset, this time against Louisville ... Michigan State keeps getting better and beats Oklahoma ... Sparty goes to another Final Four after a narrow win over N.C. State.

SOUTH

Duke struggles but holds off Utah ... Gonzaga finally gets a second-weekend win, beating UCLA ... The Dookies have too much firepower for the Zags.

+++

So our new, improved Final Four is Kentucky, Wisconsin, Duke and Michigan State. Three No. 1 seeds and a No. 7 ... but not your run-of-the-mill No. 7. It's kind of funny that Michigan State is suddenly an underdog darling, no?

+++

In one national semifinal, Kentucky and Wisconsin put on a sensational show, with Kentucky's superior interior defense prevailing. In the other, Duke has too much offensive balance for Michigan State.

One thing hasn't changed from my original bracket: Kentucky still ends up 40-0.

Translation: "Bet everything you have on West Virginia to beat Kentucky on Thursday night."
^

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Don't Bet Against Kentucky Going 40-0

^
In 1973, Secretariat was the 1-to-10 favorite to win the Belmont Stakes. It had to be tempting to bet on just about any other horse in the race.

Kentucky isn't a 1-to-10 favorite to win the NCAA basketball tournament; the Wildcats' odds are 6-to-5 according to online gambling site Bovada. Then again, there are 64 teams in the field (no, I don't count the losers of the "First Four" contests) vs. only 5 horses in the '73 Belmont starting gate, so 6-to-5 is pretty overwhelming.

The team Bovada assigns the next-best odds to is Arizona, which wasn't even given a No. 1 seed. Those Wildcats face 15-to-2 odds. The other No. 1 seeds and the odds: Wisconsin, 17-to-2; Duke,  9-to-1; Villanova, 10-to-1.

Anyway, I used this introduction to talk about my search for the team capable of running down the Secretariat of college hoops teams. Is it even possible? Let's go region by region ...

In the WEST, I really like Wisconsin. When I say that, I don't mean I actually like Wisconsin; as a Marquette alum and diehard fan, I'm prohibited by law from liking our instate rivals. But I have a tough time hating this particular Wisconsin team: intelligent, athletic, disciplined, experienced, unflappable, well-coached.

Here's how the West will be won: Wisconsin over Coastal Carolina ... Oregon over Oklahoma State ... Wofford in the upset over Arkansas ... North Carolina over Harvard ... Mississippi takes down Xavier ... Baylor over Georgia State ... Ohio State beats VCU ... Arizona over Texas Southern. In the next round, Wisconsin over Oregon ... UNC ends Wofford's dream ... Baylor is too tough for Ole Miss ... Arizona over Ohio State. Wisconsin advances to the Elite Eight by beating UNC, and Arizona gets there by downing Baylor. And Wisconsin's balance and precision will produce a victory over Arizona and a second straight Final Four trip.

Let's end the suspense about Wisconsin's Final Four opponent right now: It will be Kentucky. The Wildcats will dominate the MIDWEST Region the same way they dominated college basketball all season.

Kentucky over Hampton ... Purdue over Cincinnati ... West Virginia over Buffalo ... Maryland over Valpo ... Butler over Texas ... Notre Dame over Northeastern ... Wichita State over Indiana ... Kansas over New Mexico State. In the next round, Kentucky pounds Purdue ... Maryland handles West Virginia ... Butler takes down ND ... and Wichita State stuns Kansas. Kentucky moves on by beating tough but overmatched Maryland while Butler beats Wichita State in the battle of underdogs. In the region final, Butler is game ... but Kentucky is Kentucky. Game over!

In the EAST, so many pundits have chosen Northern Iowa as their "surprise pick" that it's no surprise at all. So, naturally, I'm going to pick UNI to get upset by 12th-seeded Wyoming in its first game. Take that! And that's not my only surprise in the region. After opening with a win over LSU, 8th-seeded North Carolina State will make Villanova the first No. 1 seed to exit stage right. Also, Louisville over UC-Irvine ... Providence over Dayton ... Oklahoma over Albany ... Michigan State over Georgia and Virginia over Belmont. Joining NC State in the Sweet 16 will be ... Louisville over Wyoming ... Providence over Oklahoma ...and Virginia over Michigan State. NC State pulls off yet another upset, this time over Louisville, and Virginia handles Providence. Going to the Final Four, it's Virginia with a tough win over ACC foe NC State.

I see the SOUTH as wide open, and I'm predicting premature defeat for the top two seeds, Duke and Gonzaga. Early on, it's Duke over Robert Morris ... San Diego State over St. John's ... No. 12 Stephen F. Austin over Utah ... Georgetown survives a scare against Eastern Washington ... SMU over UCLA ... Iowa State over UAB ... Davidson takes down Iowa ... and Gonzaga over North Dakota State. Then, I think there will be four close games, with Duke downing San Diego State ... Stephen F. Austin surprising Georgetown ... Iowa State beating SMU in a great game ... and Gonzaga getting past Davidson. Duke will end Stephen F. Austin's hopes and Iowa State will beat Gonzaga. And then 3-seeded Iowa State will beat Duke to advance to the Final Four.

So our Final Four is set: Kentucky, Wisconsin, Virginia and Iowa State. 

Kentucky-Wisconsin is a rematch of last year's national semifinal, won 74-73 by a young Wildcats squad. Kentucky, not quite as young and even more talented, will prevail again in what should be another thriller.

In the other matchup, it's a great contrast of styles, as Iowa State likes to go-go-go and Virginia likes to milk the clock. Virginia, which fell to Michigan State by 2 points in the Round of 16 last season, will use its defense to reach the title game this time.

In the championship game, the Cavaliers will hang with Kentucky for awhile. The pace will favor Virginia and the Wildcats will get too impatient at times. As the game wears on, however, Kentucky's superior talent will take over. The Wildcats will win by 10 to complete their 40-0 season.

Like Secretariat -- who won the '73 Belmont Stakes by a resounding 31 lengths to sweep the Triple Crown -- Kentucky is just too damn good to bet against.
^

Sunday, March 1, 2015

An unforgettable basketball journey, with the promise of more to come

^
On The Scholars Academy website, the most recent addition to the photo rotation is of my middle-school basketball players doing their famed, "Fly, Fly, Fly, Eagles!" cheer after our tournament semifinal victory.



I love this photo because, to me, it captures what sports for kids this age should be about. Look at the smiles on those faces. Can't you feel the joy, the love, the camaraderie, the spirit?

At that moment, these girls felt they could accomplish anything. They especially felt they could win the conference championship.

Unfortunately, in that title game, Back Creek Christian Academy simply played better than we did. They jumped on us early and we never really threatened to make it a game.

They defeated us three times, representing 75% of the losses in our otherwise amazing 15-4 season. Remember how dopey Patrick Ewing used to sound when he claimed his Knicks were better than the Bulls even after Michael Jordan & Co. repeatedly whupped 'em? Well, I'm pretty dopey, but I'm not that dopey.

Back Creek deserved the title, and we have no choice but to settle for having reached the championship game for the first time in our school's 15-year history.

A few days have passed since that defeat, and time is a great healer. On Saturday night, we had our team party. It was a festive event, filled with jokes, reminiscences, anecdotes, awards, gifts, laughs, hugs, photos and food. Oh, and it also was filled with a middle-aged bald dude rambling on about how special these last four months were for everybody involved.

We talked about Ruta, our Rookie of the Year and leading scorer, sprinting the wrong way toward a layup, realizing the error of her ways, and slamming on the brakes as if a deer had just appeared in the middle of the road. And we talked about Sholeh, winner of our Coach's Award for Aggressiveness, stealing the basketball and going in for the basket just a second or two after I told her, "I need a steal." (Now that, my friends, is great coaching!)

We talked about Olivia, winner of our Coach's Award for Leadership, being the classic "coach on the floor" by regularly noticing things I didn't so we could make critical in-game adjustments. And we talked about Sienna, our two-time MVP, playing every position in the lineup (and playing them well) these last two seasons.

We talked about Celeste blocking more shots than any other player in the league, including several resounding two-handers against our smaller semifinal opponent -- an example of how being a bully is sometimes OK! We talked about Beijul's transformation from timid lamb to fierce combatant.

We talked about Malika somehow being able to make baskets with that funky, feet-together, no-knee-bend, line-drive shot of hers. And we talked about how Susanna, the last player to make the team, went on to be an instrumental contributor thanks to her competitiveness, intelligence and unselfishness.

We talked about Ritika, our only sixth-grader, making nine 3-pointers -- many of them "daggers" that turned games in our favor. (It's quite possible that there weren't nine treys made by the other 100 or so players in the conference combined.) And we talked about our captain, Margaret, leading us in scoring down the stretch and then delivering a touching, heart-felt speech before the title game.

OK, so I did most of the talking. (That won't surprise my high school classmates who named me Most Talkative.) The girls and their parents did most of the listening and applauding and laughing and picture-taking.

There also was much talk - and not all of it from me - about the program we're building at Scholars Academy.

My first year we had an incredibly young team filled with players who had little or no experience. We quickly established our identity: We might not beat all of our opponents, but we were going to wear them out with our aggressiveness and effort. We flashed our potential with a stunning comeback victory in the playoffs before losing in the semifinals to the eventual champion.

This season, in Year 2, we brought back five good players and added two high-level athletes as well as three super-solid role players. We used our relentless defense, our quickness and our determination to finish the season with exactly twice as many points as our opponents (28.8 points per game to 14.4 points per game), but we fell one victory short of our ultimate goal.

We will soldier on in Year 3 without three valuable players in Sienna, Margaret and Susanna, but we should return seven -- including six 8th-graders. We will have experience and talent and height and speed. Our defense should be especially good. And it cannot be understated how the trust, respect and love the girls have for each other will translate into still more success.

If the coach doesn't mess things up too badly, the 2015-16 Eagles just might end up fly-fly-flying away with the big trophy.

But enough looking ahead. I'm still basking in the glow of the season that was and of the unforgettable journey we all took together.

Look again at that picture, folks. It really is better than 1,000 words ... so I'll just shut up now and smile.
^

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Not champs, but still a special season

^
After a mild ice storm that forced the conference to re-schedule the championship game to Tuesday, my Eagles finally got to play the most anticipated girls basketball game in Scholars Academy history. Unfortunately, we didn't play very well, we didn't coach very well, our opponent did both extremely well, and we came up short.



It's never easy to smile while holding the 
Conference Runner-Up trophy
just minutes after a tough loss, 
but most of the girls managed to do it.

Despite the final outcome, it is impossible to call our season anything but a huge success. We finished 15-4 - recording more than twice as many victories as last season, my first as a head coach. All five returning players improved, and our five newcomers for this season - none of whom had ever played competitive basketball - got so much better from the first practice to the final buzzer that it's hard to describe in words.

We reached the championship game for the first time in the school's 15-year history and had a season filled with memorable moments --  some of which I'll chronicle in a later post, after the sting of Tuesday's loss is a little less fresh in my mind.

I'll wrap this up by saying I am so proud to have been associated with this group of dedicated, hard-working, smart and fun ladies. These last four months have been special, and I'll never forget them.
^