Tuesday, December 23, 2014

My Hall of Fame ballot ... and my new steroid policy

When I sat down to fill out my annual Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, I knew one thing for certain:

The 10th box I checked next to an ex-ballplayer's name would be merely a symbolic choice.

Each Baseball Writers Association of America voter can make only 10 selections in a given year ... and I have a better chance of shooting a 72 at Pebble Beach than any player I considered for that final choice has of getting into the Hall.

So it came down to this:

Do I vote for a guy who had a very good career and was considered a credit to the game, or do I vote for a guy who I'm pretty sure cheated? Or do I just stop at 9? (Voters don't have to vote for 10. Heck, we don't have to choose anybody, and several of my peers turn in blank ballots every year.)

Why do I know my vote won't really matter? Because after the top few candidates, none will come close to getting support from 75% of the BBWAA electorate. It's kind of like voting for the Libertarian or Green Party candidate -- you know he or she has no chance of winning, so you do it because it feels good or to make a statement.

My choices came down to Barry Bonds, who was convicted of obstruction of justice in connection with his long-time steroid use; Roger Clemens, who was named as a steroid cheat in the Mitchell Report but was found innocent of lying to Congress about his juicing; and Alan Trammell, a good guy and good player who helped usher in the modern era of offensive-minded shortstops.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I will consider Bonds and Clemens because I firmly believe they were Hall of Fame players even before they allegedly began juicing. However, in the absence of firm Steroid Era guidance from the Hall or the BBWAA, I recently established my own policy:

++ If a player is the subject of completely unsubstantiated rumors (think Frank Thomas, who some thought "must be on steroids because he's so big"), I will tune out the noise and consider him as early as his first year on the ballot.

++ If a player is the subject of steroid whispers that conceivably might have merit (think Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza), I will not consider him as a first-ballot candidate to see if any new information gets fleshed out. If, after a year of additional scrutiny no new information is presented, I will consider him beginning in his second year on the ballot.

++ If a player likely was a steroid cheat but all available evidence showed that he had a Hall-worthy body of work before the juicing began (think Bonds and Clemens), I will consider him but only beginning with his fifth year on the ballot. I want to allow plenty of time before checking that box.

++ If I am convinced that a player could not have compiled the stats that made him seem Hall-worthy without him having been a rampant juicer (think Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa), I will not vote for him.

So, under my steroid policy, Bonds and Clemens are ineligible for my serious consideration until I fill out my ballot two years from now.

That left me to decide between Trammell or no 10th choice at all.

I decided to go with Trammell. I know him, I like him and I respect the way he went to work day after day, month after month, season after season. He was a fine fielder whose bat had some pop, kind of a poor man's Cal Ripken Jr. He was the face of the Tigers franchise for 20 years. And he was the 1984 World Series MVP.

Let the record show that I have not voted for him in the past, and I'll say right now that I might not vote for him again next year, which will be his final turn on the ballot. I also will say that I could have voted for any number of other fine ex-ballplayers here, including Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, Lee Smith, Jermaine Dye and Larry Walker. Like Trammell, none of them ever will get to 75%, either.

And so, here are the 10 players who received my check marks:

Jeff Bagwell

Craig Biggio

Randy Johnson

Pedro Martinez

Mike Mussina

Mike Piazza

Tim Raines

Curt Schilling

John Smoltz

Alan Trammell

Bagwell, Biggio, Mussina, Piazza, Raines and Schilling were holdovers from last year. Details about why I chose them can be found in my post from Dec. 24, 2013.

As for the three newbies -- Big Unit, Pedro and Smoltz -- I consider them to be such no-brainers that I don't feel it's necessary to justify selecting them. I can't imagine why any voter would leave any of them off his/her ballot.


In a related subject ...

One of my best friends in the business -- actually, like me, he is now out of the business -- decided not to cast a vote this year because he no longer felt he was qualified. I'm not going to name him because he didn't give me permission to do so. His reasoning, and I'm paraphrasing here, is that back when he was an active member of the media, he thought some voters who had become ex-sportswriters grew out of touch, and now he feared he would be that voter.

My response to him was that he would be that voter only if he let himself be that voter.

Speaking for myself, I still follow baseball closely and I still care about who gets into the Hall of Fame. In some ways, I can follow the game better now because I'm not almost exclusively watching Cubs and White Sox games.

Moreover, the guys who are coming up for vote now are the very players I witnessed first-hand during the prime of my career. I was there when John Smoltz dueled Jack Morris in the Game 7 of the the best World Series I've ever seen. I admired the brilliance of Pedro Martinez and the consistency of Craig Biggio. I didn't need to see the Big Unit in person to know he was a Hall of Famer ... but it didn't hurt.

Maybe, one day, I will feel I am too removed from the game to be an effective voter, but that day is a long way away.

I enjoy being part of what I consider a very effective process for choosing Hall of Famers. I take it seriously. And, frankly, I do a pretty darn good job.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

You hereby have permission to watch bowl games

I was looking for an old Copley Newspapers column I had written about Illinois basketball when I stumbled upon a 2004 rip-job I did on the Bowl Championship Series.

Back then, I vowed not to watch one second of any bowl game, including the mythical national championship game between USC and Oklahoma.

"The evening of Jan. 4, I will go to a high school basketball game, take my wife to a movie, play board games with my kids -- anything but watch a sham title game. I have been in this business for 22 years and have been a fan a lot longer than that, and I'm still waiting to hear one good reason why Division I-A football should be the only NCAA sport lacking an equitable way to crown a champion. And it's not just the title game. The entire system is a mess. A joke. A billion-dollar sham."

I concluded my diatribe with this:

"Don't watch bowls. Don't buy products sold by bowl sponsors. Show the sham artists exactly what you think by giving them the attention they deserve: none."

And with that, my Bowl Boycott began.

I'm not sure how many readers joined the boycott. Though a few claimed they would follow my lead, I know it's quite possible that not a single one did. But I was true to my word: For 10 years, I did not watch one minute of one bowl game. And I felt darn good about it.

Fast-forward a decade and here we are ... less than two weeks away from the start of the very first major-college football playoff. On New Year's Day, Oregon will meet Florida State in one semifinal at the Rose Bowl, followed by Alabama vs. Ohio State in the other semifinal at the Sugar Bowl. Eleven nights later, the winners will meet for the national title at the Dallas Cowboys' 100,000-seat Shrine To Wretched Excess.

We heard for more than a decade about how a legitimate playoff would ruin the regular season, undermine conference races and render league championships meaningless. We heard blather about "student-athletes" having to play too many games and about fans not being willing to travel for playoff contests. We heard that a legitimate championship would gut the entire bowl structure.

Not one of those excuses rang true at the time, and not one proved true in the end.

All the introduction of the playoff system did was make the regular season even MORE meaningful and make college football better than ever.

I still won't watch most of the three dozen bowl games that are little more than exhibitions. Really, unless one is a fan of North Carolina State or Central Florida, why would one watch the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl? Why, why, why?

But although I might not watch every minute of all three playoff games, I certainly will watch many minutes of each -- as will millions and millions and millions of others.

I'd have preferred an eight-team playoff, and I'm pretty sure there will be one down the line. Still, this four-team event is a darn good start.

Come Jan. 12, we will have the first-ever real (non-mythical), major-college football champion. Finally!

So from me to the rest of America, all I can say is ...

You're welcome!


Crazy as it seems, the Carolina Panthers, at 6-8-1, can make the playoffs by winning in Atlanta next Sunday. As a big-time Panthers fan, I actually thought for a second about going to the game, but I would have had to postpone my Chicago trip to do so.

Instead, I have put Ben in charge of finding a Chicago bar where we can watch the Panthers-Falcons game -- and, simultaneously, can watch that day's Marquette-Morgan State game (a.k.a "Most Definitely Not The Big One").

As tempting as it might be, meanwhile, I don't have great interest in watching Jimmy Clausen's second start for the mighty Bears against the mighty Vikings. Yeah ... I know ... it takes willpower to avoid that one.


My Scholars Academy Eagles won our last game before Xmas break by a 48-2 score. That's right:48-2! (As my son asked: "Hey, what happened to the shutout?")

The victory sent us into our nearly three-week layoff with a 6-1 record.

One thing I really love about my team is the camaraderie -- the girls genuinely like each other, pull for each other and pick each other up. We have more talent and depth than last year's team while still playing with our trademark aggressiveness and "want-to" attitude. These girls are winners.

The Eagles will be a force to be reckoned with in the second half of the season!


My latest article for the financial Web site SeekingAlpha.com -- It's New! It's Nifty! It's The Dividend Growth 50! -- has been incredibly well-received.

As I write this, it has 35,432 page views and 766 comments. Both are by far all-time highs for me.

Five of my last seven articles have been designated as "Editors' Picks," helping bring in a total of 3,273 followers.

Jeesh ... you'd almost think I was a writer or something!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Play to win ... and you just might do it!

My favorite play of this past NFL weekend was not a spectacular catch or an amazing run. It certainly wasn't either of the TWO punts the Panthers had blocked for touchdowns in their miserable loss at Minnesota.

It was this:

The Packers were leading the Patriots by 5 points with 2:28 to go when New England called its final time-out. Green Bay faced a third-and-4 at its own 43. If the Packers make the first down, it's game over. If they don't, they have to punt.

If Packers coach Mike McCarthy lets Aaron Rodgers attempt a pass and the ball falls incomplete, the clock will stop, giving Tom Brady more than enough time to break Packerland's collective heart.

Most coaches, even those with star QBs, would have run the ball, figuring: "If we get the first down, great. If not, the clock goes all the way to 2 minutes, we punt and they probably have to go more than 80 yards in less than 2 minutes with no time-outs. And they need a TD, not a field goal. It's the smart, safe play. Nobody can second-guess that decision."

McCarthy didn't do that. He trusted the best quarterback in the NFL to complete a pass. Whereas most coaches would have played not to lose, McCarthy played to win. He played with the intention of not letting Brady get his grubby hands on the football again.

Rodgers threw a perfect pass to Randall Cobb for a 7-yard gain. The cameras zoomed to Brady on the New England sideline and showed Mr. Perfect screaming the same four-letter profanity three times.

After the 2 minute warning, Rodgers took a knee three times, and Packerland partied as if it were 1967 (or at least 2011).


After a long Thanksgiving break, my Scholars Academy Eagles are back in action this week.

Last season, we lost a total of nine times to four teams. We got revenge against one of those teams in the playoffs, coming back for a thrilling victory against St. Michael's. In our second game this season, we got revenge against the team that beat us three times in 2013-14, thrashing St. Anne's 36-18. Our next two games (Tuesday and Thursday) are against the other two teams that owned us last season, and I'm looking forward to seeing where we stack up.

Unfortunately, our All-Conference center Celeste sprained her ankle during the Thanksgiving break and can't play Tuesday. She will be very difficult to replace, but we are a stronger, deeper team this year and I'll be leaving for practice in a few minutes to prepare the team to play without her.

If we score a monumental upset, it will be because the girls rose to the occasion.

If we don't ... fire the coach!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Gobble! Gobble! Time for the Turkeys of the Year!

For 16 years now, I've used Thanksgiving week as a time to reflect upon the year's losers and liars, miscreants and maniacs, scammers and sleazeballs, chokers and cheaters, bigots and boobs. There's nothing quite like a holiday tradition, eh kids? So it's time once again for the Turkey of the Year Countdown.

Previous "winners" (and by that, I mean "losers"):

Mike McCaskey (1998); Jerry Krause (1999); Bobby Knight (2000); David Wells and Frank Thomas (2001); Dick Jauron (2002); Sammy Sosa (2003 and 2004); Andy MacPhail, Jim Hendry and Dusty Baker (2005); Aramis Ramirez (2006); Charlie Weis (2007); Choking Cubbies (2008); Milton Bradley (2009); Mark McGwire (2010); Joe Paterno and the Penn State Enablers (2011); U.S. Ryder Cup Team (2012); Alex Rodriguez (2013).

Sharp readers will notice that up until 2009, each of those turkeys did their gobbling in or near Chicago. That's because I worked for the Copley newspaper group in Chicago, where the annual Countdown got its start under my predecessor and friend, the late, great Gene Seymour. Since moving to North Carolina, I've expanded my Turkey-choosing horizons.

So grab a plate, put on your bib and dig in ...

10. LUIS SAUREZ. Channeling his inner Mike Tyson, the Uruguayan soccer star took a bite out of an Italian player during the World Cup. As if that wasn't bad enough, he complained that his request of red wine was denied. I mean, white wine with human shoulder? What an outrage!

9. BARACK OBAMA. I'm not talking politics here. (If I wanted to add a non-sports Turkey to this year's list, it would be Nevada rancher/lawbreaker/racist Cliven Bundy, who went from Fox News hero to douchebagga non grata faster than one can say, "The Negro was better off as a slave.") No, I'm talking about POTUS' sporting side. Obama whiffed on three-fourths of his Final Four picks, and despite earning the monicker "Golfer In Chief," he still has trouble breaking 90. As Michael Jordan says: "He's a hack."

8. DAVE GETTLEMAN. The Carolina Panthers' GM celebrated a rare division title by cutting the best player in franchise history (a still-effective Steve Smith). Gettleman then tried to go cheap on the offensive line, in the defensive backfield, on special teams and in the receiving corps. Surprise, surprise ... the Panthers won't come close to matching last season's 12 victories, but they do still have a decent shot at 12 losses.

7. U.S. RYDER CUP TEAM. Oh wait ... I think the Europeans just won another match.

6. BILLY BEANE. The "Moneyball" mastermind traded Yoenis Cespedes, Oakland's best offensive weapon and clubhouse leader, in a desperate attempt to prove he could run a championship team. The A's completely collapsed, blew a huge division lead, barely held on for a playoff spot and lost to K.C. in the wild-card game. If only Jonah Hill had been around to save Beane from himself.

5. LAMARR HOUSTON. The Bears' lineman suffered a season-ending knee injury while celebrating a sack last month. He was one of two NFL dopes to pull off the trick, joining the Lions' Stephen Tulloch on the DL. At least Tulloch's sack-dance-collapse combo came in the first quarter of a big divisional victory over the Packers. Houston's slick move occurred in the fourth quarter against the Patriots -- with the Bears losing by 25 points. "I probably shouldn't have celebrated while they're blowing us out, but it happens." Yeah ... to narcissistic idiots.

4. ROY WILLIAMS. Ol' Roy wants us to believe he didn't know a dadgum, ding-dong-dilly thang about the fake courses that kept North Carolina's 2005 NCAA title team eligible. Aww shucks ... he cain't believe his freckle-faced lads were steered into "independent study" classes that included no study and no classes. Said Ol' Roy: "Well, Jiminy Cricket, it waren't my fault!"

3. DONALD STERLING. Hey, he's got no problem with coloreds ... as long as they're shining his shoes.

2. ADRIAN PETERSON. How about this for cajones the size of cantaloupes: He beat his 4-year-old son bloody with a wooden switch and then cried about the NFL disciplining him too harshly. Peterson should be jailed for felony child abuse -- or even worse, traded to the Jaguars.



Back when I used to do a lot of public speaking and radio shows, I often would get asked if Athlete X or Coach Y was a "good guy" or a "bad guy." I usually would say something like, "He seems nice but we don't really know what kind of person he is when he's not in public," or "He seems like a jerk but he might be a real sweetheart when the lights aren't shining on him." Truth is, I usually didn't know.

I'm pretty sure I know about Ray Rice. A guy who beats the crap out of his fiancee in an elevator and drags her limp body out into the hallway is pretty much by definition a Bad Guy.

I'm glad the Ravens, after initially defending him, bowed to the politically correct police and fired him. I'm glad Rice no longer has a job in the NFL and I hope he never does again. I wish he were behind bars, sharing a cell with Adrian Peterson. Maybe they could each be given a wooden switch and be told to go at each other, Hunger Games style.

The Rice incident set the stage for a crazy year for the NFL. Crazy, as in bad. Several other cases of extreme violence and lawlessness have come to light.

This has thrust Goodell, the NFL commissioner, into the spotlight. He hasn't handled it well.

Hell, the only way he could have handled things worse would have been if he had curled up in a ball in the corner of a room and muttered, "This isn't fair! This isn't fair!" over and over.

First, he barely slapped Rice on the wrist with a laughably soft two-game suspension -- this after giving major punishments to pot-smokers. When a graphic video of Rice's beatdown of his fiancee surfaced, a video that had been dropped off at NFL HQ for Goodell to view, he finally caved in to public pressure and brought down the hammer.

According to an ESPN report, Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome testified having heard Rice tell Goodell that he had hit his fiancee in the elevator. Goodell repeatedly had said details of what had transpired in the elevator were "ambiguous."

Goodell later admitted he "didn't get it right." He often doesn't get it right. His disciplinary process often seems arbitrary. His league's brand has suffered because of it.

Goodell likes to think of himself as the Law And Order Commish. He's the judge, the jury, the executioner and the appellate court judge. I don't know how NFL Players Association leaders can look their constituents in the eyes after recommending a collective-bargaining agreement that gives one man such sweeping, unchecked powers. They would be wise to make it a major -- maybe even THE major -- issue when it comes time for the next CBA.

But I digress.

All year long, the National Felons League has been the butt of jokes ... and Goodell has been the crack of the butt.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Thursday: Win-win-win for the Nadels-dels-dels

It was a great Thursday for the Nadels.

My beautiful wife aced the exam she took to test out of a psychology prerequisite and now is on target to earn her Bachelor's of Nursing degree in a few weeks. Way to go, Robbie!

She then accompanied me to my season-opening basketball game and witnessed my Scholars Academy Eagles' 29-13 smackdown of our opponent. It was 21-2 at halftime, and after the game the coach of the other team thanked me for calling off our press early in the third quarter. That's me -- Mike the Merciful!

Everybody played, almost everybody scored, my girls played tough and aggressive and hustling basketball -- which is what we have to do to win. It's great to start my second season as a head coach with a victory, and we learned a lot about what we need to do to improve before we take on the defending league champs next week.

After a fantastic meal at one of our favorite Charlotte restaurants, Robbie and I had a nice long telephone conversation with Katie, who was celebrating her 28th birthday. While it's almost impossible to believe I have a 28-year-old kid, I am so proud of what a wonderful person Katie has turned out to be. With her in Seattle and us in Charlotte, that's a lot of miles between us and we miss her all the time, but I think we talk more often with her now than when she was in college not all that far away. Funny how that works. Happy birthday, Katie!

As for Ben, well, I'm guessing he spent Thursday curing Ebola or brokering peace in the Middle East. Not quite as impressive as coaching middle-school girls to a season-opening basketball victory, but not bad.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Wacky, wild, weird, wonderful, woeful: What a week it was!

It's been an interesting week, to say the least ...

Losing With ... Um ... Style?

My old-man softball team, which won the regular-season fall title, lost in the second round of the postseason tournament. It wasn't your run-of-the-mill defeat.

After a hit by our opponent early in the game, our shortstop took the relay and tried to throw the runner out at third, but our third baseman wasn't on the bag. Our shortstop yelled at our third baseman, who took umbrage and yelled back. The two moved closer to each other and jawed for a couple of minutes while players from both teams watched in bemusement. After the inning, the third baseman walked off the field, said, "I've had enough of this shit," and left the ballpark. Amazing.

We didn't play well and trailed 18-10 going into the bottom of the sixth. But we rallied gamely, scoring 5 runs that inning, giving up one run in the top of the seventh and scoring 3 in the bottom of the seventh to pull within 19-18. We had the bases loaded and two outs. Our batter scratched out an infield hit to tie the game, but our runner at second tried to come all the way around to score and was called out on a very close play at the plate. The umpire's emphatic call led to much whining (and more than a little cussing).

So the game went into extra innings ... and we lost. On the final play, our baserunner went into second standing up and made contact with the opposing second baseman. Tempers flared and much shouting ensued. Shortly thereafter, our left fielder -- who earlier in the season had almost brawled with our first baseman -- somehow got into it with the umpire. The two were wrestling like a couple of ancient polar bears; in the process, our left fielder pulled the umpire's shirt over his head, hockey-style.

Yep, we're a bunch of codgers but we still have fire in our ever-expanding bellies!

Losing With Consistency

The Panthers, my adopted team, pulled off the rare feet of losing twice at home within 5 days. In so doing, they went from having a fairly commanding lead in the NFL's worst division to having little chance to repeat as NFC South champs.

The Panthers have never had back-to-back winning seasons. Yes, that's never as in NEVER EVER. And it certainly looks like the streak will continue. The team's decision to go cheap in the defensive backfield, at wide receiver and on the offensive line has created too many weaknesses to overcome.

As is usually the case in sports, a team gets what it deserves.

Love The Ump!

I had an assignment at one field and then had to hustle to a completely different facility to umpire another game. The first game went into extra innings, so I didn't get to the second game until the bottom of the first inning was just ending. They had started the game with one of the dads calling strikes and balls while standing behind the pitcher's mound.

At the end of the inning, I walked onto the field. The coach who saw me first smiled broadly, shook my hand and said something most umpires never hear:

"Thank God you're here!"

Only The Best For The Cubbies

After yet another awful season, the Cubs are ready to hire ex-Rays manager Joe Maddon to finally get them to the promised land. Nobody denies he is the "best manager available."

If I were a cynic -- and we all know I'm not, right? -- I might point out that Lou Piniella and Dusty Baker each unquestionably was the "best manager available" when hired to rule over Cubbieland. If memory serves, the same even was said about Don Baylor and Jim Riggleman.

Yeah, optimists might say, but things will be different this time. The Cubs actually have a management plan. In Theo Epstein, they have a president with a proven track record of building World Series winners.

Oh, that is different. It's not as if Andy MacPhail had ever built a winner before coming to Cubbieland.

All I know is that nobody under the age of 106 ever lost a cent betting against a Cubs championship.

Eagles Are Flying Again

The Scholars Academy Eagles -- the middle-school girls' basketball team I coach -- held our tryouts and our first practice of the season this week.

Our team is deeper, taller, more experienced and, I believe, more talented than we were last season. At our first practice last year, we had trouble making layups. Layups? What am I saying? We had trouble making a single layup! Yesterday, we were making most of them ... and some jumpers, too.

Both the athletic director and executive director (that's right -- charter schools have executive directors, not principals) already have commented how good the team looks. Great. I was just thinking I need a little more pressure in my life!

I think I'll wait until we've played a game or three before I declare us a juggernaut-to-be. We still will be smaller than most opponents, still will have to scrap and fight for every win.

We also still have to show we will have the same kind of chemistry last year's team did.

The first game is Nov. 13 ... and I'm already nervous!

A Giant Among Giants

So many are praising Madison Bumgarner so much that this is where the voice-of-reason in me usually says: "Slow down. He isn't really the best World Series pitcher ever."

But you know what? He might be.

That last relief outing, with Bumgarner pitching 5 shutout innings in the Giants' 3-2 Game 7 win over the Royals ... wow!

When Joe Buck asked after the eighth inning: "How can Bruce Bochy take him out of the game?" I actually screamed at the TV: He can't!

Kudos to Bochy for not thinking he needed to do more managing. It was similar to Ozzie Guillen's understated managing during the White Sox's run to the 2005 title. Ozzie, you'll remember, let four straight starters pitch complete games in the ALCS.

Had Tony La Russa been San Fran's manager, you know damn well that he would have felt compelled to use a half-dozen relievers  -- and not one of them would have been half as good as Madison Bumgarner!

Riding A Writing Hot Streak

I just completed a three-part series for financial site Seeking Alpha about excellent Dividend Growth Investing opportunities. (Read Part 3 here.) The first two parts have combined to draw some 40,000 pageviews and 1,000 comments, and each of the three was designated an "Editors' Pick."

It's almost as if I used to be a writer or something!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Hating my "favorite" college football team

What a  decision I had to make Saturday night:

Root for my favorite college football team (which, of course, is whatever team is playing Notre Dame in any given week) ... or root for whichever team was playing against Jameis Winston and other assorted Florida State miscreants (which this week happened to be Notre Dame).

In the end, the notion that Notre Dame could go into college football's new playoff system unbeaten was too much to take, and I had to side with the FSU Felons.

The Seminoles won a very exciting game, so I guess I'm ... um ... happy?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Way to bear down, Panthers!

Sunday, Robbie and I went to our first Panthers game.

Yep, that's me rockin' the Keyshawn Johnson
jersey I got on eBay for 16 bucks!

We were joined by Ben, who was in town from Chicago to root on his Bears. Ben and I made a bet: If the Panthers win, he would have to wear my Panthers shirt when he "guest coaches" my middle school basketball team at Monday's practice; if the Bears win, I'd wear his shirt to practice.

He'll look good in black and Panthers blue, baby!

For much of the game, it seemed I'd have to wear his "Ditka is God" t-shirt, though, as the Bears took advantage of a bunch of Panthers mistakes to race to a 21-7 lead.

But when Robbie Gould shockingly went wide-right on a 35-yard FG late in the first half and then Cam Newton marched the Panthers downfield for a TD pass to Greg Olsen seconds before halftime, I began to think my adopted team had a chance.

As it turned out, it was just a matter of waiting for the inevitable screw-ups by Jay Cutler & Co. A horribly thrown pass by Cutler with about 6 minutes left was intercepted and led to a FG that tied it at 24. On Chicago's very next offensive play, Matt Forte fumbled and the Panthers recovered. Newton and Olsen connected in the end zone again, and the Panthers had the lead with just over 2 minutes to go.

The Bears' last hope ended with Cutler getting sacked and fumbling. The stadium was rocking, with Panthers fans out-shouting the thousands of Bear backers who showed up.

Up in Section 535, we were surrounded by Bears fans - including the guy in front of me who for some reason decided to wear his Olsen #82 jersey. Really, this yahoo wanted to be reminded about the awful trade that gave away one of the NFL's best tight ends? In an interview last week, Jerry Angelo finally admitted the trade was a bad one.

Thanks, Jerry! No wonder you're now an ex-GM.

I wasn't surprised the Bears imploded - especially Cutler, who has won one playoff game in his entire career and whose job title should read "Coach Killer Extraordinaire." I was a little surprised by the screw-ups of Gould and Forte, two of the few reliable Bears.

I am happy for good-guy Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who spent his entire playing career in Chicago and, as defensive coordinator, helped the Bears reach the 2007 Super Bowl. This season, Rivera has beaten both his former team and Lovie Smith, the now-Bucs coach who inexplicably fired Rivera after the Super Bowl so he could hire his incompetent buddy, Bob Babich. Hey, Rivera was too good for Lovie the Loser, anyway!

While the Bears prepare to fall to sub-mediocrity, "my" Panthers are alone in first place in the NFC South ... at least for a week. The brutal upcoming schedule includes these next three games: at Cinci, at Green Bay and home vs. Seattle.

So playing the Bears at home represented a must-win situation. And thanks in great part to the Bears' largess, win the Panthers did.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

MLB Picks, Least Valuable Players and A Fond Farewell to a South Side Star

I believe I heard 649 announcers say Derek Jeter's game-winning hit in his final Yankee Stadium at-bat was the "perfect ending" to his career.

Hmmm. I'm pretty sure the perfect ending would have been a World Series-winning hit, but whatever.

And now that we've got Jeter in our rear-view mirror, we can concentrate on a baseball games that actually matter.


I will admit that, after being skeptical, the extra wild-card spots have grown on me. Interest in the race was high and the baseball was exciting.

The A's almost suffered a choke of Cubbian proportions but managed to hang on by the length of a Canseco syringe. Oakland genius Moneyball Beane gave up his most feared offensive player (as well as his clubhouse chemistry) to land Jon Lester, and it almost cost the team a playoff spot. Tuesday night, Lester can reward Beane by beating the Royals, who send "Big Game" James Shields to the mound.

It's nice to see K.C. back in the postseason. I was a Yankees fan as a teenager and I still get chills when I see the grainy video of Chris Chambliss' series-winning HR in 1976. Kansas City used to be a great baseball town, so it will be fun to see the ballpark hoppin' on Tuesday.

I'm thinking the Royals will win if Shields can match Lester and let K.C. get into the Oakland bullpen.

Over in the NL, I'm digging Wednesday's San Fran-Pittsburgh matchup. The Pirates have the better team but the Giants send the better pitcher to the mound. Here's another great baseball town of the 1970s that fell on hard times, but it's two straight postseason appearances for the Pirates and I think Andrew McCuthen & Crew will find some way to beat Ross Bumgarner.

After that, however, I don't like the Pirates' chances against the Nationals. Meanwhile, the other NLDS should be a great one, with Clayton Kershaw leading the Dodgers against the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright in Game 1. The only pitching matchup that might turn out better than that one in the entire postseason would be if the two go at it again in Game 5. It seems the Cardinals always find a way, but of course how true is that? I mean, they don't win the pennant every year. Kershaw and Zack Grienke ... that's a lot of pitching to overcome.

I'll go with the Dodgers to beat the Nats in the NLCS, too.

Back to the AL ... I gotta go with the stacked Angels over the A's-Royals winner. The Tigers-Orioles series is compelling given that Detroit has spared no expense in putting together a dream rotation. The Orioles have relative no-names on their staff but also have one heck of a lineup. But how can I pick against all that Detroit pitching - plus Miguel Cabrera, one of the best hitters of this generation? Turns out, I can't.

Tigers vs. Angels in the ALCS: Lots of star power and power pitching and plain ol' power. The Tigers' pitching depth wins out, as long as their bullpen doesn't implode. (Which is no sure thing.)

So that gives us a Dodgers-Tigers World Series. In the olden days, when Kershaw would have been able to pitch three times in the series after only having had to win one or two other playoff games, this would have been an easy choice. That's no longer the case, though, so the best pitcher in baseball most likely will only pitch twice when it matters most. Because of that, I think I'll go with the Tigers. Their offense can get hot and, again, they have so much front-line pitching - especially if Justin Verlander is right.

All of which probably means the Tigers will lose in the ALDS.


MVP: Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout. After a little bit of consternation for a spell, these turn out to be slam dunks. Kershaw had one of the great seasons ever for a pitcher. Trout had a one-month lull but was outstanding the rest of the year. Both helped their SoCal teams overcome big early-season deficits to win their divisions going away. Frankly, I don't think it should be close in either league.

Cy Young: Kershaw - duh. In the AL, Felix Hernandez seems the obvious choice despite peeing down his leg in the season's final week when his team desperately needed him. If I liked any of the other solid candidates enough, I'd give Felix the thumbs-down, but I don't.

Manager: I'm opting for the beltway duo of Matt Williams and Buck Showalter.

Rookie: Jose Abreu is a 27-year-old former Cuban star, so it almost doesn't feel right picking him. But he is eligible, so he's a total no-brainer selection. In comparison, the NL rookie class is so lame that I'm not even going to bother.

LVP! LVP! LVP!: These aren't really the least valuable players in the sense that many others actually had worse seasons. But given their hype and their salaries, it's hard to top Joe Mauer and Ryan Braun. Mauer needed a late surge to get to 50 RBIs and the Twins are stuck for four more years at $23 million per for a mediocre first baseman who can't hit the ball out of the park and doesn't drive in runs. His biggest impact this season was helping get Ron Gardenhire fired. As often happens to juicers, Braun has become injury-prone. And no longer able to take his slugger's little helpers, he hits a lot of warning-track flyballs. Oh, he's also a pathological liar and a convicted douchebag. Pity the Brewers, who are on the hook for well over $100 million more through 2020. Ugh.


While my former employer, AP, and so many other media outlets were fawning over Jeter - and, to be fair, they probably should have done exactly that given all he had accomplished - Paul Konerko bowed out relatively quietly.

It was fitting. Konerko, a rock-solid ballplayer and a fine gentleman, never sought the limelight while giving the White Sox everything he had for 16 years.

I had many great conversations with Paul over the years, and I will always appreciate that, in good times and bad, he stood in front of his locker and dealt with media mopes like me.

Konerko was both understated and underrated. He had 439 HR and 1,412 RBI. He had six 100 RBI seasons (plus years with 99 and 97). He also was instrumental in the city of Chicago's only World Series triumph of the last 97 years.  He was named MVP of the 2005 ALCS but immediately (and correctly) said the award should have gone to the pitchers.

In the end, I'm guessing he will have been just good enough to be have been not quite good enough for the Hall of Fame. But he should be proud of his outstanding career, and I am thankful I got to cover his first dozen years on the South Side.

Monday, September 15, 2014

I wasn't too distracted to write this

"Distraction" is a media invention. A player or team is faced with some kind of off-the-field issue, and, through their line of questioning, writers and broadcasters immediately look to give the player or team an out.

"Coach, are you worried your guys will be distracted by ... "

What a crock.

Yes, it will distract them if they are weak-minded losers. If they are strong-willed winners, however, the situation at hand actually will serve to motivate and unite them.

The Ray Rice drama played out in Baltimore for months, with the three-time Pro Bowl tailback and fiancee abuser finally getting cut one week ago. For the next three days, coaches and players were incessantly asked about how the situation would distract the Ravens on Thursday night, when they were to play the Steelers.

Well, the Ravens crushed the rival Steelers. Rice's replacement, relative unknown Bernard Pierce, rushed for 96 yards.

As the Rice episode unfolded, here in Charlotte folks were concentrating on All-Pro defensive end Greg Hardy, who was convicted by a judge for assaulting his girlfriend. Hardy has appealed and his case eventually will be heard by a jury. Neither the NFL nor the Panthers suspended him because they said they felt they should let the legal course play out.

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson got all choked up as he spoke publicly about his strong stance against domestic violence, but Hardy remained on the active roster for yesterday's game against Detroit. "How much of a distraction is this?" was the most-asked question at team HQ.

Finally, the day of the game, the Panthers decided to deactivate Hardy. They then went out and throttled the Lions, holding one of the NFL's most explosive teams to 7 points. Hardy's replacement, Mario Addison, had 2 1/2 sacks.

The Ravens and Panthers refused to be distracted. They refused to cave in to the perception that they couldn't live without star players. Whether or not one likes the way Ravens and Panthers management handled the situations in the days and weeks leading up to their decisions regarding Rice and Hardy, one has to be impressed with the way players and coaches responded once the ball was kicked off.

As Thomas Davis, one of the Panthers' defensive captains, told the media after the game: "We've got to continue to come to work and do what we're paid to do."

Remember these results the next time your favorite team takes the media's bait and plays the distraction card.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Today's High Five: A wonderful time of the year!

Man (and woman), do I love this time of year! So much going on in the wide world of sports - and that's a very welcome distraction with what's going on in the wide world of non-sports.


My old-dude softball team, the Sons of Pitches, is 4-0 in the fall league after beating the other previously unbeaten team last night.

We not only won, we won by slaughter rule ... and we won with style, baby!

In the top of the second inning, we turned a TRIPLE PLAY. Yep, a triple-freakin-play! Runners on first and second; the batter hits a sinking line drive to right-center; the runners take off, certain they will be scoring on the play; our RCF Wayne makes a running catch; Wayne throws to SS Tom for Out No. 2; Tom fires to 1B Bob for Out No. 3. Yowsa!

We then come up in bottom of the inning and celebrate by scoring the maximum 5 runs, with Pat - our coach, pitcher and Penguin-run-alike - hitting a three-run homer. Way to go, Ron Cey! (Or is it more like Burgess Meredith?)

We have such a fun group of guys it will be sad when the season ends - and our two-year run as a team ends with it. There will be a new draft next spring and our guys will be cast about the league.

But we still have a lot of fun to go this season. It really isn't even fall yet, we're undefeated, and we have a championship to win!


The Cubs are in last place, 16 games out. The White Sox are in next-to-last place, 15 1/2 games out. And the Bears found a way to lose their season opener at home to the Bills.

All of which can only mean one thing:

It's September in Chicago!

Fans from my former hometown at least can celebrate that Derrick Rose, who is playing for the U.S. National Team, is experiencing no knee problems.


Meanwhile, my Panthers kicked butt and took prisoners in their opener at Tampa Bay, even without the injured Cam Newton.

The Panthers aren't a great team, but I think they're pretty darn good. I don't like talking much about Fantasy Football because people who play it never shut up when they start talking, but if Kelvin Benjamin happens to still be available in your league, you'd be wise to snag him. He's well on his way to being a stud.


The last Little League game I umpired, on Sunday, I took a foul ball to my right shoulder. The pain was so intense that I thought the ball must have somehow gotten under or over my chest protector's shoulder-pad attachment. But it hadn't. The ball just was hit hard and caught me in the "perfect" spot.

The next inning, I was hit by a pitch when the left-handed catcher didn't quite reach across his body enough to catch a ball that was barely out of the strike zone. The ball hit me just below the middle knuckle on my left index finger, an area that is now a lovely shade of purple.

And the next inning, a kid fouled one back off my right shoulder - again. The ball got me within an inch of the previous injury, and I was seeing stars for a few seconds. Ever the trooper, I shook it off and continued. That's why I get the big bucks.

I guess all that punishment was payback for joking around after I had taken a relatively innocuous shot off my shin guard in the first inning. A coach asked if I was OK, and I responded:

"I'm fine. My wife hits me harder than that!"


Why is being fired by the Ravens and suspended the NFL an appropriate punishment for treating a woman like a punching bag?

Why isn't this guy in jail?

OK, I know why he isn't in jail. He is rich enough to afford a good lawyer. That being said, Rice clearly is a bad human being, he can't control his temper, he is super strong, and he almost surely is armed. You can't convince me he is not a threat to society.

Those who know me well know that I'm a softy - and a big believer in second chances. But this criminal should have to sit in a small cell for at least a few months before he gets his second chance.


The NFL season is underway. So is the college football season, and now that there's an actual playoff system waiting at the end, I might even watch a few games. Tennis just played its U.S. Open and golf's Ryder Cup is just around the corner. Soon enough, NHL teams will report to training camp, NBA teams will do likewise and college basketball teams will hold their Midnight Madness sessions. And in soccer "friendlies" all around the world, guys with one name are pretending they were shot in an attempt to draw penalties against opponents who didn't touch them.

Things are so sportarific in September, and baseball is the sportarificest of all.

One of the things I miss most about Chicago is that I no longer live in a town with big-league baseball (or whatever it is that the Cubs and White Sox claim to play). With the Internet, ESPN and the MLB Network, I can keep up with the game pretty well, but it isn't quite the same as having not just one but two teams right in the city.

I have been enjoying the division and wild-card races, but mostly I have been thinking about the MVP awards in each league.

In the AL, the best offensive player has been White Sox rookie Jose Abreu, who came from Cuba and started hitting the second he set foot in Comiskular Park. But you know what? If I had a ballot this season, he wouldn't even be one of the first five guys I'd vote for. He might not even be in my top 10.

For me, an MVP candidate has to be on a team that at least contends for a postseason berth. He has to have come through in games that have meaning - either early- and mid-season games that have helped his team to a big division lead, or late-season games that have given his team a chance at the playoffs.

How can Abreu be the Most Valuable Player in his league if his team hasn't played a game "of value" since May? Yes, he has value to the White Sox. Yes, he deserves Rookie of the Year in a runaway. MVP of the entire league? Please.

Mike Trout seemed a lock for the award at midseason but he slumped pretty badly in August. Still, he leads the league in RBIs, he has helped his Angels roll past the once-dominant A's while compiling the league's best record, and he is dynamic both in the field and on the bases. He's still the choice over Detroit's Miguel Cabrera and Baltimore's Nelson Cruz.

Things are even more interesting in the NL, where the absence of a hitting superstar on any winning team has put a pitcher atop the MVP heap.

And what a pitcher. Clayton Kershaw has had several outstanding years, and he's now having one for the ages: 18-3 with a 1.67 ERA. He is in Koufax/Gibson territory, and he is the main reason the Dodgers overcame a slow start - Kershaw missed April and it took him most of May to shake off the rust - to surge past the Giants in the NL West.

Valid arguments can be made that a pitcher who makes 30 starts shouldn't win an MVP award ahead of everyday ballplayers, but Kershaw has been so dominant and has so obviously lifted the Dodgers, that he is an example of why it should be rare but possible.

For stat-heads who like advanced metrics, Kershaw leads all MLB players in Wins Above Replacement, and the guy in second (somewhat surprisingly, Oakland's Josh Donaldson) isn't very close behind.

The Marlins don't even have a .500 record and they are only on the fringes of the wild-card race, but if they can make a legitimate push over the last couple of weeks, Giancarlo "Don't Call Me Mike" Stanton could make it a two-man MVP race. Stanton leads the league in HR and RBI and he's a great all-around player. He's put up his numbers not in a Rockies-style thin-air-aided bandbox but in Miami's spacious, pitcher-friendly ballpark. Very impressive.

Stanton's best chance is if the Marlins make a big move in the next two weeks and if Kershaw loses some votes to teammate Adrian Gonzalez, who has been hot of late and is right behind Stanton in the RBI race. I suppose Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen could go wild down the stretch and steal the award, but I don't see it happening.

Right now, Kershaw is a pretty easy choice for MVP, Cy Young and, hell, let's make him governor of California, too. Jerry Brown can't have more than another decade or three in office, right?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Hey Tiger: Hire me as swing coach!

Tiger Woods
Former Majors Champion
The Woods Compound
Orlando, Fla.

Dear Mr. Woods:

It has come to my attention that you need a new swing coach (again), and I am sure I would be perfect for the job. Here is my resume:

1985 -- Underwent back surgery to repair a herniated disc. After that, my golf game only improved over the years ... to the point where I often break 100 on public courses now. I'm sure I could improve your game every bit as much as you deal with a bad back.

1996 – Demonstrated great motivational technique while on a Michigan golf junket with former Copley columnist Gene Seymour.

Gene (standing over 3-foot birdie putt): This is just like the one I missed yesterday.

Me: That’s a great thought to put in your mind. Just shut up and make the putt. (He did!)

1997 -- Covered the Western Open at Cog Hill, and my mere presence inside the ropes obviously inspired you to victory.

1998 – Became a columnist and took advantage of the spare time I suddenly had to revamp my swing, turning my fade into a draw. OK, so it really was turning a banana slice into a duck hook, but it still showed an openness to explore different styles. That fall at Mistwood, I used my new form to make 7 pars in an 11-hole stretch, as witnessed by Tim Cronin. You, too, could enjoy that kind of consistency.

1999 – Made a downhill 25-footer to birdie Medinah No. 3’s famed second hole on PGA Championship media day. Had the ball not gone into the cup, it probably would have ended up in the lake. Later parred 12 and 17 - all part of my nifty 101. You have to admit, not many pros are capable of shooting a 101.

2000-08 – Regularly contended for third place in weekly golf games organized by myself, Phil Arvia and Teddy Greenstein. As a bonus, I got to drive back to Chicago in rush hour. Those 2-hour slogs built my character and proved my resolve.

2000 – Birdied consecutive holes at The Merit Club during U.S. Women’s Open media day. Given that I didn’t make anything better than a bogey on the other 16 holes, this showed my ability to rise to the occasion.

2001 – Playing the 16th hole at Mill Creek Golf Club in Geneva, Ill., with three fellow golfers on the tee box and four more standing near the green, I yanked my tee shot into the water. I then re-teed and hit a big hook that landed on the far right side of the green, bounced several times and went into the cup on the left side of the green for that rarest of shots: a hole-in-3! Although one of my playing partners, Gene Chamberlain, carded a birdie - meaning I didn't even have honors on the next hole - this demonstrated my ability to respond to adversity.

2003 -- Beat Nick "Woosie" Pietruszkiewicz by a stroke on the front 9 at Buffalo Grove Golf Club. So what if he beat my by 13 strokes on the back 9? I showed that for a couple of hours, if I'm playing my best, I can outplay a good golfer playing his worst.

2005 -- Playing Pelican Point in Gonzalez, La., the day after a Bears-Saints game - and less than three months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans - I scored an 81, my personal best for a "grown-up" course. I started with four 6's but then went par or better on 10 of the next 12 holes. The stretch included a career-high six straight pars. It also included a chip-in birdie; those familiar with my short game might argue that was rarer than my hole-in 3 back in '01. Even though I finished bogey-bogey to ruin my bid to break 80, I don't know how you or any pro could look at such an achievement and fail to be impressed.

2006 -- Birdied No. 18 at River Oaks (a.k.a. Fuddruckers National) to win several dollars - more than 1, less than 10 - off of Arvia and Greenstein. I know you like to gamble when you play, and I definitely will give you a run for your money ... if you give me enough strokes ... 18 per side should do it ... or maybe 24.

2007 -- Played 108 holes in 72 hours in Michigan with Tony Pellikan and Tom Chodzko. Talk about toughness and resilience!

2009 -- On consecutive days while golfing in Phoenix, I saw a coyote, a roadrunner and Alice Cooper. You, too, could benefit from my keen powers of observation.

2010 – Following my move from Chicago to Charlotte, I began a three-year stint working in customer service at country clubs - first River Hills, then Ballantyne.

During this time, I practiced hard to get rid of my trademark draw/hook. Now, I have no idea which direction the ball will go once it leaves my club, which speaks to my spontaneity and sense of humor.

I also routinely gave playing tips to members and their kids, the most effective being: “If you want to be any good at all, watch me and then do things the exact opposite way.”

2011 -- Started drinking beer again, a must when dealing with the likes of you.

2012 – After cutting the corner with a long drive and dropping a 5-iron within 2 ½ feet, I made the putt to eagle the 490-yard 11th hole at Ballantyne CC. This tale of my only career eagle surely would inspire any golfer to greatness, so I will be happy to recount my heroics weekly. Or even daily, if you insist.

2014 – Stopped working at Ballantyne CC to concentrate on landing a job as your swing coach because I knew it would be only a matter of time before you blamed Sean Foley for your problems.

So how about it, Mr. Woods … hire me, employ my proven What Not To Do swing techniques, and start winning majors again!



Monday, August 18, 2014

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

The worst part about vacations is that they have to end. As I write this, Robbie is back at work and I am getting ready to go grocery shopping, pick up our held mail and handle a stack of bills that accumulated in our absence. Ugh.

Still, we had a great trip to visit Katie in Seattle and to chill out with our forever friends, Elizabeth and James DeVault, in Park City, Utah.

The trip didn't start very great, as our Southwest flight to Seattle on Aug. 4 was canceled due to mechanical problems. Every 20-30 minutes, an employee went on the intercom to say, "The mechanic has not yet arrived," or "The mechanic just arrived and is assessing the situation," or "The mechanic is now trying to determine if we have the necessary parts to remedy the situation," etc. Finally, after about 5 hours at the airport, we learned the flight was canceled and everybody lined up to receive alternate transportation. 

They wanted to put us on a flight early the next morning. We would have had to gather our luggage, call for the shuttle to take us back to the remote lot where we parked our car, drive 40 minutes home, get as much sleep as we could, wake up at 3:30 a.m. the next day, go back to the airport, park the car, check the luggage, go back through security, etc. It was not an inviting solution.

It dawned on me that I had enough American miles to book new flights and, sure enough, there was one leaving in a couple of hours. Because we were booking on short notice, they charged us $75 each for the right to use our miles. Plus, because we weren't flying on Southwest, they charged us $25 each for our two bags. So it was $200 PLUS 25k miles. But at least we wouldn't have to leave the airport.

Naturally, THAT flight was delayed by about 3 hours. By the time Katie picked us up at the Seattle airport and drove us to her apartment, it was 1:30 a.m. - Seattle time. Meaning 4:30 a.m. for our tired bodies!

Fortunately, getting started was by far the worst part of our vacation. We had a great time in the great state of Washington ... and did so without even sampling their newest legal product.

Robbie and I at the top of Rattlesnake Ledge, 
part of the Snoqualmie National Forest. 
We had amazing views of  Mount Washington, Rattlesnake Lake and 
Chester Morse Lake, making the 2-mile climb worthwhile.

While in Seattle, Robbie and I celebrated our 31st anniversary. 
Doing so with Katie made it extra special. 
She even treated us (mostly) for our great dinner at Cutter's.

We also got to meet Katie's boyfriend, Ben. 

Hmmm ... same name as her brother, same hairline as her father ... a shrink's delight!

Later in the week, we strolled through Pike Place Market, took a whitewater rafting trip - I won't say who fell out, but her name starts with an R! - ate well and drank merrily.

After five fantastic days with Katie, we said our farewells and flew to Salt Lake City. There, we met up with Elizabeth and James, our longest-tenured married friends. Elizabeth and Robbie met shortly after we got married and moved to Madison, where they both worked in a bank's student-loan department. James was going for an advanced degree in economics at Wisconsin and I was in the early stages of my AP career. We've been close ever since, and we try to get together once a year or so. For a long time, the families had mass gatherings, but now that our kids are on their own and the DeVault kids are mostly grown, it's usually just the four of us.

Why Park City? Good question. We had a timeshare week to use and that was the best place we could trade into. It was a pretty mountain area, and we could see why it's popular in the winter. Our Marriott resort had a lot of amenities, and the area was beautiful in the summer, too. We mostly chilled out but did a few more active things.

Here, Robbie and I (and James to the left) are at the Homestead Crater, 
a cavern with mineral water that is at a natural 90 to 96 degrees. 
The picture is fuzzy because we were treading water to try to stay in one place.

Robbie climbs aboard Buttercup for our horseback ride at Antelope Island State Park.

Poor Joe drew the short straw and had to carry me.
I ate so well on the trip that I think I gained 5 pounds. 
I don't know for sure; I'm too chicken to step on the scale! 

Here we are... the Four Horsepeople of the Apocalypse!

Antelope Island State Park is home to hundreds of free-roaming bison, and we saw dozens of them. We also saw a few antelope ... unless they were mule deer. We're still not really sure which. 

The park also borders the southeast part of the Great Salt Lake. I had been to Utah three times - for the 1993 NBA All-Star Game (where my assignment was to cover Shaq's appearance as a rookie) as well as the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals. Despite all that time there, I had never even gotten a peek at the Great Salt Lake. So this time, I made sure I not only saw it but experienced it.

This photo of Robbie and I provides an accurate account of how massive the lake is. 
We only waded up to our knees because, frankly, the water was filthy!

The other major activity we did in Utah was a tour of the Mormon temple grounds in Salt Lake City. We weren't allowed in the temple, but we viewed it from the outside and got to go into a few associated buildings. It's a massive complex, and we learned that more than 60% of the state's population belong to the church. The tour was interesting but I was less fond of the prosthelytizing. 

The rest of our vacation was spent sunning at the pool, relaxing in the hot tub and eating well.

Oh, and playing games. When we get together, Elizabeth, James, Robbie and I play a lot of games - board games, card games, trivia games, etc. OK, so we're not the most happening couples on the planet ... we still have fun. 

On this trip, the ladies discovered a new passion - table shuffleboard. Did I say passion? Maybe addiction is more like it. Elizabeth actually went online to price a table for their house. I think she concluded that it would be too big for any room other than their bedroom, and James wasn't thrilled about that idea!

One day, the table was covered and had a note saying it was out of commission because somebody had broken it. We took a look and saw it only had a minor flaw, one we could fix temporarily with the folded-up cover of a pizza box. 

As we gathered near the elevator to go play, pizza box in hand, I said, "Yep, we're four rule-breaking bad-asses." 

Four 50-somethings setting their own rules so they could play table shuffleboard ... it doesn't get much more bad-ass than that! We laughed about that remark for days, with Elizabeth saying she could just see a Saturday Night Live skit based on the idea. I think it could work, with Will Ferrell returning to play me, of course.

"Don't mess with us ... we're bad-asses ... we're heading for the shuffleboard room ... we've got a pizza box and we know how to use it!"

Our trip wrapped up Saturday and we went our separate ways - Elizabeth and James back to Easton, Pa., where he is an economics professor, and us back to Charlotte. As always, it was sad saying goodbye but we'll have bad-ass memories to last us decades.

For some reason, flights from Salt Lake City to Charlotte were outrageously expensive, so a few months back I decided to use American miles to book the flight. Regular reward seats weren't available, so I said, "What the hell," doubled the miles and treated us to first class. It had been a long time since I had gotten an actual meal on an airplane, and this time, because of our plane change in Dallas, we got breakfast AND lunch! Not bad, either.

An egg "scrambler" with cheese, veggies and potatoes, 
fresh(-ish) fruit and a warm banana-nut muffin. 
I've had worse breakfasts, I can tell you that.

Our flight was on time, there were no problems at all, and boy was Simmie happy to see us!

I tried to upload a video of Simmie going crazy as soon as she saw us, but Blogger wasn't accepting it. So this photo of her on her favorite resting spot - the landing where the stairs take a turn - will have to do. Even though she looks like a puppy here, this was just taken a few weeks ago. Like Robbie, Simmie looks much younger than her years!

Upon our return, we also got to meet our new next-door neighbors, David and Jean. The Burleys, the fun family who lived next door for our first 3 1/2 years in the neighborhood, have moved to be closer to the school their three sons attend. We'll miss them but are happy they sold their house to such nice people!

Though no longer on vacation, we plan to enjoy the rest of our summer. Here's hoping your summer has been great, too.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Hall Call: My memories of Big Hurt, Maddux, Cox, La Russa and Torre

A year ago, here's who was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame: early 20th century umpire Hank O'Day, 19th century ballplayer Deacon White and Jacob Ruppert, who owned the Yankees from 1915-39.

Yep, it was quite a day filled with baseball memories for all those whose average age was deceased.

The 2014 class more than made up for it, thank goodness.

What a group: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox

I had pretty good conversations over the years with five of the six - all but Glavine, who rarely pitched in games I covered.

Here are my impressions and memories of baseball's newest Hall of Famers ...


When I was a 30-something sportswriter in Minnesota, I remember watching The Big Hurt put a big hurtin' on the Twinkies, turning to the guy in the press box next to me and saying: "Frank Thomas might be the best hitter I've ever seen."

I had that thought many other times over the next several years. I'm pretty old, but not quite old enough to have seen the likes of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle in their primes. And I wasn't even born when many of the greats of the game were long retired. So Thomas looked pretty damn good to me.

If you think I'm exaggerating, here was The Big Hurt's stat line his first 10 full seasons in the big leagues (1991-2000): .320 BA, 1.020 OPS, 34 HR per year, 115 RBI per year. He won two MVPs and finished in the top three 3 more times. What a stud.

He got old and injuries started biting him, but he still had some great seasons. When he was 38 with Oakland and 39 with Toronto, he totaled 65 HR and 209 RBI.

I also will remember Thomas as a sensitive guy who sometimes claimed he didn't care what others thought but who obviously cared very much about how he was perceived. So it wasn't surprising that he had to fight back tears during his induction speech.

Big Frank was a me-first guy, as many superstars are, and could be quite a whiner and excuse-maker. But he mellowed as he grew older. I remember how outwardly happy he was in the clubhouse when the White Sox won the 2005 World Series. Still, I could tell he was disappointed that an injury prevented him from really being part of that team.

Thomas also was a central figure in one of my favorite Karma's A Bitch incidents:

The Sox won the division in 2000 but got off to a poor start in 2001. Making matters worse, Thomas got hurt in early May. Tub of goo pitcher David Wells, who was brought in to give the team "an edge," opined on his radio show that Thomas was a baby who refused to play with pain. When Thomas ultimately was diagnosed with a torn triceps that required season-ending surgery, Wells refused to apologize. Fittingly, the corpulent Wells sustained a back injury that ruined his season. I guess the big baby couldn't pitch with pain.


As instant replay gets used more and more frequently, occasionally somebody brings up the possibility that cameras and computers might one day replace the home-plate umpire. The next Greg Maddux had better hope that never happens.

Maddux lived just outside the strike zone. Because he had such pinpoint control, he was given calls that few other pitchers got. He was smart enough to take advantage of it, working that outside corner for all it was worth.

And it was worth a lot, including 355 wins and 3,371 strikeouts. 

The myth is that Maddux was a lobber for the entirety of his career, making those 3,000-plus K's even more incredible. The fact is that for more than half of his career, Maddux could pop the catcher's mitt pretty darn good - I'm talking 92, 93 mph with regularity. His control and speed changes made his fastball seem ever faster, too.

Maddux made the majors in 1986, one year after I became a full-time sportswriter. However, I was only an observer from afar until the Cubs brought him back in 2004.

Fanfare? Hype? Please! Those words don't come close to the all-out giddiness Cubbieland was going through when the team added Maddux to a pitching staff that carried the team to the NLCS the previous year. Sports Illustrated put 'em on the cover and predicted an end to the 95-year championship drought.

The question wasn't if the Cubs would have the best starting rotation in baseball. It was: Where does this staff rank in the history of baseball? Heck, some even argued that the Cubs had the best-hitting and best-fielding rotation of all time. What? Not the best-looking, too?

After the Cubs signed Maddux, I wrote that it obviously was a great move but it guaranteed nothing because they still had shortcomings at catcher, shortstop, in the bullpen and at the top of the order. Wow ... did I get a lot of angry email over that one - including one from the managing editor of the newspaper we owned in Peoria. He wanted to know why I couldn't be more "positive."

My response was that I was positive ... that the Cubs were still the Cubs, and no living person had ever lost a dime betting against the Cubs winning a championship.

The Cubs didn't have the kind of postseason choke job that they had the previous year ... because they choked down the stretch in 2004 and missed the playoffs entirely. The Cubs lost 7 of 8, and Maddux was rocked in his start during that span.

Over the next few years, I interviewed Maddux many times. He was bright and had a very dry wit, but he was extremely guarded around most of the media. I often would finish a 10-minute interview and think I had something interesting to write, only to listen to the recording and realize he had said mostly 10 minutes of nothing.

Having said all of that, Maddux was an amazing pitcher for most of his 23 years and casting a Hall of Fame vote for him was an absolute no-brainer.

Finally, something positive!


I never particularly liked La Russa. He is buddies with Bobby Knight, Bill Parcells and others in the Bully Your Way To Success Club. It pained me to watch the talented and dedicated St. Louis press corps have to tiptoe around him, carefully asking questions lest they tick off King Tony.

The man could manage a ballclub, though. He sometimes tried to reinvent the wheel - as when he insisted upon batting the pitcher eighth for about a year and a half - but he usually had fantastic instincts. He definitely commanded respect from his players, including those who didn't particularly care for him.

I was several years from arriving in Chicago when he was a young White Sox manager and I rarely crossed paths with him during his time in Oakland, but I covered a lot of Cardinals games with him at the helm, including numerous dust-ups with the Cubs when the Cubbies actually were contenders.

He never backed down, trading barbs with Dusty Baker and even with Lou Piniella, whom he considered a friend.

Sadly, he turned a blind eye to the rampant steroid use that took place right under his nose in Oakland and he got in the face of anybody who dared mention that Mark McGwire was juicing. McGwire lied to La Russa's repeatedly and totally hung his manager out to dry - truly one of the worst parts of McGwire's stained legacy.

La Russa could hold a grudge with the best of them, so it was interesting and admirable that he hired McGwire as his hitting coach near the end of La Russa's run in St. Louis.


I used to like when the Braves would come to Wrigley Field and I had the opportunity to sit near Cox in the visitor's dugout a couple hours before the game. He would talk baseball with anybody who happened by, and I always felt like I learned something.

Otherwise, I didn't know him very well, but I am glad he won a World Series and I am surprised he didn't win more than one. 

In his Hall of Fame induction speech, he looked at Maddux, Glavine and John Smoltz - who was in Cooperstown as a TV commentator and who should join that Braves trio in the Hall next year - and said: "I can honestly say I would not be standing here if it weren't for you guys." 

That's true, of course, but it also demonstrated the humility that many say characterize Cox.


Including spring training and the inevitable postseason run, Joe Torre sat down 200-plus times per year with the massive New York media mob. Every time, he had something to give. 

An astute observation. An explanation of strategy. A diffusing of a touchy situation. A level-headed remark despite the furor swirling around him.

As much as Torre won with the Yankees, I'm sure many folks - especially younger fans - might not realize how much losing he did in his first 14 years as a manager with the Mets, Braves and Cardinals. Some criticized George Steinbrenner for hiring a thrice-fired "retread" to manage the Yankees. It turned out to be perhaps the best baseball decision the bombastic owner ever made.

Torre knew baseball plenty well, but what he really knew was how to deal with people. In that way, he was baseball's Phil Jackson - as much psychologist as strategist. Rarely has a manager or coach fit his team's personality better than Torre did the Yankees' of 1996-2007.

My favorite memory of Torre is this one:

On Sept. 11, 2001, the White Sox were in New York, where they were supposed to play the Yankees that night. The game obviously was never played and many White Sox were shaken up by being so close to the tragedy. When baseball resumed its season a week later - this time with the Yankees visiting Chicago - Sox manager Jerry Manuel sounded absolutely despondent. He wondered out loud if baseball even mattered anymore. I wanted to hug him.

Then I walked over to the other dugout to hear Torre, who recently had survived prostate cancer and whose brother had made it through a heart transplant.

"One thing I learned a few years ago is to enjoy things more. Don't worry about life. Let's live it right now, folks, take it as it comes and deal with it.

"Our lives have been changed forever, things we have taken for granted, things that happen on foreign soil that we say, 'How lucky we are that those things don't happen here.' Well, they can happen here. I told my team, 'We really don't know how to deal with this because we've never had to before.'"

He was asked what if baseball is interrupted again by another terrorist attack or even by World War III.

"I can't worry about what's behind the door. That's no way to live. That's like sitting around waiting for an earthquake. You simply can't allow that to happen. That would only add to the tragedy.

"We've been through so much. I think we're ready for baseball."

How good is this guy? If I were a ballplayer these last three decades and could choose my manager, I would have chosen Joe Torre, a Hall of Famer in ever sense of the word.

Friday, July 11, 2014

I would have paid to see Cavs owner grovel at The King's feet!

Good for Cleveland.

And good for LeBron.

When we last saw King James on a decision-making day, he was the lead actor in "The Decision," the ridiculous, narcissistic 2010 ESPN show on which he announced he was taking his talents to South Beach.

On Friday, he couldn't have been classier, penning an article for SI.com in which he explained his emotional ties to Northeast Ohio and said the draw to return home was just too great for him to resist. He complimented the Heat organization, called Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade his "brothers" and came out looking so much bigger than Dan Gilbert.

You remember Gilbert, right? He's the ass-hat of a Cavs owner who four years ago posted an infamous and infantile rant on the team's Web site in which he questioned LeBron's courage and character. Laughingly, he also predicted that he would would win a championship in Cleveland before LeBron did for Miami.

That LeBron returned to Cleveland anyway - for less money than he would have gotten from the Heat - practically suggests he should change his moniker from King James to Saint James.

Gilbert supposedly threw himself on the mercy of King James' court a few days ago, begging forgiveness and apologizing relentlessly. It must have been quite a scene, Gilbert groveling at the feet of the man he ripped four years earlier.

Of course, Gilbert wasn't sincere. He had four years to remove that tripe from the Web site and to apologize like a man, but he left it up there until just a few days ago - when, much to his surprise, James started sending out signals that he would return to Cleveland despite Gilbert.

Almost as funny as Gilbert's pathetic pleas for forgiveness: the conspiracy theorists who think that this was all an NBA plant. Not only did the Cavs win some draft lotteries lately, they now also have LeBron.

Oh, absolutely. Forget having viable teams in New York, L.A., Chicago, Miami, Philly and Boston. The one thing the NBA desperately wants is a winner in Cleveland.

As for what's left of the Heat, reports started surfacing Friday afternoon that Bosh would spurn the Rockets to stay in Miami (for more money, of course) and that maybe Wade would stay with him (though the Bulls also want Wade, and why wouldn't they?). The East is so weak that a Bosh-Wade pairing, surrounded by decent role players, probably would win 45-50 games next season.

Bosh and Wade come out of this smelling like roses, too. Both were willing to wait for James to finalize his decision before they did anything, and both apparently were willing to take major pay cuts had LeBron opted to stay in Miami.

The focus now is on Carmelo Anthony. He supposedly favors going to Chicago because the Bulls are so much better than the Knicks, but he'd be leaving some $50 million on the table to do so.

Fifty-million bucks! I mean, we're talkin' Nadel Money there!!

Now, I never begrudge anybody for going for the money; just don't take the money and then try to claim it's all about winning. Because if it's all about winning, he'd go play with Joakim Noah and a healthy (?) Derrick Rose instead of with a bunch of stiffs in New York.

It's been a fun week of speculation, and with Carmelo still a free agent it isn't done yet.

I genuinely am happy for my friends in Cleveland, who deserve to watch the greatest player in the world again. I only wish Dan Gilbert wouldn't be a major beneficiary, as well, because he deserves nothing but scorn.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Learning hoops and catching zzzz's

I took not one but two naps this past week. And I could have used more.

Oh, and I normally am not a napper!

What made me so doggone pooped?

Well, the better question would be "who," and the answer would be the 15 girls in this photo:

The occasion was the inaugural Scholars Academy Girls Basketball Camp. After having some experience working at camps, this was my first opportunity to run one. Most of the girls, who will be in 4th through 8th grades next year, are students at Scholars. Only three played for my team last season. (A fourth former Eagle, Maddie, is to my left as you look at the photo; she is on her sister's back. Maddie graduated just a couple of weeks ago and served as my assistant at the camp.)

We had a lot of fun and learned a lot of basketball. And when I say "we," I mean it, because I learned a lot, too.

One thing I learned was that running a camp is an incredibly time-consuming undertaking requiring significant planning! I knew it would be going in, but it was all that ... times two.

And so when I got home each day, I was thoroughly exhausted ... and a couple of times I gave in and crashed. I'm glad I did, because I needed the zzzz's, but the naps meant I would have to stay up late those nights planning the next day's session. Which made me tired the next day, as well. Lather, rinse, zzzz-peat!

If it seems as though I'm complaining, I don't mean to be doing so. It really was a "good tired" each day because I had a great time and I felt we accomplished so much. Watching the girls improve from one day to the next -- heck, from one hour to the next -- was truly satisfying.

Camp got me stoked for the 2014-15 season. I wish I didn't have four months left until tryouts!