Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Back to Chicago for family, friends, fun, food and just a little frustration

We live in Charlotte, Ben lives in Chicago and Katie lives in Seattle ... so having a family reunion quite an undertaking.

Thankfully, we undertook it! We met in Chicago last week for several days of family, friends and fun.

On the way to Chicago, Roberta and I stopped in Lexington, Ky., to visit our first Chicago next-door neighbors, C.J. and Alan Hatter. Here I am with their grand-daughter, Jamaya:

Then, it was on to Chicagoland. We spent a couple of nights with Roberta's dad and also got to visit with some of our favorite people: Dave and Michelle Pangallo and Jim and Kristi Johnson.

Dave is my "little" from when I was in the Big Brothers program in college. He's now in his 40s, a high-school guidance counselor, married and has three kids. We remain very, very close; I see him at least as often as I see my "real" brothers, and I'm very proud of everything he's become.

Here is Katie with two of Dave's kids, Molly and Connor:

Of course, we couldn't leave Milwaukee without grabbing a butter pecan cone at the greatest gastronomic establishment in the world, Leon's Frozen Custard!

From there, we went back to the northern Chicago burbs and caught up with the Johnsons. Jim ran my softball team in Apple Valley, Minn.; he, Kristi and their kids now live in the far north Chicago burbs. Roberta and I laughed so much during our visit with them, our jaws actually hurt afterward.

Then it was on to Chicago. We stayed three nights at the Marriott downtown and reacquainted ourselves with the vitality of the city.

On the first night, Katie and Ben met us at Millennium Park, as did our former across-the-street neighbors, Darcia and Mike Brundidge (and son Troy, who is Ben's age). It was too much fun!

Not long after waking up the following morning, Katie called with some bad news: Some clown smashed in the back windshield of our car. (It was parked near her friend's apartment.) Nothing was stolen, so we're not even sure why the perpetrator did it. What we are sure of: The new windshield cost us $323. Oh Chicago ... sometimes you make it so hard to love you!

After getting that squared away, the kids took us out to dinner at the delicious Wildfire downtown. Good thing they, unlike their dad, are gainfully employed! Afterward, we went to the dueling-piano bar Howl At The Moon, but it was howlingly cheesy and we didn't stay long. (Although, for the record, I was pushing for us to hang out awhile because the people-watching was hilarious.)

On our last full day in our former hometown, I went to lunch with my former AP co-worker, the recently retired Rick Gano. Roberta lunched with her former marathon partner, Laura Garza. And that night, we had dinner and gelato with our longtime Chicago friends, Linda and Gary Mark.

I know, I know ... it seems like all we ever did was eat! In our defense, we also drank!!

On Saturday, after saying goodbye to the kids, it was back to Charlotte. We arrived on July 28, less than one month away from our three-year anniversary as North Carolinians.

Jeesh! Has it really been that long since we called Chicago home?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Perfect tribute to peerless Mariano Rivera

I get misty-eyed every time I hear Ben Fold's "Gracie" and Neil Young's "Here For You" because both remind me of my relationship with my now-grown daughter, Katie. I get wistful every time I think of the joy I got from watching my now-grown son, Ben, play basketball as a kid. And I famously started sobbing during the scene in "Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey" in which Shadow the golden retriever got out of a ditch and rejoined his loving human. (Inspired, we gave the name Shadow to the retreiver we adopted shortly thereafter.)

So, yeah, I'm an old softy ... but usually not when it comes to sports.

In that realm, I'm a jaded guy who has spent a little too much time examining the underbelly of athletics. I've seen too much.

I don't feel especially prideful when "our" Olympic athletes get their gold medals. I'm not overly impressed by public displays of charity because I always was taught that the best charity is an act one does without seeking credit. I enjoy seeing great achievements, but they just about never make me emote. It was great being there in person last March when my Marquette lads reached the Elite Eight, but I didn't get all sappy when the band played the alma mater after the game.

So I was more than a little surprised that I was touched by the wonderful, spontaneous tribute to 43-year-old Yankees closer Mariano Rivera during last night's All-Star Game.

As the best reliever in baseball history trotted in from the center field bullpen to the familiar strains of "Enter Sandman" to protect a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning, the other All-Stars stayed off the field. By the time Rivera reached the mound, he was the only player on the diamond. Even his catcher, Kansas City's Salvador Perez, wasn't out there to take warmup throws.

It was Rivera's moment. It was perfect.

Though the game was at the Mets' Citi Field, not Yankee Stadium, the venue worked quite nicely. New Yorkers and fans of every stripe cheered and cheered, and Rivera, genuinely overwhelmed by the display, humbly waved. Rivera's peers (though one could argue that "peers" is a silly word to use when talking about a peerless athlete) stood at the top step of their dugouts and cheered, too.

It really was a lump-in-the-throat scene.

Fittingly, the soon-to-retire Rivera, pitching in his 13th and final All-Star game, retired all three NL batters he faced. As he went to the bench, his AL teammates -- rivals from clubs that hope to beat Rivera in August and September (and October?) -- hugged Rivera and told him how much they appreciate him.

Is there a more respected man in Major League Baseball? I certainly can't name one.

The only thing that might have been more perfect would have been if Rivera had worked the ninth inning to earn the save. AL manager Jim Leyland, worried that a different reliever might blow the lead and deprive Rivera the opportunity to pitch, definitely made the right move.

Rivera already has enough saves. He didn't need another.

All-Star MVP voters also made the right move. Though Rivera was no more spectacular than any of the other AL pitchers who combined to hold the NL scoreless on three hits, selecting him MVP was about as big a no-brainer as no-brainers get.

In that eighth inning, as Rivera stood on that ballfield -- alone, tens of thousands of fans cheering, fellow All-Stars clapping, cameras flashing -- I admit it:

Even I was moved.

I shed no tears -- I mean, come on, this wasn't a lost dog being reunited with the boy who loved him -- but I did smile, stand in front of the TV and think, "This is absolutely perfect."

Monday, July 15, 2013

Today's High 5: MLB All-Star Break Edition

5. Any conversation about baseball's most overpaid players has to start and end with Alex Rodriguez. I mean, the guy has a $275 million contract, hasn't played a minute this season due to injury, looked washed up last year and soon could be suspended for taking PEDs. Yep, A-Rod is a good first choice.

But then who?

Josh Hamilton? Albert Pujols? Alfonso Soriano? Mark Teixeira? Johan Santana? All fine choices. And there are plenty of other candidates.

Why do few if any mention Joe Mauer?

The Twins catcher is the All-American boy. Good looking. Looks like he's worth $184 million. Multiple All-Star. Spurned bigger offers from other teams to stay with his hometown team. He's batting .320, ninth-best in the majors.

You look at all that and you don't want him to be in the conversation. But ...

Mauer has 32 RBI at the All-Star break. Thirty-two! And unlike many of the guys on many overpaid lists, he hasn't been injured.

You know who has more than 32 RBI so far this season?

++ 128 other ballplayers.

++ 15 other catchers ... including his own backup, Ryan Doumit (who also plays OF and DH) ... and Milwaukee's Jonathan Lucroy, Mauer's former backup.

++ at least 8 leadoff men, including one in the NL (Matt Carpenter of St. Louis), who has 13 more RBI than Mauer even though he bats behind the pitcher.

++ 5 other Twins, who combined don't make anywhere near $184 million.

++ Pujols, Soriano and even Hamilton, who has looked lost at the plate most of the season.

++ Brewers OF Ryan Braun, who has missed 30 games with injuries.

++ And, of course, Miguel Cabrera, who goes into the break with 95 RBI -- three times as many as Mauer. I never thought I'd say a guy with a $153.3 million contract was a bargain!

4. The Cubs and White Sox are a combined 27 games under .500 and 29 games out of first place. At least the Cubs have admitted they're rebuilding.

3. Giants ex-stud Tim Lincecum pitched a no-hitter against the anemic Padres on Saturday. He was allowed to throw 148 pitches.

148 pitches! Wow. I hope the no-no was worth it.

In the eighth and ninth innings, the one-time flamethrower's fastball was topping out at 91 mph. His mechanics have been messed up the last couple of years.

"There was no way he was coming out," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "I was just praying he didn't hit the 150 mark."

He should be praying Lincicum avoids the disabled list.


AL MVP: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers. It's a very close two-man race between Mr. Triple Crown and Baltimore's Eric Davis. Right now, we'll give a slight edge to the guy who has his team in first place.

NL MVP: Yadier Molina, Cardinals. The No. 1 catcher in baseball -- ridiculously better than Mauer -- does so much behind the plate for the NL's best team that it almost doesn't matter what he does at the plate. Having said that, he also leads the league in batting. Narrow call over teammate Allen Craig and Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt.

AL Cy Young: Bartolo Colon, A's. Let's give him something to be happy about because there's word that he might get suspended for juicing. I never would have guessed that he'd need to cheat to get that body! Max Scherzer and Felix Hernandez are right up there, too.

NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw is only 8-6 but he leads the league in ERA, WHIP and BA against. Tough call over Patrick Corbin, Jordan Zimmerman, Matt Harvey and Adam Wainwright.

1. At 56-37, the Pirates have baseball's third-best record.

I want to believe in them.

Then again, I wanted to believe in them last season, too.

There's absolutely no way they'll find some way to go 24-45 in the second half to wrap up their 21st straight losing season, right?


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Jinx no, curse yes: Reds' Bailey makes no-hit statement

I'm often asked to name the best events I covered during my sportswriting career, and I'm lucky that I can rattle off a pretty nice list:

1991 World Series (Twins over Braves in 7 amazing games); 2002 Super Bowl (Tom Brady's legend is born); Michael Jordan's last NBA Finals game (the steal, the shove, the swish, the pose); 1994 Stanley Cup (Rangers win first Cup in 54 years); 1982 ALCS (as a kid reporter right out of college for AP, I was assigned to write about the Angels of Reggie Jackson, Fred Lynn, Rod Carew, Bobby Grich, Don Baylor and Gene Mauch); 2005 NCAA Midwest Regional final (Deron Williams carries Illinois to an amazing comeback victory over Arizona); and so on and so on.

But you know, sometimes the "regular" events that turn into something special ended up being even more memorable. Scott Erickson, who for two years allowed the most hits of any pitcher in baseball, threw a no-hitter for the 1994 Twins. The Vikings lost to the Bears when their punter dropped a snap; teammate Keith Millard ripped the punter after the game and then, one week later, suffered a career-ruining knee injury. Before the Bulls' first game of the post-Jordan, post-Pippen, post-Jackson era, Bill Wennington promised fans over the P.A. system that the team would compete hard; Wennington then didn't jump for the opening tip. Good stuff, eh?

Though I no longer cover events big or small these days, I still occasionally get treated to an event I won't soon forget.

Homer Bailey's no-hitter on Tuesday night is in that category for two reasons:

1. I didn't watch the game until the ninth inning. Channel-surfing, I paused momentarily when I got to that game and saw a clip of the final out of Bailey's no-hitter the previous season. Fox Sports Ohio announcers Thom Brennaman and Jeff Brantley immediately brought me up to speed: Bailey was three outs away from yet another no-no.

Some other announcers and team networks would have pretended the no-hitter wasn't happening because they wouldn't have wanted to "jinx" the pitcher. As a viewer, however, I'm glad Brennaman, Brantley and Fox Sports didn't prescribe to that ridiculous ritual. If they had, I would have kept clicking and would have missed the final three outs. Because the announcers and the network did their jobs, viewers like me got to see history being made.

Bailey became only the 31st pitcher in big-league history to pitch more than one no-hitter. He also became only the second -- following his idol, Nolan Ryan -- to throw the last no-no in the majors one season and the first in the next season. Cool.

2. Afterward, Bailey was interviewed by the station's Jeff Piecoro, who asked the pitcher about the seventh-inning leadoff walk he issued to Gregor Blanco -- San Fran's only baserunner in an otherwise perfect game.

Piecoro: "It's right after you had an at-bat. You didn't have really time to relax between innings. Did that have anything to do with it?"

Bailey: "No man, I mean I just f---ing walked a guy. This game's pretty tough."

That's right. Minutes after throwing a no-hitter, celebratory shaving cream still all over his face, Bailey threw an F-bomb on live TV.

He said it matter-of-factly, too. Just another adjective.

Sports. The only Reality TV worth watching.