Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Correcting Sports Illustrated's hateable list of hated teams

Sports Illustrated can’t get anything right.

The magazine’s website created a list of what it thinks are the 25 most hated teams in sports. They got about 24 of them wrong. filling it with a bunch of football, basketball and hockey teams that nobody cares about. And they even included the loveable 1986 Mets!

Simply an outrage.

Now it’s my job to clean up the mess. But I’m only going to list 11 because I just don’t have all that much hate in my heart.

1) 2000 New York Yankees: Let’s see. The bat-chucking and allegedly steroid-using Roger Clemens stole what should have been the Mets third world championship. Clemens alone would be enough to inspire these strong feelings of ill will. But look at the rest of the roster. Confessed user Andy Pettitte and grand pooh-bah of steroid confessors Jose Canseco, Shane Spencer disgraced himself in his short stint with the Mets. Jim Leyritz had substantial legal issues of the most unpleasant manner. Mariano Rivera is, at best, a cyborg. Paul O'Neill was, shall we say, wound a little too tight. David Justice was married to Halle Berry and got dumped. And Derek F. Jeter is, well, all the things he is that makes him one of the only players I openly boo. Seriously, how could Yankee fans support this assortment of bad guys?

2) 1978 New York Yankees: Loathsome. Drunken Billy dissed Reggie and George, resigned in disgrace and five days later was dragged back at an Old Timers Day fiasco that saw Bob Lemon pushed aside for no apparent reason. Then you had Bucky and his corked bat poking one into the screen at Fenway, followed by another beat down of the hapless Dodgers.

3) 2009 New York Yankees: ARod confessed in spring training to PED use, then the team rolled into a new, overpriced stadium that has all the charm of Lenin’s Tomb without even the benefit of having a dead Lenin laying around. Of course it has a jet stream that turns Yankee fly balls into home runs.

4) 1996 New York Yankees: Possibly the most stolen of all the Yankee championships. First, Derek F. Jeter got a cheap home run when the umpires amazingly failed to see Jeffrey Maier reaching into the field, a most infamous act. Then they went to the World Series against the Braves, known chokers in important games not involving the Mets. Jeter again benefited when umpire Tim Welke got in Jermaine Dye’s way as he went to grab a catchable fly. Then, Marquis Grissom was called out going to second on a passed ball when he was clearly safe, costing the Braves a run in the critical Game Six. Yankee magic or umpire assistance? Did the umpires get rings, too?

5) 1977 New York Yankees: Freaking Reggie, Freaking Billy, all in the season where the Mets break hearts by trading Tom Seaver.

6) 1999 Atlanta Braves: Chipper and his band of punks went to an undeserved World Series only because Kenny Bleeping Rogers couldn't throw a stinking strike, and then completely rolled over in the World Series to the vile Yankees.

7) 2008 New York Yankees: An entire season dedicated to a lie. And everyone knew it. The team and its willing accomplices spent the year paying tribute to a ballpark that was effectively torn down back in 1973, even getting an All-Star Game that should have gone to a more glorious ballpark in its final year – Shea, of course. And the patches on the back of the caps looked really stupid.

8) 2009 Phillies: They claimed a division title only because every Met but Daniel Murphy and the bat boy spent time on the disabled list, then completely rolled over in the World Series, giving the Yankees yet another championship and we’ll never hear the end of it.

9) 2001 Yankees: Stinking Roger Clemens went 20-3 at age 38 and no one was questioned whether he was juicing? Thank goodness Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and Luis Gonzalez stepped up to stab the Yankees’ black hearts and prevent them from winning another undeserved World Series win.

10) 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers: It’s bad enough that Mike Stinking Scioscia destroyed the Mets season and Dwight Gooden’s career with one swing. But Dirty Kirk Gibson added insult to injury by stealing the Most Valuable Player Award that rightly belonged to Darryl Strawberry, sending Darryl into tailspin that eventually led to him in Yankee pinstripes, the ultimate uniform of shame.

11) 1991 Mike’s Upper Deck: They were the established kings of the Grand Blanc (Mich.) Parks and Recreation Coed Softball League, led by a surly female coach who never missed an opportunity to whine and berate the umpires. We were the upstart newcomers to the league and refused to play our assigned role of doormats. We were beating them in the fifth inning when it started to rain and the game was called. It should have been an official game. But no, they whined and whined that the game should be resumed and the league relented. We scored six runs in the first inning of the resumed game and claimed our victory – a second time. But I still hate those guys.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A plaque only a championship coach could love

I’ve decided there is a direct correlation to the beauty of a softball trophy and the actual achievement. And it doesn't go the way you might think.

You have to understand that I’ve been coaching coed softball teams for 13 years. I’ve presided over some decent teams and some teams where we all considered not getting hurt and still being on speaking terms at the end of the season an accomplishment.

The top prize has been elusive -- a lofty goal. Oh, we start each season thinking that we were going straight to the finals, and that the regular season was a formality intended as an enjoyable way to spend June and July.

The People’s Team came close -- twice. We founded the Flint Journal’s coed team in response to what we felt was the unfairness, elitism, and unpleasantness of the company’s men’s team. Our credo was that we would have fun and still make sure everybody played.

We won more than we expected, and one year, all the stars seemed to be in alignment and we went to the championship. The opponents, who had not won a game during the regular season, appeared with players we never saw before – really good ones. It did not end well.

That same summer, we went to what was once a casual tournament for newspaper teams, and again went to the finals. We went up against a team from one of the Detroit papers, stocked with players we were convinced had never seen the inside of the Detroit newsroom. That, too, did not end well.

We moved across the state in 1999, and I was very content to be just a player again. But the church team needed someone to take the helm when we had some many players that we could split in two.

The church team is named Know Mercy. I found out later that they picked the moniker because the team not only lost every game its first season, but lost by the mercy rule in each game. The players at the time thought the name was both accurate, and appropriate for a nice Lutheran church.

In the irst year with me at the helm, we earned this fine plaque:

Third place in the consolation round is another way of saying we lost the first game, then managed to win one or two against other teams that lost a game before getting sent home.

It's beautiful, with the little 3-D effect working there. It proudly hangs in the baseball room, not far from the Newsday front page of Jesse Orosco leaping for joy in 1986.

We were good in 2009, and cruised through much of the season. We have a great pitcher, some dangerous hitters and solid female players, which are the key in a coed league. The guys tend to balance out, and teams typically have a bunch of them. But the girls usually bat four or five times a game compared to twice or three times for the guys.

I thought we finally had a team that could go the distance. I mean I really thought we could do it, not the usual pre-season optimism. Alas a communication error prompted some players to arrive late to a first-round playoff game, causing a forfeit.

We marched our way through the losers’ bracket, getting to the final round. There’s a chance I carried on like Jesse Orosco after pounding our rivals in the last game. But deep down, we wondered if we could have gone all the way had we not goofed up that first round game.

The league director brought over the Consolation Championship plaque, and I had great expectations after the beautiful third place prize. We got this:

We were under whelmed. But still proud to accept. It hangs in my cubicle in the newsroom.

But that taste of near-victory led to greater expectations for this season. And with good reason. The second church team sort of fell apart, and two of the best players came to play with us. Most of the heroes from the year before were returning, and we picked up some new friends.

And there was another reason. My son was turning 18, which meant he was finally old enough to play on the same team as his dad. I got all choked up just thinking about it.

Things did not turn out entirely as expected early on. Some of our biggest guns had some other commitments and missed some games, out biggest was injured playing basketball and things just didn’t fall into place when they needed to. We lost some close games to good teams, and got pounded by some very good teams. We even had a tie game, which had not happened before.

We closed the regular season limping with one win, one tie and, well, more loses than we dared to count.

But I told the team we needed to shake off all that baggage and start anew. Most of the other commitments had been completed, my shortstop was declared healthy and things started to click.

We bounced a team out of first round, and squeaked around the team we tied in the second – our first winning streak of the season.

We caught fire. The defense flashed leather previously unseen. Our great pitcher tossed the first shutout in team history. We finally started getting runs in bunches.

Each win afforded new confidence. We faced our rival, the St. Matthew’s Monsters, in the championship game.

Throughout the week, teammates traded e-mail brimming with confidence. But I couldn’t help but think back to those two championship games in 1996, and the disasters that ensued.

We scored three runs in the first inning, and the Monsters replied with one of their own, on a contested call, I might add.

We nursed a 3-1 lead for most of the game, an unusually low score for coed softball. But we tacked on three more in the sixth, no help from the coach. “Mr. Clutch” was so nervous that I popped meekly to first base twice, nearly had the team bat out of order, and directed a player to accept a walk that she wasn’t entitled to.

There’s a chance there was much pacing and angst. More than one player lovingly admonished, “Calm down, Chipper.”

We added a seventh run in the top of the seventh, the final inning. Up 7-1, I directed my son to run out to the outfield because I wanted him to experience what I thought was about to happen. Too nervous to field myself, I bounced all over the place.

Usually I can report the details of each play for our game notes. I have no recollection of what actually happened that inning, other than we shut the Monsters down then raced to the center of the infield to celebrate. It was, after all these years, a very good feeling.

After all the hugs, the league director walked over with a large plaque wrapped in plastic, offering his congratulations.

I’ve been told that it looks like something that escaped from a 1970s roller disco, Others said it looks like a bad 1980s sci-fi movie’s backdrop.

We have a tradition were everyone in the team signs the back of the plaque. We all passed it and posed for a photo. We pointed to the word, "champions" and overlooked the rest.

The plaque has made the victory tour. Pastor asked me to hold it up so the congregation could see. I think some people were a little frightened.

It’s also been to work, where it will probably be on permanent display since my wife said she doesn’t want in the house, much less in the living room, where I first suggested it hang in glory for all to see.

One person walked over to my desk and stopped in mid-sentence. “Boy, that’s, um, some plaque.”

And I smiled. Yes, it is.

To see more about our season and our cool collector cards, check out Know Mercy Softball

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A brief encounter with the Evil Empire's 'Boss'

Yogi's safe, probably Torre, too.

No one reading this space expects a tearful good-bye to George Steinbrenner.

But I did have one encounter with the Yankees owner on a rather surreal evening at Yankee Stadium in 1987 that involved a Hall of Famer, a former U.S. president and a legendary sports nut.

I was standing in the back row of the Yankee Stadium, pre-presidential encounter, and the Yankee owner walked past.

"How you doing, boys?" he said to me and Rich, patting me on the back as he walked past.

The Crane Pool Forum guys noted that remaining Yankee legends should proceed with caution. The old saying is that famous deaths happen in threes, and the Evil Empire earlier in the week lost its voice -- though Mr. Shepherd will continue to be heard every time Derek F. Jeter walks to the plate.

Yogi, of course, is protected by his Mets aura, but Whitey, Reggie, Bucky and the rest of the, um, heroes in pinstripes, not so much.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

An All-Star Game at Shea, and another reason to celebrate July 7

July 7 always will be remembered by Mets fans as the day of the only All-Star Game in Shea Stadium history. Ron Hunt ran out the play second base, the first Met player selected to be a starter.

But I'm also going to remember it as a day one year ago that an iPhone app changed my life.

You have to know that I’ve been overweight most of my adult life. I was a bit of a yo-yo dieter, losing a bit, getting frustrated when I couldn’t lose more, then falling back into old habits. I knew it wasn’t healthy, and I knew I had to change.

Then I discovered Lose It!, a free app that asks you to set a goal, and sets a daily a calorie limit to help you meet that goal. I’d record what I ate after every meal, adding up the calories. Then I recorded my exercise, which subtracted the calories I burned.

The app also has little charts and graphic to mark progress, which is key because it provides visual proof of accomplishment, like a box score.

The value here was not necessarily the app, but the education I gained because of it.
I used to think I was eating in a relatively healthy manner. But I was stunned when I learned the actual calorie count of some of my favorites. I used to think I was dieting if I ordered the foot-long roast beef sub, but passed on the cookie or chips.

And I learned how exercising every day — rather than just two or three times a week — makes a tremendous difference. I spend about an hour a day on the treadmill, though with the weather nicer I can run outdoors and paddle my kayak.

As I started to see results, I became more focused. Some might use words like "obsessed" and "annoying."

I set an initial goal of losing 20 pounds and blew past that in a little over a month.

Initially, 30 pounds was bold but realistic goal, 40 pounds a big audacious goal, and 50 pounds was a fantasy. Today I sit here down 60 pounds, hitting the mark in late winter and maintaining it since.

I was going to show a "before" photo, but it was depressing and a little scary. The "after" shots are so much more fun, especially when compared to a leatherback, which can join me on the treadmill.

Eating in restaurants has been a challenge. Chains are good about posting nutritional information on their websites, but I’ve also learned enough to know what to look for on a menu, and that it’s OK to bring some things home in a box.

I’ve also learned about the importance of portions, especially with snacks. A cookie once in a while is fine. Eating five of them, not so much.

I’m also ramped up the amount of fruit and vegetables I eat. We’ve always had healthy family dinners, but I make sure to pack an apple or a banana — or both — in lunch everyday. I also make my own lunches, and it's a good thing that I'm a creature of routine who can happily eat a turkey sandwich every day.

There’s a different mindset, to be sure. I often think, which would I enjoy more, the brownie or good news on the scale?

And there are some things I miss. Qdoba's three-cheese nachos, China City's sesame chicken and the aforementioned Jimmy John's sub are now just fond memories.

But I've learned a taste of a treat is as good as the whole thing, and running can be fun, especially with an iPod loaded up with "God rock" and 1980s hits.

I feel so much better physically — save for some sore knees once in a while — and I no longer duck for cover when someone brings out a camera.

Not long ago, I was in a store and picked up a 40-pound bag of bird seed, and thought it was pretty heavy. Then it dawned on me I was carrying around all that weight and half of another bag, and realized how difficult that must have been on my body.

I’ve heard that most people who lose weight gain it back over time. That might happen to me one day. But I can make sure I won’t head down that path today, and will take it one day at a time.

Making such a dramatic lifestyle change requires a supportive family, because I suspect I’m not as quiet as I hope I am when I rise a 6 a.m. and head to the treadmill. And buying new clothes was an expense we didn’t consider initially, and we all had to sacrifice. I’m grateful to have their backing even when I test their patience.

Now, I share this for a reason. As some of the people leaving comments on this blog tell me often, I’m not a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon. Yet, I could do this. If I can do it, so can other people.

And if you need someone to cheer you on, you know where to find me.

Monday, July 05, 2010

The Mystery of the Mets and Massapequa

You have to realize that I read almost no fiction.

The Harry Potter books are the rare exception, but I guess I’d rather learn about something real. This is a character flaw and I know it, like drinking too much Diet Coke.

So there can be no reason to expect that I would have purchased the old copy of Rex Stout’s “Please Pass the Guilt,” a Nero Wolfe book my wife asked me to read this weekend.

“You might like it,” she said. “It’s got the Mets in it.”

Sure enough, the lure printed in the dust jacket reads: “A new Nero Wolfe mystery at last – after a gap of four years – and it will be a delight to all Stout fans. The story is set in the summer of 1969, during that memorable period when the Mets were battling for the pennant and bomb scares abounded in Fun City.”

Curious, I started reading. A character introduces himself as “Ron Seaver,” which Wolfe sidekick Archie Goodwin immediately realizes is a combination of Ron Swoboda and Tom Seaver.

Later, there is a scene in which Goodwin visits a character and their attention is diverted because a game is on the television, with the Mets losing to the Pirates 4-2.

There is mention of Ralph Kiner talking, Ed Kranepool batting, and a blooper hit to left-center chased by Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee – spelled incorrectly as “Tommy,” showing some proofreader was a slacker, or worse, a Yankees fan.

They talk about Jerry Koosman having a good inning, Jerry Grote hitting a double, Bud Harrelson beating out a bunt, and Ed Charles making an inning-ending out.

Later, we know that Bob Murphy had replaced Kiner in the booth, and Goodwin tells his host, “Thank you for letting me see Cleon Jones make that catch.”

I scanned Retrosheet to see if Stout used a real game for the scene. Alas, it came from his creative mind. There was one Koosman game on April 16 against the Pirates in which the Mets trailed 4-1 at one point, but never 4-2 and Grote had the day off, resting in favor of J.C. Martin, who did at least double. Charles didn’t play, but Agee, Jones, Harrelson and Kranepool all appeared.

Save for some other scattered references about trying to get out to Shea to watch batting practice, that’s it for the Mets references.

Nero Wolfe solves his mystery, of course, but he doesn’t solve mine.

The book used to belong to a library, and on the inside of the cover is that little pocket for the card on which the librarian would stamp the due date. This one has another stamp – “Withdrawn and discarded” – and printed is the name of the library:

Massapequa Public Library

Massapequa, New York

Pyramid 8-4607

The Massapequa Public Library was like a second home when I was growing up. I’d bike over to the branch at 55 Central Ave. several times a week to read the Sporting News and news and music magazines.

But it’s my wife’s book. She reads only fiction – non-fiction is too much like being at work – and she’s from Illinois.

Rex Stout is one of her favorite authors, and she’s collected his books since she was a teen-ager. She’s had this particular book since high school, and believes that either she or her father found it in a used book store somewhere in Illinois. Her other Stout books from that era came from libraries in Illinois and Baltimore.

What are the chances that a girl from Illinois will come across a book that gives the Mets a fair amount of attention and once sat on the shelves in a Massapequa library? And then tell me the chances that this girl will someday meet in Missouri -- and later marry -- a devoted Mets fan who happens to be from Massapequa?

Surely a master storyteller like Stout would cast aside such a plot twist.

But truth, it has been said, is stranger than fiction.

Friday, July 02, 2010

World Cup fever gone, but it was a kick in 1994

Well, soccer fever has died down here in Michigan now that the very best soccer players in all of America have once again been booted out of the World Cup by the squad from an African nation roughly the size of Indiana.

I'm not weeping, mind you. The vuvuzelas didn't bother me as much as the sportswriters complaining about the vuvuzelas. How dare other countries have their own traditions.

And it's not the bad officiating. Detroit fans know all about bad officiating.

The charms of soccer are just lost on me. But that wasn't the case when the event was here in the United States in 1994, and I got to cover one of the games.

Here's a tale from the vault.

According to my oral surgeon, I was pretty excited about going to the match.

What is hyped as the biggest sporting event in the world came to the Detroit area, with three games to be played at the Pontiac Silverdome.

My editors at the Flint Journal allowed me — succumbed to my begging, actually — to be a part of the coverage. One of the fun parts about being a reporter is that we get to see exciting things up close, and I thought this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Not that I’m a soccer guy by any stretch. In fact, it’s safe to say that I was a full-fledged soccer mocker. Growing up in Massapequa Park in the 1970s, it seemed the sport was shoved down our throats. And there was a whole elitist thing going, about how it was the world’s sport and we silly Americans don’t get it and need to get on board. Most of these people were new Yankee fans who knew a thing or two about jumping on bandwagons.

But reporters are curious beings and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about.

A couple weeks before the first game, I had to go through a special security screening to get a press credential that, for its time, was over the top. By today’s standards it was like boarding a flight to Atlanta.

Then I was able to attend a press conference where we were able to see the special grass that was grown outside on octagon-shaped trays in California then trucked to Michigan and installed in the Silverdome, where the Lions lost a lot of games on plastic turf.

We also were allowed to see the FIFA trophy up close. It was underwhelming.

Then I had to get my wisdom teeth yanked out. I’d never had a procedure like that before, and the only thing I remember was the oral surgeon putting some kind of tube over my nose and my saying that the gas that was supposed to knock me out wasn’t working — and several hours later waking up in my bed with my wife saying "Ick, change your gauze." I had no idea how I got there.

So I was still kind of sore when the big day arrived. The United States was playing Switzerland in the opening round game, and the hometown team was considered great underdogs.

We had actual sports guys covering the action on the field. My job was to write about everything else going on. And the fans from Switzerland were completely out of control. The Silverdome parking lot was an explosion of red and white, with singing and dancing, painted faces and flags.

People were walking around with cow bells, and I don’t mean Blue-Oyster-Cult-it-needs-more-cowbell cowbells. These things were massive. Somewhere is Switzerland, bovines were stealthily moving throughout their countryside because their bells were in Pontiac.

I looked for Swiss people who spoke English, and found one guy who didn’t mind talking to an obvious soccer novice. He spoke about the strengths and weaknesses of both teams, then leaned forward and spoke softly.

"Now I have a prediction for you. But I warn you, you might not like it."

"OK,let me hear it."

"Switzerland 4, U.S. 1" he said, then stood straight up with his chest puffed out, clearly expecting me to launch into a tirade. I’m sure he was disappointed that I didn’t.

I admired their fanaticism and patriotic fervor, which was a stark contrast to the Americans in the crowd.

I moved inside for the game, and the Swiss-induced bedlam continued, with more singing and chanting.

I’ve always thought soccer was pretty boring. A colleague at the paper wrote that it’s played on a field the size of Rhode Island with goals bigger than an airplane hangar, and people still can’t seem to score more than a point or two. And all that is true. But it was amazing to see the way the players could send the ball way down field, floating like it was a beach ball, and make it stop on a dime.

Predictably, there were only two goals. Georges Bregy of Switzerland scored first, and Eric Wynalda of the U.S. later. Sadly, I missed them both, having picked a bad time to use the mens room and grab a Diet Coke.

But a 1-1 tie was considered a sizable victory for the U.S., and I got caught up in World Cup fever, staying up late to watch some games, and even buying a U.S. jersey.

There's no way I’d attend another soccer game, but this was a fun way to dabble in a lesser sport for a short while.

But I'd love to be able to take some of the Swiss fans to see a Mets playoff game and let them see what real excitement is!

A week later I was back at the oral surgeon to get my stitches out, and he asked if I had a good time at the World Cup game.

"How’d you know I went to that?" I asked. "Did you read my stories?"

"No," he responded with a smile. "While you were knocked out, you kept repeating over and over, ‘I’m covering the World Cup next week.’"

Apparently I tried to drive home, too.