Monday, August 29, 2011

Missing Chicago ... and loving Charlotte

Hard to believe, but it's been a year since I became a North Carolinian. Mostly, it's been a positive experience, though I've missed plenty about my former home.

Which brings me to today's topic ...


(*I'm not going to include the obvious: family and friends. Of course we miss our kids and the great friends we made during our 16 years in Chicago. That's No. 1 and 1A on any list!)

5. The skyline and the lake.

We lived just a few minutes from Lake Michigan and I miss those walks we'd regularly take -- although I don't miss trying to dodge bicyclists, skateboarders, rollerbladers and runners on weekends!

As for the skyline, we loved it so much that in 2004 we spent way too much money on a poorly built condo just because it had an incredible view. Thankfully, we got out just before the housing market crashed and spent our last few Chicago years in a 17th-floor Lakeview apartment that had a pretty decent skyline view of its own.

I don't know why, but I never got sick of looking at that skyline. It truly was awesome -- not the way the word is used today to describe everything; it really did inspire awe.

4. Milwaukee.

Yes, being able to get to Chicago's largest suburb in 90 minutes was a big deal for me. My little brother lives there. My alma mater is there, and I liked to catch a few Golden Warrior Eagles games a year. The best frozen custard on the planet is there ... I'm talkin' Leon's; don't settle for the chains!

Every time I go to Milwaukee, I have a good time. As a bonus, I get to experience great memories of all those brain cells I killed as a college kid.

3. Pizza.

I hate to sound like a pizza snob, so I cringe a little whenever a Charlottean asks what my favorite pizza joint in town is. But I can't help myself and invariably say something like: "Well, an average Chicago pizza place would be the best pizza place here."

What a pizza snob!

When we visited the kids last month, we went to our favorite -- Pequod's -- and I savored every morsel. I think I could get rich by opening a Pequod's South here, but maybe not. Maybe they are conditioned to mediocre (and worse) pizza in these parts.

While I'm on the subject of food, I miss those great South Side BBQ joints, the wide variety of ethnic food, hot dogs and other encased meats, and the hamburger place that was right down the street, Flub A Dub Chubs. (Maybe I just miss saying the name.)

2. Baseball.

Though neither Cubs nor Sox fan, I miss having a home game in my town every day from April 1 to Oct. 1. I miss the annual rite of passage: Cubbie Hope turning into Cubbie Angst and then into Cubbie Resignation. I miss the inferior complex on the South Side.

Oh, and I might as well say it: I miss the cash I used to make covering baseball for AP.

1. The city experience.

When we moved from Minneapolis to Chicago in 1994, we surprised ourselves by choosing to live in the city. I mean, we had even lived in the burbs in Madison! Chicago seemed to be such an intimidating place, dangerous even.

It wasn't always a perfect experience. I hated driving there so much that we went down to one car and often went a week without using it. We had two grills and three bikes stolen, reminding us that although we lived in a nice neighborhood, it still was a big city with big-city problems. Chicago politics was rife with corruption and bullspit. Winter sucked, with its howling winds and ugly mud-snow mix.

And yet, I wouldn't trade those 16 years for anything.

Our kids went to public schools and learned firsthand the ideals of tolerance and inclusion. Chicago was a living, breathing anthropology class.

We could walk to most things we needed, and we happily used trains and buses to get to almost everything else.

Then there was just the feel. Going for a walk (especially on a weekend) in Lakeview or Lincoln Park or downtown, one can't help but be impressed by the vibrancy of Chicago.

There were many days I'd take one of those walks with no destination in mind, just to experience that vibrancy, and I'd think: Wow, what a great town this is!

And now, let's give equal time to my new town ...


(*Again, this is in addition to the many friends we've made!)

5. Convenience.

It's nice to have a 2-minute drive to the grocery store. It's nice to live where the rush hour is normal. It's nice to have several parks and other natural areas near us. It's nice to not have to drive 45 minutes (or more) to enjoy a decent golf course.

Parking downtown is so plentiful and inexpensive, it seems quaint compared to the parking nightmare we left behind. And parking at the airport is $4 per night. That's right: 4 bucks!

4. My jobs.

It took a little while to find my groove in a new town, but both my coaching gig at Country Day and my golf job at Ballantyne Country Club have been all I could ask for.

Spring and Fall.

The way the trees get full and green by early March is spectacular. Fall weather here is perfect and golfing is great well past Thanksgiving.

Oh, and winter ain't half-bad, either.

Yes, summer is hot and humid, but I can't think of one thing I haven't done just because of the heat and the humidity. And it's not as if Chicago doesn't have heat and humidity, too.

If I believed in jinxes, I'd be worried about jinxing it. But I don't, so I'll say it: The weather in my first year in Charlotte actually exceeded my expectations.

2. Simcha.

As long as we lived in an apartment in Chicago, we going to be dogless. We planned to get a pooch when we got settled in our next house, wherever that might be. It didn't have to be in Charlotte, I suppose; we could have ended up in Chapel Hill or Phoenix or Sarasota. Still, Simmie is such a wonderful addition to our family, it almost seems we were destined to rescue her from the Charlotte shelter.

Lucky her ... and lucky us!

1. Our home.

Financially, it's hard to argue that buying a house was the right move. The market is still stumbling here and we probably could have saved thousands by waiting.

Owning a home shouldn't be about the investment, though. That's one of the things that got our country in a mess. A house is not an ATM or an annuity. It is a place to live, a place to go home to at the end of a long day, a place to be with your loved ones.

In addition to having everything we need on the inside, our house has a screenroom that overlooks our heavily wooded backyard. The deer walk past almost daily. We have tree buffers between the houses on both sides, adding to the peaceful feel. (That being said, we have great next-door neighbors!) Our street is quiet and well-located near a park.

Sure, having to mow the lawn and fix things and deal with the unpleasant surprises that crop up is a pain. Nevertheless, I'm glad my beautiful wife talked me into being a homeowner again, because the pluses far outweigh the minuses.

When we're ready to sell in 5 or 10 or 20 years, who knows if we'll even make money? We might lose money, but we were going to have to pay rent all that time anyway.

In the meantime, we have put down roots for the first time in years. Life is good.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Pearl of a decision by NCAA

3. Pathological liar Bruce Pearl says the NCAA made an example out of him when it penalized him so severely for his shenanigans at Tennessee that it will be years before he ever has a shot at another job.

I say: It's about effin time.

There is nothing worse than a coach getting a program in trouble and then moving onto another job -- often a better one. While the program he left behind takes years to recover, he cashes seven-figure paychecks.

Maybe if cheaters know they -- and not just the programs they leave behind -- will be punished severely, they won't be so bold in the first place.


2. And speaking of Tennessee basketball, that's an amazing -- and amazingly sad -- story about Pat Summitt. At 59, for her to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia, it only reinforces the idea that none of us should take health (or life) for granted.

Life ... death ... illness ... none of that stuff cares if you're famous or altruistic or happy or good-looking. Stuff happens to anybody anytime.

Summitt is planning to keep coaching the Vols, and I hope her assistants and players are ready to give her the support she needs. She deserves the right to keep doing the thing she loves, the thing she was put on this earth to do.

1. When Dick Jauron was in his final days as Bears coach, his few supporters argued that because the team didn't quit, he should get to keep his job.

I argued that not quitting is the minimum expected of every athlete, coach and team, be they hockey peewees or 350-pound NFLers. You don't get extra points for doing your job.

So when a team does pull a Sarah Palin, something that happens all too often in sports, it really is an indictment of the coach or manager.

Now, I'm not in Minnesota and I don't see the Twins every day. But I do see the scoreboard and the box scores. And it sure appears that team is mailing it in. Day after day, it's 8-1, 6-1, 7-1, 3-0, whatever. This with a team that includes former MVPs Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau in the middle of a lineup that also includes Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Jim Thome.

I've always respected Ron Gardenhire as a manager. He has done too good a job for too long to get fired after one year like this. But this is pretty damning stuff, and it certainly is something to watch for 2012.

As was the case in Cleveland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and everywhere else that got a cool, new ballpark ... the cool, new ballpark draws fans for only so long. The team still has to win.

Or, at the very least, the athletes have to act like they care.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Jered Weaver: Less money buys more

Once or twice a year, a ballplayer stares down his own agent and opts to stay with his team for far less money than he would have received on the open market. He immediately is praised lavishly as a wonderful human being.

The latest example: Jered Weaver, who told superagent Scott Boras to negotiate the best deal he could with the hometown Angels even if it cost the star right-hander tens of millions of dollars. Weaver ended up signing for $85 million over five years, probably half as much moolah as he would have gotten from the Yankees or Red Sox had he waited until he became a free agent after next season.

(Boras, who likes to squeeze every nickel out of every negotiation and wants to win the contract game, must be having palpitations over this deal.)

Said Weaver in what will be one of this year's most memorable sports quotes:

"How much more money do you need? I could have gotten more ... whatever ... who cares? If 85 million is not enough to take care of my family and other generations of my family, then you’re stupid."

If that doesn't make you want to root for this guy for the rest of his career, you're not human.

I don't blame every athlete for seeking as much money as he can get. Our society is all about supply and demand, and there is incredible demand for the very few great athletes good enough to be paid to play little kids' games. Plus, even a healthy athlete's career is relatively short. Weaver could blow out his elbow next week and never pitch again.

That being said, I'm surprised more dudes don't do what Weaver did.

Once the money gets to a certain level -- and I'd say 85 mil far exceeds that level -- it's all about ego. It's all about making more than the other guy "because I know I'm better than he is."

Well, instead of feeding his ego, Jered Weaver decided to stay where he is happy, comfortable and content.

Although he will earn more money than he ever can spend, he comes across as a class act, a loyal soldier and a good role model who gave a bargain to his team -- and, by extension, the ticket-buying public.

Talk about a win-win-win scenario.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Shake, rattle and a little off with the roll

My wife asked me if I felt the earthquake today and I laughed. "Yeah, right." No, seriously, she said. I looked it up and, sure enough, the East Coast from South Carolina to Maine experienced the most powerful earthquake since 1944.

Well, that explains it. I knew there was a reason I missed all those putts.

The next time I golf during an earthquake, I'll make sure I factor that into the reading of the greens.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Pryor knowledge: Another Tebow-like waste

Al Davis wasting a third-round draft pick on Terrelle Pryor wasn't quite as bad as Josh McDaniels wasting a first-rounder on Tim Tebow ... but it's right down there.

At least Pryor might help the Raiders at some position other than QB. The Broncos likely will never get any meaningful contribution from Tebow, who as a bad quarterback in mediocre linebacker clothing.

The NFL has changed a lot over the years, thanks principally to the 3 S's: Size, Speed, Strength. What hasn't changed is that a consistently winning QB must be far, far, far more than a great athlete.

Guys like Tebow, Pryor, Eric Crouch, Vince Young, Doug Flutie, even Michael Vick can't win merely because they can outrun people. For one thing, they learn the hard way that NFL linemen and linebackers are considerably quicker than those in college.

As for those who would say Steve Young, Roger Staubach and Fran Tarkenton proved that scramblers could win, well, those folks have selective memories.

Fact is, each quarterback was a great passer. Young, especially, was incredibly accurate. And each didn't become a big-time winner until he learned exactly when to deploy his legs at the right time.

Look at the list of Super Bowl-winning QBs. Look at which quarterbacks consistently help their teams advance in the playoffs.

They often were described as leaders, students of the game, great passers, coaches on the field ... not "athletes." The most nimble used their legs to buy time in the pocket, maybe to pull off a surprise run.

The majority of them would have lost a 40-yard race to Fridge Perry.

Friday, August 19, 2011

First Hendry made Losers unlovable, then he lost his job

Among other accomplishments, Jim Hendry acquired Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton for next to nothing, convinced Greg Maddux to come back to Cubbieland, discovered Starlin Castro, gambled that Ryan Dempster could overcome a serious injury, turned Mark DeRosa into an everyday ballplayer, found a way to dump Sammy Sosa after El Corko had become toxic and twice hired "the best manager available" in Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella.

Revisionist historians will claim Hendry always has been a terrible GM, but the facts suggest he did lots and lots of good things, too.

In baseball, though, lots and lots ain't enough ... unless at least one of those lots is a pennant.

Given the team's slide to the depths of despair, Hendry probably should have been fired at least a year ago. His career likely was lengthened by the drawn-out ownership pursuit of Tom Ricketts, who understandably wanted to see what he was getting before he started making big changes.

"I got more than my fair chance," Hendry told reporters Friday after the ax fell.

Most owners don't want to spend money even for decent teams. They absolutely hate spending big money for losers, and who can blame them?

Hendry's recent Cubbie clubs have been loaded with big-money busts. The team sucked. And the impossible seemingly happened, as empty seats started outnumbering filled ones at many ballgames at Wrigley Field. The latter is an unpardonable sin.

Told of Hendry's dismissal, White Sox GM Ken Williams said his North Side counterpart "swung for the fences." Williams meant it as a compliment, of course, because he does the same thing.

The problem comes when the swings start producing more whiffs than hits ... and in recent years, Hendry became the Adam Dunn of GMs.

Not only did he commit far too much of ownership's money on bad ballplayers, he also committed far too much of it to miscreants and malcontents as the Cubs became Unlovable Losers.

Only a sucker would pay $60 for a bleacher seat to watch Cra-Z Zambrano pitch.

That Hendry was the only GM in baseball who thought Milton Bradley was a $30 million ballplayer probably says all anybody needs to know about why Hendry is now an ex-GM. It seems like ancient history now, but that 2008-09 offseason deal was the beginning of the end for Hendry.

No GM outworked Jim Hendry, who famously was hospitalized with a heart condition when he signed Ted Lilly before the 2007 season. Hendry's an OK guy, too. He and I mostly got along, and when he did disagree with something I wrote, he pulled me aside and told me privately. I had to respect that.

In the end, however, the Cubs went 749-748 under his watch. That's the very definition of mediocrity, and it cannot be tolerated.

Not even in Cubbieland, where dreams have gone to die for 103 years and counting.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

U of Miami: Magna Cum Fraude

I am shocked -- shocked! -- that the University of Miami, famous for putting academics ahead of football, would get embroiled in an extra-benefits scandal that would see its freckle-faced young lads receive cash, cars, travel, hookers and miscellaneous other $alacious $tuff from boo$ters.

Moreover, I am stunned -- stunned! -- that this could happen at any American institution of higher education. After all, mustn't we always refer to these lads as student-athletes?

I mean, what next? Some of these lads might not graduate magna cum laude?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

600 big flies for a really good guy

Congrats on No. 600 to Jim Thome, one my favorite athletes I've ever covered.

Jim didn't need 600 to validate anything. He already had Hall of Fame enshrinement in the bag. Still, it sure is a nice exclamation point on a superb career for one of the true good guys ever to play professional sports.

Baseball -- and society, for that matter -- could use a lot more Jim Thomes.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Today's High Five - Cra-Z (& PGA) Edition

5. Sure, Carlos Zambrano is Cra-Z ... but if the Cubbies sack him for good, they'll miss a chance to finally get a big-game performance out of what already has been a $115 million investment in the loony right-hander. So what if he's 0-for-a-decade? Haven't you ever heard of a late bloomer?

4. Deficit, schmeficit. Joblessness, schmoblessness. Recession, schmession. Some dude named Keegan Bradley has won the PGA Championship, and all is grand in America again!

3. The MLB union says the Cubs have no right to suspend Zambrano without pay for 30 days. Seems the guild doesn't want there to be a precedent for teams punishing bombastic, lunatic, headhunting quitters. Makes sense to me.

2. As entertaining as it was to watch Tiger Woods hit the same kind of shots that I all too often do, shank you very much, the PGA Tour desperately needs him -- or somebody -- to be The Guy.

Right now, the tour is a massive blob of Luke Donalds (No. 1 by default), Steve Strickers (just good enough to not win the big one), Phil Mickelsons (fading former heroes), Rory McIlroys (not-quite-ready-for-coronation young guns) and a boatload of Keegan Bradleys.

As a fan, I want somebody setting the bar. I want The Guy every other golfer knows he must beat.

Yes, no-names occasionally won majors even before this current run of has-beens and never-will-bes ... but at least those nobodies had to beat Tiger Woods to do it. Now, alas, they only have to beat Jason Dufner.

1. It was nice to see Cubbie brass take a stand against not just Cra-Z but the entire notion that it's permissible for a bad pitcher to go headhunting just because he's bad.

Though I've never been a big fan of beanballs (because I generally am against assault with a deadly weapon), I at least understand the unwritten rules justifying "purpose pitches" in retaliation for an opponent's hotdogging or headhunting.

What I've never gotten is the belief by many that it's all right for a pitcher who has been rocked to throw at the next batter. Or for a team that gives up homers to a guy in his first two at-bats to then throw at him his third time up.

That amounts to a player or team saying: "I (we) suck, and I (we) can't get you out, so I'm (we're) gonna be chickenshit and throw at you. So there."

So good for Jim Hendry for saying that isn't OK -- yes, the Cubbie GM finally did something right.

And here's hoping the Cubs won't condone the practice even when the guilty pitcher isn't a multimillion-dollar albatross the team desperately wants to dump.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sweaty but still swingin'

I'm not sure what came over me Tuesday but I decided to walk 18 holes at a hilly course in 95 degree temps with 75 percent humidity. By the end, I was practically seeing mirages, I was so delirious.

Actually, the front 9 went well, at least by my standards. Shot a 42 with five pars, my best 9 so far as a Charlotte resident. I was tired but parred 8 and 9 and felt good about how I was playing, so when I presented myself with 3 choices -- A. Go home happy with the 42; B. Grab a cart for the back 9; C. Keep on keepin' on -- A didn't seem the right move. And though I was a sweaty mess, I thought I could keep going as long as I consumed lots of fluids. Ugh.

I got through No. 10 with a double-bogey but it was the long, uphill walk from 10 to 11 that almost did me in. Not surprisingly, I went triple-double-double over the next three holes, meaning I was 9 over through 4 on the back after going 6 over on the entire front.

I got a nice break on No. 14 when construction on the men's tee area forced all golfers to go from the ladies' tee, turning a long par-4 into a 300-yarder. I carded a par and was rejuvenated a little. I then went bogey-bogey-bogey.

When I stepped to the 18th tee to begin the 522-yarder, I was beyond spent. Still, I just told myself to take some deep breaths and be happy this would be the end (hopefully only of the round, not of me). I hit my best drive of the day and followed with by far my best fairway wood and a decent pitch shot that left me about 12 feet from the hole. I ran my birdie putt a couple feet beyond the hole and then tapped in for a satisfying par.

My final tally: 42-48-90. Could have been better but it still beat my previous best at the course, a 92.

This was the first time I had walked this course and I might do so again, but not in that kind of heat and humidity. At the very least, I should have gotten a cart for the much more arduous back 9.

Still, there was a sense of personal satisfaction knowing that, at 50, I still could do something like this. I'm a wimp, sure, but not quite as wimpy a wimp as I thought.

And here's the best thing: I actually earned sympathy points from my wife even though she worked a full day and I played golf!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Thankfully, CEOs won't lose bonuses to any tax hike!

Through their incompetence, intransigence or both, the fools and thieves in charge of our government have socked us with a financial penalty worse than any 100 tax hikes.

The lead-up to and aftermath of the Debt Ceiling Follies have resulted in trillions of dollars in lost wealth, and not just for the wealthy. I'm certainly not rich and I've probably suffered six-figure losses in my retirement accounts these past two weeks.

I say "probably" only because I'm too depressed to take a long look at my accounts and tally the actual damages.

As a moderate who believes in the wonders of compromise, I'd love to blame the tea partiers for all of this ... but I can't, even if they are the drivers of the U.S.S. Insanity. Incredibly, some of these line-in-the-sand yahoos are still complaining that they only got 99 percent of what they wanted.

The gutless "regular" Republicans couldn't think for themselves and let a minority of extremists in their ranks dictate the dialogue. I'm still waiting for one working-class (or unemployed) Republican to adequately explain why he or she would support GOP politicians who so obviously could give a rat's rear about anybody but the richest 3 percent of society.

Did I say 3 percent? Sorry. I meant 1 percent.

The even more gutless Democrats, meanwhile, routinely get pantsed by their rivals because they aren't tough enough. They could have prevented all this from happening by acting on the debt ceiling last December, when they had vast legislative majorities, but they were immobilized by fear. As for Barack Obama, what does the man stand for? More than 2 1/2 years into his presidency, I wish I knew.

It might take years for us to recover the savings we've lost in just the last few weeks -- and, despite Rick Perry's pathetic Prayer-A-Palooza over the weekend -- the fall is far from over.

But hey, at least our elected leaders managed to prevent the elimination of tax loopholes for corporate jet owners and hedge fund managers. The Republic is saved!

Today's High Five

5. Thank goodness Timothy Geithner is staying on as Treasury secretary. I mean, without him, America would be having a rough time financially instead of going through such robust growth.

4. So, Stevie Williams beat Tiger Woods. Pretty interesting stuff. Oh, and I hear Adam Scott was involved somehow, too.

3. Even Cubbie fans can't be gullible enough to have gotten excited about that 7-game winning streak, right? Right?

2. Let's see: Hunter Pence is a talented, popular, 28-year-old, prime-of-his-career-still-to-come outfielder who can't be a free agent until 2014. I'm still trying to figure out why the Astros felt they needed to trade him to the Phillies or anybody else. Dumping Carlos Lee and his bloated contract (and bloated body), I could have understood. But isn't Pence just the kind of player such a franchise should build around?

1. No more AAA for the U.S.A.? Now who are we gonna call when we get a flat tire or need a TripTik?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Pirates hit doozy of a speed bump


Just as the national media climbs aboard the Pirate Bandwagon, both wheels fall off, the cargo gets dumped at the side of the road and the driver passes out from exhaustion.

How bad have things gotten? Now they can't even beat the Cubs!

Oh well. It was fun while it lasted.

Make way for Losing Season No. 19 in a row.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A most memorable whitewater experience

I had out-of-town visitors last week and took them to the U.S. National Whitewater Center, a relatively new Charlotte facility that hosted the 2008 Olympic kayak trials.

We went rafting on the manmade rapids (more on that later), kayaking on the nearby Catawba River and ziplining. I even took a 46-foot leap off a platform -- the Mega Jump -- with a cable attached. We could have done rockclimbing, an obstacle course and other activities, too, but we were too exhausted and sun-drenched.

As for that rafting experience ...

Our guide calls himself Capt. Dan. He was so tan it looked painful, as if his entire body and face had been stretched to the limit and then wrapped in a leather girdle. It quickly became obvious that he was full of himself, as he rattled off the names of the dozens of rivers on which he had steered rafts. Oh, and he spoke in a fake, sometimes unintelligible southern drawl; I mean, the dude's bio says he's from Hoboken, N.J.!

Simply stated, Capt. Dan was a piece of work.

Two in our party were kids and two more were middle-aged ladies, and Capt. Dan soon became frustrated that power and teamwork were lacking. Near the end of our five-run trip, he pretty much gave up on us ... but not before our raft capsized, spilling all of us into the water.

It was a brutally hot day, so I didn't mind the swim, but one of the women in our group briefly had gotten trapped under the raft and started panicking a little. Thankfully, she came out of it just fine.

So was the whole day a disaster and, given the nearly 50-dollar-a-head price, a rip-off?

Not at all. While it wasn't quite the same experience as actual rafting on an actual river, we had a lot of fun.

And Capt. Dan gave us something to talk about for the rest of the weekend, maybe even for the rest of our lives.