Sunday, October 31, 2010

Today's High 5

5. Donovan McNabb ... benched by Redskins genius Mike Shanahan ... and replaced by Rex Grossman ... with the game on the line. Hell hasn't merely frozen over; it has entered the cryogenics lab, right next to Ted Williams' head.

4. A ripple in the Journalism Force: The Charlotte Observer, now my hometown paper, didn't send its Bobcats beat reporter to Milwaukee for the third game of the season. A short AP story on the game appeared on Page 4 of the sports section. Again: This was only the third game of the season and the newspaper of record for one of the city's only two major professional sports franchises is pinching pennies instead of covering the story. That ticking you hear is the Newspaper Doomsday Clock.

3. Given Mike Fontenot's star power, it's stunning that so few people are watching the World Series.

2. While demonstrating a passing drill during my first practice as an assistant basketball coach, I tripped myself and went sprawling to the floor. The only thing with a bigger bruise than my right hip is my ego. This just in: Chevy Chase aside, it is impossible to look cool while falling.

1. Once upon a time, the Cowboys' biggest concern was that, before a playoff game, the quarterback was distracted by his pop-diva girlfriend. Now, the Cowboys are 1-6, the playoffs are an impossible dream and the QB is hurt. Yes, the Cowboys are a bigger disaster than Jessica Simpson's acting career.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Empathizing with Rangers' wild thing

Watching young Derek Holland implode - walking three straight batters on 13 pitches and singlehandedly turning a 2-0 Rangers deficit into a 9-0 Giants rout in Game 2 of the World Series - it reminded me of the only thing that made me a nervous wreck as the parent of child athletes.

I watched Ben and Katie play football, basketball, baseball, soccer and softball. I watched them participate in track and field, learn to ride bikes, dive into pools and clown around with their friends. I pretty much never worried about anything, even when they were shooting free throws with the game on the line.

Except when Ben pitched as a wee lad.

If you've ever been a parent of a Little Leaguer, or if you played youth baseball yourself, you know that the pitcher's ability (or inability) to throw strikes is about 90 percent of the game.

If the kid throws the ball over the plate, even if his or her "stuff" consists almost entirely of batting-practice-quality slowballs, the team will have a chance to win. If the kid walks too many batters, the team is doomed.

Unlike the center fielder or the second baseman or whoever is batting at any given time, the pitcher is watched closely by every pair of eyes in the park from the moment the ump says "play ball" until another pitcher enters the game.

When Ben was at the plate, I wasn't the least bit nervous. Either he'd get a hit or he wouldn't. If he struck out, so what? Lots of kids did. It was a quick and noble death.

If things weren't clicking when he pitched, however, it was slow torture.

If it got bad enough, I couldn't watch. I would get up and walk to a place I was sure he couldn't see me, helping him resist the urge to look my way and helping me hide my anxiety. But I still could hear exactly what was going on, and I still felt for the little guy with every fiber of my being.

It wasn't that I was embarrassed as a parent or even concerned that Ben would fail. It was the IMPORTANCE of it all, especially to the other parents in the stands and the coaches in the dugout who were watching every move Ben made.

If Ben walked a batter and then fell behind 2-0 to the next, the "encouragement" was inevitable. And unbearable.

"C'mon, Ben, you can do it!"

"C'mon, Ben, just throw a strike!"

"Here we go, Ben, just lay it in there!"

The more they'd "encourage" him, the more he'd press, trying to steer the ball instead of throwing it.

And then he'd miss the strike zone again.

It was painful ... until mercifully, another kid would take the mound and Ben could go to the relative anonymity of shortstop or left field.

Thankfully, Ben actually was an OK pitcher with pretty decent control. Discounting the time he plunked three straight batters - arm, hip, head, plink, plank, plunk, saved for posterity in a now-hilarious video - he rarely was as wild as Holland was last night for the Rangers.

He certainly was no Rick Ankiel.

And yet I was relieved when, the following season, he did what Ankiel had to do and switched positions.

As a catcher, the pressure was off - and both he and I actually could enjoy the games.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Management regrets the error

Under the subject line "Old habits die hard, I guess," my former GateHouse editor, Casey Laughman (who later met a similar fate at the hands of that fine company), couldn't resist needling me a little by e-mail:
D'oh! Despite me blogging that Ryan, now the Rangers' GM, had never sniffed a World Series as a player, he was, in fact, a wild-throwing bit player on the Mets' first title team. Another nice catch by Casey!

Man, I'd better clean up my act. If I keep making mistakes like that, I could get fired from this lucrative gig!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Ryan and Dubya will have Series to remember

Just as I predicted before the season, it's Giants vs. Rangers for baseball supremacy.

Think of it as the Former Juicer Bowl, with Barry's Boyz taking on the club that gave us A-Roid, RaFail Palmeiro, Juan Gone and a cast of dozens.

Or think of it as the matchup of clubs named for New York teams in other sports.

Or think of it as Fox TV's nightmare. No Yankees, no Red Sox, no Dodgers ... and, of course, because it is the World Series, no Cubbies.

So who wins?

With Cliff Lee heading the rotation for a short series, the Rangers have almost as much pitching as the Giants do. And the Rangers have a far better offensive attack.

Then again, the Giants do have Juan Uribe - and I'm not even saying that just to be funny. The man is clutch in the postseason. (They also have Mike Fontenot, my wife's favorite ballplayer because he's the only major leaguer she can post up.)

So ... I'm going with Ron Washington. Just a few months after being disgraced as a cokehead, it would be quite a story if he manages the Rangers to the championship. Their best player, Josh Hamilton, is a recovering druggie, too. One of the things I love about sports is its redemptive nature.

In addition, a Texas triumph would give Nolan Ryan, who never even sniffed a title in his eight or so decades as a player, a championship in his first season as owner.

And it would signal that maybe all the U.S.A. needs to fully recover from the mess we're in is more distance from George W. Bush.

After all, it took the Rangers 16 years to overcome Dubya, their managing partner from 1989-94.

Add it all up and ... Rangers in 6.

Friday, October 22, 2010

David $tern = Hypocrite

Elimination of teams. Thirty-three percent salary reductions for players. Hard salary cap.

Little David Stern is making big threats as he glooms and dooms his way toward the next round of negotiations between the NBA's billionaire owners and millionaire players.

He says owners are losing money hand over fist, so he's merely mentioning possible ways for those poor lugs to make ends meet in 2011 and beyond.

By the by, here's one money-saving idea he didn't mention:

The highest-paid commissioner in sports (estimated as much as $20 million per year) taking a sizable salary cut and eliminating about half of his bloated administration.

Say what you want about NBA players (and all athletes) being overpaid. At least they can do things very few humans can.

What can David Stern do that most Average Joes can't ... besides convince a bunch of billionaires to pay him more money in two weeks than most Average Joes will see in their lifetimes?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cubs get (or keep) their man

Mike Quade? Cool! The Cubs are long overdue for an intelligent, handsome, bald manager.

Put me down for 100 of those $72 bleacher seats!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Coach Nadel, reporting for duty

It took me more than a year to figure out how I wanted to live my life as an ex-newspaper hack, but now I'm on a roll.

Today was my first day as the new assistant 7th grade girls basketball coach at Charlotte Country Day, one of this region's most acclaimed prep schools. We had our first coaches' meeting and it was exhilarating to be part of such a positive, energetic atmosphere. I lack the the day-to-day coaching experience of many others in my position, so I am looking forward to learning from my colleagues at all of the grade levels here. Everybody I've met has been extremely nice and welcoming. I am so psyched for practice to start next week and the season to begin in mid-November.

My buddy Rob Judson, who was one of my references, told me: "Welcome to the insanity." Obviously, he remembered me writing often that pretty much everybody in his chosen profession (and now mine) must be at least a little insane.

Rob also gave me this excellent piece of advice: "Treat the kids as you wanted your kids treated, and you will be a great coach."

This is something I always wanted to try, and believe me when I say I'm looking at it as more than a lark. This could be the start of the Next Stage I've been looking for. Who knows?

It will nicely complement my work at the golf course - another thing I had always wanted to do but couldn't when I was covering games, traveling around the country and trying to help my wife raise our kids.

OK, so put these two jobs together and I'll make slightly less than Elin Nordegren Woods will in the divorce settlement. Doesn't matter.

Life is supposed to be about having rewarding experiences and meeting interesting people. I was lucky enough to do that during nearly three decades as a journalist. And I'm feeling pretty darned lucky again right now.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Roger Clyne - now THAT'S rock 'n roll!

Sometimes I wonder what makes a rock group or performer take off to become a superstar, platinum-selling sensation and what relegates others to mere mortal status.

Roger Clyne (that's him between my wife Roberta and I after Friday night's show in Charlotte) is talented enough to be part of the former but instead must be content with the latter.

For some 15 years, I have been watching Roger do his thing - first as front man for The Refreshments and, the last dozen or so years, as leader of Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers.

Their sound is classic Americana - supercharged rock 'n roll with an occasional country-rock twang. It's reminiscent of Tom Petty, though Clyne arguably has a better voice and more vocal range. He comes from the same Phoenix music scene that spawned the Gin Blossoms, Jimmy Eat World and Meat Puppets, but Clyne has been far more enduring.

In the mid-90s, The Refreshments had a couple of mini-hits that received significant play on FM radio nationally. Not long before I was headed off to Phoenix for a spring training trip in 1996, I heard "Banditos" on the car radio in Chicago. When I got to Phoenix, the same song was playing on the radio there and when it was finished, the DJ said the Refreshments were playing that night at a local bar. I finished that day's work, went to the establishment, plunked down my 5 bucks and enjoyed a night of great music.

When I got home, I went out and bought "Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big & Buzzy," The Refreshments' debut album. Roberta and my kids, Katie and Ben, became huge fans, too. I took Roberta to see them when they came to Chicago on their promo tour and it was a great experience.

Over these last 15 years, I have introduced dozens of people to Roger's sound. Many of those people now make sure to go hear RCPM whenever the group comes to their area. Katie, now grown and living in Seattle, already has recruited a bunch of friends to join her when Roger & Co. play there next month.

Roberta and I went to see RCPM last night in Charlotte, along with two friends who never had seen Roger before. Two more converts! As usual, a wonderful time was had by all, as we reveled in the crowd's enthusiasm and Roger's talent, personality and showmanship. We paid $12 apiece - a fraction of the price of any big-arena show in which the sound is terrible and you have to watch the artists on big screens because you are sitting so far away from the stage.

While big-time commercial success has eluded Clyne, he did write the King of the Hill theme song, the title track for the 1997 film An American Werewolf in Paris and the Arizona Diamondbacks' anthem ("D-Backs Swing"). He and the Peacemakers have made waves on the Web; each time they debut an album, it ranks high in the most-downloaded category. Once when I saw him in Phoenix, he was introduced by Alice Cooper as the "embodiment of Arizona rock."

For newcomers, the CDs (or downloads) I'd recommend are "Americano," "Honky Tonk Union," "Bottle and Fresh Horses," and, of course, "Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big & Buzzy." Amazon has them, but you usually can find them pretty cheap on eBay.

Roger Clyne has so much talent, both as a writer and a performer, that I'm amazed more commercial success hasn't come his way - especially when you compare him to some hacks who, for whatever reason, have hit the big time.

I'm just grateful that he has soldiered on, touring tirelessly so fans like me and thousands of others can see true rock 'n roll in fantastic settings at bargain prices.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Starting Year 51 in style

At 6:41 a.m., the alarm on my wife's clock-radio - which she had forgotten to turn off before she went in to take a shower - blared loud enough to wake the dead.

Or at least the bald.

And so began Mike's Fiftieth Birthday Extravaganza.

Before the day ended, I:

-- Got a telephone call from a prospective employer giving me hope that they might yet be a future employer.

-- Marked my official eligibility for the Senior Tour (or Champions Tour or Fogies Tour or AARP Tour whatever they're calling it now) by parring my first two holes but still managing to shoot another effin' 95.

-- Drove around a couple of suburban Charlotte neighborhoods my wife and I are considering for our future residence. There are so many nice homes on the market for so little money (compared to similar homes in Chicago, anyway), that it's one of those pleasant problems that won't be easily solved.

-- Learned that yet another car was broken into at the condo complex where we currently rent. If my scoreboard is correct, that's 5 in 2 weeks. Our car has not yet been victimized, but we very well might be on deck.

-- Got birthday-wish calls from my loving son, my loving daughter and my loving brother.

-- Received an e-mail from the brother of a longtime friend telling me that my friend, who suffers from cystic fibrosis, is in the hospital in critical condition.

-- Got a birthday e-mail from my Chicago buddy, SouthtownStar sports editor Phil Arvia, who also was born on Oct. 13. He's exactly two years younger than I am. And one year younger than my fellow Marquette alum Doc Rivers. And three years younger than Marie Osmond. And five years older than Trevor Hoffman. And the exact same age as Jerry Rice. Seems Oct. 13 was a fine day to be born. A good day to hit home runs, too. Bill Mazeroski's famous shot against the Yankees in the 1960 World Series came just a few hours after I entered the world.

-- Received a desperately needed gray Marquette sweatshirt from my wife to replace the old one that is now destined for the rag bin. She then took me out to a great restaurant, where I had some delicious pan-fried chicken, cornbread, red peas, biscuits and collared greens. These ol' southern boys know how to whip up great grub.

-- Enjoyed my wife's famous family-recipe cheesecake for dessert. That old Chicago girl knows how to whip up great grub.

-- Watched last Sunday's Mad Men, which we had recorded. We didn't start watching, however, until we had discussed our housing situation for, oh, the 803rd time.

So, as you can see, my birthday included a little of everything. Some interesting, some routine. Some surprising, some expected. Some not so great, but most pretty damn good.

Sounds kind of like life. For lucky ones like me, anyway.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Honkie Heaven on TBS baseball coverage

Ernie Johnson, Ron Darling, John Smoltz. White guy, white guy, white guy.

Don Orsillo, Buck Martinez. White guy, white guy.

Brian Anderson, Joe Simpson. White guy, white guy.

Dick Stockton, Bob Brenly. White guy, white guy.

Matt Winer, David Wells, Cal Ripken Jr., Dennis Eckersley. White guy, white guy, white guy, white guy.

Major League Baseball's playing rosters are about 27 percent Latino, 9 percent black and 3 percent Asian. Yet the only color to be found among the primary TBS broadcasters for the first round of the postseason is whatever color Dick Stockton's hair is on a given day.

And before you say Martinez must be Hispanic, well, the California-born-and-raised former catcher and manager is about as Latino as I am Israeli.

Then again, maybe you know a lot of Hispanics nicknamed Buck.

If you count the four sideline reporters - and really, given what they contribute to a telecast, why would you? - at least TBS did employ David Aldridge for the Phillies-Reds series.

That's 16 white dudes and one black guy ... with the one being on-air a total of about 2 minutes per 3-hour telecast. Talk about a small token.

Really, it's 2010 and we still have to have this conversation? With all the talented, intelligent black and Latino ballplayers and ex-players out there, TBS couldn't even have scrounged up a black or Latino to the studio team?

And this is because ... why? Boomer, Eck and Cal are too damn good?

This is especially interesting and/or disturbing and/or surprising because the Turner networks historically have had great success with diversity in their sportscasting teams.

I mean, isn't Charles Barkley - outspoken, outlandish, outrageous and outstanding - their best hire ever?

And yet amazingly, come baseball postseason, TBS feeds its audience nothing but white bread.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Umps blow it; Mariano Rivera doesn't

As usual, the umpiring has been terrible this postseason, and it's evident that baseball needs to go to some kind of replay system. Still ...

The worst call of all so far was the catch that was ruled a non-catch in Game 1 of the Yankees-Twins series. Greg Golson's grab should have ended the game. It didn't because the umps blew the call. So what does the great Mariano Rivera do? He retires Jim Thome on a pop-up on the very next pitch, turning what should have been a four-out save into a five-out save. Classic Rivera, the best reliever ever.

See, there's no law that says just because an ump screws up, the players have to follow with a screw-up of their own.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Bears 4, Panthers 2, anybody?

If you thought that Giants-Bears game was ugly ...

The Bears-Panthers game - with 50-year-old never-was Todd Collins filling in for concussed Jay Cutler and having to operate behind Chicago's Swiss-cheese line and with Jimmy Clausen being force-fed a bad Charlotte offense - well, let's just say there might be higher-scoring baseball games over the weekend.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Today's High 5 - Postseason Baseball Edition

5. Gotta admit I'm pulling for the Twins - and not just because their manager, Ron Gardenhire, is an actual human being. (Unlike Tom Kelly, the royal rectum I had to cover during my years at AP in Minneapolis.)

No, I'd like the Twins to still be playing in November just so I can see Bud Selig shivering in a box seat as he dodges snowflakes and pretends to enjoy himself at Target Field. I know ... I'm a little warped.

Now, reality: It's hard to envision the Twins getting past the Yankees. For all of their talent, these Yankees are not invincible, mostly because of suspect starting pitching. If the Twins were healthy - if Justin Morneau were available to launch a couple of HRs at Yankee Stadium - I might go with the Twins. But he's not, so he won't.

Yankees in 4.

4. It's Rays vs. Rangers in the Who Cares Series. Not even Tampa/St. Pete fans really care, though I suspect they'll pretend they do and show up just because it's the postseason.

Although the Rangers can flat-out mash and Cliff Lee gives them a legitimate horse, the Rays simply are better. Better rotation, better bullpen, better direction, better fundamentals, better speed, better defense.

Rays in 4.

3. The Reds are a pretty cool story and I really enjoyed covering Dusty Baker during his time in Cubbieland. Still, for everything Cinci has, the Phillies have more.

Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels? That's almost unfair. Not to mention all of that recent postseason experience - and history of postseason success - to carry them if things get a little dicey. (Though I'm saying it won't.)

Phillies in 3.

2. The Phillies don't even have the most feared arms in the playoffs. The Giants do.

Healthy, maybe the Braves steal a couple of games. Banged-up as they are, it's hard to envision them giving Bobby Cox a very satisfying sendoff.

Giants in 4.

1. As for the World Series ...

I'm saying Rays over Phils in a flip-flop of '08.

Yep, it'll be really something when tens of fans show up for the ticker-tape parade through downtown St. Pete.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Smokeless Bears, meet smoking Reds

The Bald Truth

Funny thing about smoke & mirrors ...

Smoke eventually gets blown away and mirrors are proven to distort reality.

The Bears painfully learned this lesson Sunday night, when a team nowhere near as good as its 3-0 record was folded, spindled and mutilated by a mediocre Giants squad.

In sports, as in real life, reality often is no stinkin' fun at all.

The Balder Truth

Jay Cutler's concussion was caused by none other than ... Jay Cutler.

As NBC's Cris Collinsworth pointed out, Cutler repeatedly held onto the football too long and repeatedly failed to locate the "hot" receiver every time the Giants blitzed. So Cutler repeatedly got clobbered by the Giants, who by halftime knocked him out of the game.

All of which underscores why Collinsworth is the most astute football analyst on TV and why Cutler hasn't even been close to a .500 QB during his overrated, overpaid career.


It will be impossible to top the Great Cincinnati Smoke-Out as the Most Stupiderest Sports Story of 2010.

Seems a few Cincinnatians with Skyline Chili for brains actually complained to the state of Ohio because Reds players lit up victory cigars in the clubhouse after the team clinched its first division title in 15 years.

And now the state will use taxpayer money to investigate the situation.

Hey, nobody loves anti-smoking bans more than I do. It's wonderful to go to a restaurant or to attend a concert at a club without coming home smelling like an ashtray.

But really? A few victory cigars in a champagne-soaked, celebratory clubhouse? This is the fight these yahoos want to wage?

Warning to Reds players: Don't fist-bump any young fans, lest you be charged with child abuse.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Look who's cashing a paycheck

Just received my first "real" paycheck since the marvels at GateHouse decided my $2.2 million salary was keeping them from becoming the world's No. 1 media empire.

That's right: Mike's working again.

Before you get too excited for me, a few facts: I'm making only a little more than minimum wage doing mostly grunt work at a Charlotte-area country club - cleaning carts, filling water coolers, driving the range-ball picker, etc.

The job is part-time, has no health benefits and has no 401k plan. And I'm making less money in a typical day than I used to when I covered Chicago baseball, basketball and hockey as a freelance writer.

Still, I like being at River Hills Country Club. I like being outdoors. I love being involved with golf. I like my co-workers. The club members are very unpretentious.

Throw in the fact that I occasionally get to play a very nice course for free, and it's a really happy situation.

The nation's economic woes dealt many of us a bad hand. With a wife who works and a little money in the bank, I have it far better than most - and, believe me, I continue to be grateful for what I have.

Why complain? My life rocks.