Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Thunder, no ... Blue Thunder, yes!

Just a little before the Spurs took care of the Thunder to go up 2-0 in the Western Conference finals, the Blue Thunder -- the 45-and-over softball team on which I play -- took care of business to post our second win of the year.

We actually had played pretty darn well our previous couple of games, including a heartbreaking, come-from-ahead loss to an unbeaten squad just last week.

Our team's dynamic changed earlier this month when two of our players were suspended for the rest of the season for fighting ... with each other. Yep, we were kinda like the Charley Finley A's and the Bronx Zoo Yankees -- except we weren't too slick at the winning part of the equation.

Anyhoo, Joey and Tom, the two gentlemen who replaced the not-so-dearly departed, are very nice guys. Very good players, too. They have formed one heck of a keystone combo, with Tom and his laser arm at short and Joey looking like a natural at second. Both also are fine hitters.

Tuesday night, pretty much everybody in the lineup hit the cover off the ball and played sound defense. We ended up winning by the mercy rule after 5 innings. I even had my season high with 3 hits -- although the lone time I didn't come through happened with the bases loaded, when I reached for a short pitch and barely got my bat on the ball. I guess Joey, who was on third base, didn't get the sign for the suicide squeeze.

We already were missing a few players; a couple more guys tweaked leg injuries during the game. You know things are getting bad when I become the young, speedy pinch-runner!

Every team makes the double-elimination playoffs, and I truly believe our new, improved club will be dangerous.

And by dangerous, I mean to our opponents and not to each other. What a zany concept!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Remembering my folks, and making new memories

Enjoyed a great holiday weekend with my brother Al and his lady friend, Sandy. We played a couple of rounds of golf, ate some good food and tried to stay out of any real trouble. They seemed very happy with their North Carolina experience.

Here, Al took a picture of yours truly and my lovely wife, Roberta, on the 18th tee box at Pinehurst Course 5. Proud to say I broke 100 (although not with much room to spare) and came within a foot of my first career hole-in-one. (And yes, wise guy/gal, I did make the birdie putt.)

For me, Memorial Day weekend is about remembering my Dad, a World War II veteran, as well as my wonderful Mom. It was great to do so with the person who has known me longest!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Today's High 5: From Derrick Rose to Kerry Wood

5. Here was my knee-jerk reaction to those who hypothesized that Tom Thibodeau was responsible for Derrick Rose's injury -- and therefore the Bulls' early playoff exit -- because Rose was still playing in the playoff opener with 82 seconds left and the Bulls up by 12: Those jerky hypothesizers should be kneed in the groin.

But what if I was wrong? What if every intelligent coach, guys with much more experience and a longer history of success than Thibodeau, would have had Rose out of there?

Well, three weeks later, the evidence is in. And I wasn't wrong at all.

Game after game, coach after coach has left his stars deep in lopsided games to make sure his team didn't blow a big lead. Doc Rivers has done so with the Celtics, Eric Spoelstra has done so with the Heat and, most notably, Gregg Popovich has done so with the Spurs.

In Game 1 vs. the Clippers, Popovich still had Tim Duncan and Tony Parker in the game with 61 seconds to go and the Spurs leading by 15. He had subbed for Manu Ginobili with a 15-point lead and 2:33 remaining -- the same time Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro removed his stars, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

That's right: Duncan and Parker didn't come out until a minute and a half after Del Negro conceded.

In game 2, Popovich didn't take out Duncan and Parker until the Spurs led by 17 with 2:02 left -- and, again, only after Del Negro had removed Paul and Griffin.

I guess Popovich is pretty stupid. He's only going for his fifth NBA title.

Look, most coaches are neurotic. They think a 20-point lead with 20 seconds to go isn't enough. They don't want to be remembered as the guy who subbed too early and then suffered a blown lead of historic proportions.

Most coaches embrace this philosophy: If the game is "over," let the other coach concede by taking out his players first; then I'll take out mine.

Thibodeau did exactly what Popovich, Spoelstra, Rivers and probably each of the other 26 NBA coaches would have done: He played to win the game.

4. NBA honchos and network executives might have wanted an all-glitz, all-L.A. Western Conference final, but Spurs-Thunder will be much more entertaining ... and much more representative of the conference's best.

3. After LeBron James missed a late free throw, Lance Stephenson flashed the choke sign. Which leads to one question:

Who in the name of garbage time is Lance Effin Stephenson?

James had two perfect answers when asked about Stephenson, a little-used Pacers reserve.

First came the verbal retort: "Lance Stephenson? You want a quote about Lance Stephenson? I'm not even gonna give him the time."

Then came the physical one: James had 40 points, 18 rebounds and 9 assists as the Heat reclaimed homecourt advantage by beating the Pacers.

Stephenson's contribution? DNP-CD. That's the box score abbreviation for Did Not Play - Coach's Decision.

Garbage-time scrubs shouldn't be allowed to talk, let alone make throat-slash gestures that awaken a sleeping giant.

2. Is it me or does Brian McNamee seem even less believable than Roger Clemens? And that's no easy feat!

1. I have nothing but fond memories of the years I spent covering Kerry Wood.

He always was fair to me. He answered every question I ever asked him, even those he didn't like. And he always gave every ounce of energy and passion when he played -- a fact that no doubt contributed to the many, many injuries he suffered and, finally, to his retiring Friday at the still-young age of 34.

I didn't cover his 20-strikeout game. I was running errands that day and didn't even hear about it until I was on my way to the Bulls playoff game that night. It would have been cool to have been there, but I did get to witness many other incredible performances by him.

One example: His pitching against the Braves absolutely carried the Cubs into the 2003 NLCS. As often was the case with snakebitten Wood, however, his highs were followed by lows.

The night after the famous Bartman game, the Cubs still had a chance to win their first pennant in 58 years with Wood on the mound for Game 7. I never heard Wrigley Field louder than it was when his two-run homer in the second inning tied the game. An inning later, a shot by Moises Alou gave Wood a two-run lead. He holds that lead, and Steve Bartman is but an amusing footnote, not one of the biggest villains in Cubbie lore.

But Wood was spent and couldn't hold on, allowing 7 runs as the Cubs completed their epic collapse.

Afterward, a teary-eyed Wood said: "I let my teammates down, I let the organization down and I let the city of Chicago down. I choked."

That's right: An athlete didn't try to make excuses, didn't point fingers at teammates and accepted considerably more responsibility than he had to. Honesty and accountability ... crazy concepts.

It's hard to believe that someone as talented and as hyped as Kerry Wood had only 86 career victories and never had a single 15-win season.

It shows how much luck and health mean to athletes.

I'll always look back on Wood -- and his fellow star-crossed Cubbie, Mark Prior -- as cautionary tales. As in: Stephen Strasburg is gonna be great? Maybe. But don't forget that Wood and Prior were gonna be great, too. Let's just see what happens before we anoint somebody ... "

Through all the injuries and adversity, Wood was a fighter, a stand-up guy and an amazingly hard worker. He is one of the good guys. Cubbieland, and all of baseball, is poorer without him.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Another government cash-grab sham


A buddy of mine works in the heating and cooling industry. When his inspection and repair business is hopping, he enjoys good steak and fine wine. In rough times - and there have been plenty of those lately - he eats cereal for dinner.

Oh, how he would love a guaranteed money stream. Maybe the state could mandate that everyone who owns a home, apartment complex or business pay 30 bucks a year for a heating and cooling system inspection. Yeah, that would be sweet!

That’s the honey of a deal North Carolina’s car-repair facilities get. Every year, every car - old and new - must get inspected for potential emissions and safety issues. The cost is $30 per vehicle, with the vast majority of the $100 million plus collected annually going to garage owners.

Most states have realized these inspections are shams - classic money grabs by overreaching governments - and only 17 states require them. Even South Carolina is ahead of us on this one, having dropped their inspection program a few years ago.

Cars have been made very well for at least two decades now, and there is little justification for such a sweeping government mandate. To make matters worse, there have been far too many cases of corruption: garages finding problems that don’t exist and charging car owners for repairs; shops actually finding problems but taking payola under the table to pass offending vehicles; lawmakers benefiting through ownership stakes in repair shops.

Many N.C. politicians realize the law smells as rotten as a bad catalytic converter. Pretty much every year, some propose getting rid of it. At the very least, many think newer vehicles should be exempt; after all, how many 2011 cars really have emissions and safety issues in 2012? 

Two weeks ago, the N.C. House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee proposed no inspections for cars three years old and newer. It wasn't what we really needed - scrapping the law all together - but at least it was a start.

As happens every time, however, garage owners, parts suppliers and other interested parties mobilized to protect their cash cow.

Politicians being politicians, they caved in to the special interests again. The provision died in committee, and we’ll have to keep forking over our $30 even for our near-new cars to receive unnecessary inspections.

As Sen. Jerry W. Tillman, a Randolph County Republican, told the Charlotte Observer: "I know a lot of people who do this, and they sell some gas on the side, but most of their profit comes from these inspections. We have 7,500 small businesses who do these inspections."

Don’t blame the car-repair folks, who understandably want the easy money to keep rolling in. Aren’t our elected officials, regardless of party, supposed to be looking out for overburdened taxpayers?

Democrats were in charge in North Carolina for decades and they, too, consistently gave in to the garage-owner lobby. Then again, didn’t our fine citizens vote for a bunch of Republicans, such as Tillman, to get rid of business as usual? Isn’t the GOP against government mandates? Isn't the GOP for the rights of individuals?

If we're going to have mandates that prop up single industries, why stop at car-repair shops when so many business owners would benefit from a little legislative love (and would gladly make campaign contributions in return)?

My friend who does heating and cooling repair wants lawmakers to know that faulty central-air systems can leak toxic fumes outside and lead to illnesses in homes and businesses. Cha-ching! Sign him up for the money grab!

Bikes with bad brakes can result in severe injuries and deaths. Our precious children ride bikes. Shouldn’t we keep our kids safe - and buoy the bottom line for bicycle shops - by mandating $30 annual inspections?

In addition to stinking up an entire neighborhood, a leaky septic tank can cause environmental problems. Think of all the plumbing companies that would thrive under a $30-per-tank-per-year mandate.

Name a business, any business, and its owner would appreciate such a law. Why should owners of car-repair facilities get all the steak and wine?

Hope you enjoyed this edition of The Baldest Truth. That'll be $30, please.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Elin Nordegren: Another one bites the dust

Elin Nordegren, whose 9-iron upside the head of Tiger Woods dealt a blow of justice to cheated-upon spouses and began The Prince of Golf's slide to mediocrity, has ended her rebound relationship.

She has dumped Jamie Dingman, the son of a billionaire entrepreneur.

Our crack investigative team has not been able to confirm reports that Elin's weapon of choice this time was a set of 24-karat gold knuckles.

I know, I know ... I should be above tripe like this. But what the heck ... it's a slow news day.

Monday, May 14, 2012

They aren't all winners, but this one's OK

A kind reader posted a comment at the end of a recent blog asking where he could find the column I wrote for newspapers of Nov. 3, 1999. The column, written after the death of the great Walter Payton, was about living life to the fullest because none of us can know when it's our time to go.

I did a quick search and was able to find the column in a couple of paid-archive sites but wasn't able to find it for free. So I scanned the hard copy of the column I had saved and am making it available here. I apologize if the print's a little small. You might need to magnify it in your window.

One might say it was fortuitous that I happened to have in my possession a column that a reader wanted to see nearly 13 years later.

Well, I saved a hard copy of every one of the nearly 2,400 newspaper columns I  wrote over the years. I always wanted to have something to show my kids and my grandkids that represented what the old bald dude did for a living. As it turns out, my bound volumes serve as kind of a history of the most important sports stories from my time in Minneapolis and Chicago. Not sure why, but I think that's cool.

When I was AP's Minnesota sports guy from 1985-94, I used to write a weekly column. My goal was to be a daily newspaper sports columnist, so even if I was in the middle of a 12-hour work day and a 60-hour work week, I made time to write that column. And I knew I'd need examples of my work -- we used to call them "clips" -- to land the kind of gig I wanted.

Every few weeks, usually late some night after having covered a Twins or Vikings or Gophers game, I'd go into the bureau's back room and look through the stacks of newspapers from around the state. I'd find the best presentations of my columns, carefully clip them and then Xerox them. Then I'd punch holes in the page, put them in one of the binders and number them.

One night, my colleague Jimmy Golen -- a young'un then but now an award-winning sportswriter for AP Boston -- saw what I was doing and asked: "Why do you number them?"

I said something like: "I want to know when I match Cy Young with No. 511."

Not missing a beat, Jimmy said: "Hate to break it to you, Mike, but all of Cy Young's 511 were winners."

Friday, May 11, 2012

Milquetoast Mitt: The Ultimate Coward

I'm not surprised that a teenage Mitt Romney was a bully. He was a kid of privilege and he wanted to be seen as the "man in charge." So nearly a half-century ago, he led at least one attack -- that's my word; his would be "prank" -- on a defenseless, effeminate kid, holding the screaming boy down and using scissors to cut the victim's bleached blond hair.

When I read about the incident Thursday on the Washington Post online site, I wanted to give Romney the benefit of the doubt. I also wanted to give him credit for improving as a person since his teen years, which he now admits were full of "dumb things" and "hijinks."

Sadly, bullying was very common way back when. I witnessed many incidents, some incredibly cruel and violent, during my years as a mediocre high school athlete. (I honestly can say I never was a perpetrator; indeed, I was scared to death that I would be a victim. I wasn't strong enough ever to report the bullying, though, and I feel badly about that even today.) Unfortunately, bullying is extremely common now, too.

Romney lost any benefit of the doubt, however, with his reaction when confronted with the information the Post detailed about the incident.

The incident was corroborated by several men who were Romney's friends back then, men who also took part in the act.

Romney didn't dare try to deny the incident took place. He merely denied remembering it ever took place. Seriously. That's his defense.

He wants us to elect him President of the United States, and his defense is: Sorry, I can't recall holding the kid down and cutting off his hair while the kid wailed in agony, begging him to stop.

Really? That slipped Mitt Romney's mind?

Funny, the other bullies who took part in the "hijinks" didn't forget. They told the Post they were haunted by their participation. They gave incredibly detailed accounts of their involvement -- and the involvement of Romney, whom they called the ringleader.

Romney, whose autobiography is titled "No Apology," did take a swipe at contrition:

"Back in high school I just did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended by it, obviously I apologize. I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school and some might have gone too far and for that, I apologize."
Yes, the old "I apologize if I offended anybody" non-apology apology. Pathetic.

Some might have gone too far? How many is "some"? How many victims are out there?
Romney showed how weak and small he is when he refused to stand up to the far-right wackos who forced out one of his chosen advisers (because that person is gay, which Romney knew when he made the hire). Now this convenient amnesia, which is even weaker. 
Pair that weakness with the constant pandering (which most politicians do), with the Etch-A-Sketch position shifts (which he has elevated to an art form) and with the inability to relate to anyone who doesn't share his station in life ... and this is what we want in the leader of the free world? 
This guy wants us to believe he would have had the courage to order the hit on Osama bin Laden even though the intelligence suggested the mission could have failed spectacularly?

Please. Mitt Romney's definition of a difficult decision: How much starch should I have my servants put in my shirt collars?
I do not want a weak, pathetic man for my next president. I'd rather have Rick Santorum or Ron Paul ... somebody who at least stands for something. And for all of his warts, I definitely would rather have Barack Obama.
No wonder so many conservatives were willing to do anything -- even elect Newt Gingrich or Herman Cain or Rick Perry -- to avoid choosing Romney.
Milquetoast coward who stands for nothing. That's quite a campaign slogan.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

On Walter Payton, the media and keeping things in perspective

I just got this email from a man named Jim Helm, who used to read my Copley Newspapers columns in the Springfield Journal-Register:

Mike-Springfield Journal-Register/Nov. 3, 1999. Your column “There’s No Time Like Today to Give Thanks.” I have had that article on the wall in my office ever since. I read it again today. Thanks for writing it. It has made me a better person. Best regards-Jim

Wow. That didn't just make my day ... it also made my week and month and year. And maybe my decade, too. 

That column, which I wrote after Walter Payton died at 45 from liver disease and cancer, was about embracing life every day because we are promised nothing in this world. That this reader thought to display it prominently and read it regularly -- and then thought to send me a note about it nearly 13 years later -- reminds me of some of the reasons I wanted to become a journalist in the first place.

Nowadays, many folks all but sneer when they make references to "the media." I admit that I sometimes am exasperated by some of the things my former colleagues do, too. Still, I continue to believe fervently that a strong press is vital to our democracy.

And, on a smaller scale, the media has the unique opportunity to make a difference by putting everyday occurrences into proper perspective. I tried to do that as often as I could during my career, and it pleases that a reader such as Jim Helm thinks I occasionally succeeded.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Remember when 'Albert Goes Deep' wasn't big news?

Albert homered.

I repeat ... Albert homered.

Shout it from the rooftops, and bang the drums. The world is safe again, for Albert Pujols has hit a little ball over a fence!

Actually ...

The whole Why Can't Albert Hit? story line was one of those rare occasions where the media didn't overhype something.

The fact that Albert Pujols -- the greatest hitter of an entire generation, an absolute run-producing machine, a Hall of Fame cinch, one of the highest-paid athletes ever -- was hitting like a pitcher absolutely was the biggest story of the first month of the baseball season.

In fact, it probably was the three biggest stories: 1, he couldn't hit home runs; 2, he couldn't hit, period; 3, he was dragging the big-money Angels down with him.

It was the perfect storm of ineptitude, mostly because he had been the most ept guy out there for more than a decade.

Sunday, The 240 Million Dollar Man finally went deep, the fans who had been booing him now were cheering, and the last-place Angels won a game.

Oh, and Albert didn't come out of the dugout for a curtain call ... which is pretty cool if you think about it.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

No Rose: A fact ... and a lame excuse

Long-time readers -- all 9 of you -- know that I abhor injury-related excuses. Shaddup, line up and play; that's why you get the big bucks. 

Having said that, I do make exceptions because there are excuses ... and then there are facts. When a team loses a Tom Brady, a Justin Morneau or, yes, a Derrick Rose, it is a fact that the team simply cannot function anywhere near as well as it did when it had its MVP-caliber superstar.

The moment I learned Rose blew out his knee, I knew the Bulls no longer could win the NBA title.

What I didn't know was that Rose's teammates were going to fail to come out of the locker room at halftime of Tuesday's playoff game. The Bulls somehow managed to get outscored 36-14 in the third quarter by a mediocre 76ers team, and they went on to get humiliated at home.

Where was Luol Deng, an All-Star? Where was Carlos Boozer, the big-money forward? Where was Rip Hamilton, the supposed final piece to the puzzle? I'm not going to blame C.J. Watson and John Lucas III -- Rose's point-guard replacements; there's a reason they are career backups. I'm blaming Deng, Boozer and Hamilton for not showing up. And I'm blaming Tom Thibodeau for not having his team ready to play.

Yes, losing Rose was a horrible break for a team seemingly poised to win it all. Still, on the same night Deng & Co. spit the bit against the Sixers, the Celtics managed to win despite playing without suspended point guard Rajon Rondo (a top-five MVP candidate this season) and injured 2-guard Ray Allen (one of the great shooters in basketball history). Playing at Atlanta against a Hawks team that is decidedly better than Philly, the Celtics prevailed because Paul Pierce put his team on his back and carried it to victory.

Pierce, apparently, didn't get the memo about choking because the star point guard wasn't playing.

The Celtics could have used the absence of Rondo and Allen as an excuse. Had they lost, nobody would have been surprised. Instead, Pierce played wonderfully and got lots of support from his teammates. Instead, they won.

Unlike the Bulls.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Dopey discourse about Rose and Thibodeau

Plenty of folks actually think Tom Thibodeau is to blame for Derrick Rose's torn ACL. Apparently, a coach is supposed to take out all of his best players with a 12-point lead and 1:20 to go in a playoff game.

If so, Erik Spoelstra must really be an idiot. The Heat led the Knicks by 12 with about a minute to go tonight, and LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh were still playing. It's a miracle all three weren't hurt by a falling scoreboard or three banana peels on the court.

Stupid Spoelstra. Coaching to win. Coaching to make sure his team wasn't victimized by a remarkable comeback, kind of like when Reggie Miller scored 8 points in 9 seconds against the Knicks back in '95 ... or, hey, like when the Clippers came back from a 27-point fourth-quarter deficit just 24 hours ago.

Dopey Spoelstra. Dopey Thibideau. Even though there isn't a coach in the entire NBA -- and probably not in major-college basketball, either -- who feels safe with a 12-point lead with 80 seconds to go, they should have had all of their scrubs playing.

Fools. It's a wonder they even have coaching jobs.