Thursday, December 24, 2009

Legitimize the Mountain West

In college basketball, the old saying goes, only one team gets to end the season with a win --- the champion.  Everybody else goes out on a loss.

This isn't the case in college football, where a team can play an average season, get selected to an average bowl game, and win on December 28th to close out their year.  Okay, perhaps it's not the same, but it's still worth it to go out and try to win your bowl game.  It reflects better on you and on your conference.

Is any conference reflected better than the Mountain West?

  • Since 1999, the MWC is 25-15 with two Bowl Challenge Cups and a 4-1 record this year (including a pair of convincing wins over Pac-10 foes California and Oregon State).
  • Eight of the nine Mountain West teams have won a bowl game.
  • Utah went undefeated last year (including a convincing victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl) and has now won its last nine bowl games, the best streak in the country.

The next step for the conference is adding another team, probably Boise State, allowing them to hold an Conference Championship Game at the end of the season.

The next step is to legitimize the MWC.  The conference deserves an automatic bid into the BCS.

A Moment of Silence for George Michael

If you grew up as a sports fan in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area over the last few decades, you knew George Michael on NBC-4.  His popularity was further spread by the George Michael Sports Machine, a weekly nationally syndicated precursor to ESPN's Sportscenter that began in 1984 and ran all the way to 2007.  George was king of sports media in DC -- and was most definitely referred to as King George along the way.

With me, I fondly remember Tuesday Replays, Wednesday Wrestling, Redskins Report, and Full Court Press.  Really though, what I remember most is sitting in my parents bedroom with my brother and father and calling up the George Michael Sports Machine telephone hotline over and over in order to hear the latest updated scores from around the country.

Here is his obituary as well as thoughts from Scott Van Pelt (on Sports by Brooks) and memorial pieces from Michael WilbonMarc FisherLen Shapiro, Mike Wise, Dick Heller, and Mike Freeman, and a chat with Tom Boswell.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Publicity and Pugilism

Wouldn't it be nice if a boxing match could be held without any elements of ridiculousness preceding it?

It can't happen, of course.  Boxing's demise is inexorable and so anytime there's any hint of a "big" boxing match, the promoters go into publicity-seeking overdrive in order to squeeze one last huge purse out of the general sporting public's interest.

Hence, the Manny Pacquiao/blood test controversy that is "threatening" to KO the big Pacquiao/Floyd Mayweather match.  A direct quote from Ron Lewis's story:  "Yesterday, Bob Arum, Pacquiao's promoter, said the bout was 'dead.' "

The bout is not dead.  This is about publicity, easy as that.  Whatever Arum can do to drum up interest, he will.

Pacquiao actually tried to deliver the first salvo of publicity a few days earlier with a demand for a monetary penalty to be levied if either boxer doesn't make weight.  When everyone just sort of shrugged at this, the blood-testing controversy began.

We still have three more months before the scheduled bout.  Prepare for more idiocy from both camps.

The 2009 winner of the Ed Block Courage Award...

Michael Vick, as voted on by his Eagles teammates.

The Ed Block Courage Award "goes annually to the [Philadelphia Eagles] player who 'exemplifies commitment to the principles of sportsmanship and courage.' "

I have no further comment.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

NFL Relegation Standings

Here's a different look at the 2009 National Football League season.  (I'll keep updating these standings through the end of the season.)

NFL Premier Division... (overall record listed first in bold)
Indianapolis... 14-2 (3-0 vs. Premiere, 9-1 vs. N.S.P., 2-1 vs. Dregs)
New Orleans... 13-3 (2-1 vs. Premiere, 6-1 vs. N.S.P., 5-1 vs. Dregs)
San Diego... 13-3 (3-1 vs. Premiere, 4-2 vs. N.S.P., 6-0 vs. Dregs)
Minnesota... 12-4 (4-1 vs. Premiere, 2-2 vs. N.S.P., 6-1 vs. Dregs)
Philadelphia... 11-5 (0-4 vs. Premiere, 6-0 vs. N.S.P., 5-1 vs. Dregs)
Green Bay... 11-5 (3-3 vs. Premiere, 1-1 vs. N.S.P., 7-1 vs. Dregs)
Dallas... 11-5 (3-2 vs. Premiere, 2-3 vs. N.S.P., 6-0 vs. Dregs)
Cincinnati... 10-6 (3-2 vs. Premiere, 2-3 vs. N.S.P., 5-1 vs. Dregs)
Arizona... 10-6 (1-2 vs. Premiere, 3-4 vs. N.S.P., 6-0 vs. Dregs)
New England... 10-6 (1-2 vs. Premiere, 6-5 vs. N.S.P., 3-0 vs. Dregs)
Baltimore... 9-7 (1-6 vs. Premiere, 2-1 vs. N.S.P., 6-0 vs. Dregs)

Three notes:
1.  Minnesota's only Premiere loss was to Arizona.  Half of their four Premier Division wins came against Green Bay.
2.  Baltimore's only Premier win came against San Diego.  The Ravens are clearly the odd team out, beating up on little sisters while falling short against quality opposition.
3.  The Philadelphia Eagles, like the Ravens, have struggled against good teams while handling inferior opponents with greater ease (except for the Raiders).

Not-So-Premiere Division... (overall record listed first in bold)
Pittsburgh... 9-7 (3-3 vs. Premiere, 4-0 vs. N.S.P., 2-4 vs. Dregs)
Atlanta... 9-7 (0-5 vs. Premiere, 4-2 vs. N.S.P., 5-0 vs. Dregs)
Houston... 9-7 (2-3 vs. Premiere, 3-4 vs. N.S.P., 4-0 vs. Dregs)
N.Y. Jets... 9-7 (3-2 vs. Premiere, 3-4 vs. N.S.P., 3-1 vs. Dregs)
Tennessee... 8-8 (1-4 vs. Premiere, 4-4 vs. N.S.P., 3-0 vs. Dregs)
N.Y. Giants... 8-8 (2-6 vs. Premiere, 1-2 vs. N.S.P., 5-0 vs. Dregs)
Denver... 8-8 (4-2 vs. Premiere, 1-3 vs. N.S.P., 3-3 vs. Dregs)
Carolina... 8-8 (3-4 vs. Premiere, 2-3 vs. N.S.P., 3-1 vs. Dregs)
San Francisco... 8-8 (2-4 vs. Premiere, 1-3 vs. N.S.P., 5-1 vs. Dregs)
Miami... 7-9 (1-4 vs. Premiere, 4-4 vs. N.S.P., 2-1 vs. Dregs)
Jacksonville... 7-9 (0-4 vs. Premiere, 4-3 vs. N.S.P., 3-2 vs. Dregs)

Three notes:
1.  The New York Giants' and Houston Texans' overall records have been inflated thanks to excellent play against poor competition.  Neither team has distinguished itself against good teams.
2.  It's been a tale of two seasons in Denver.  The Broncos began the year with six consecutive victories, four of which came against teams in the Premiere Division (Cincinnati, Dallas, New England, San Diego).  They finished 2-8, with losses to Dregs teams in Kansas City, Washington, and Oakland intermixed with awful defeats to Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and San Diego.
3.  The Pittsburgh Steelers have had a baffling season.  They've lost to four of the very worst teams in the league in Chicago, Oakland, Kansas City, and Cleveland --- and they've also won impressively against six solid teams, including Super Bowl hopefuls San Diego and Minnesota.

Dregs Division... (overall record listed first in bold)
Chicago... 7-9 (1-7 vs. Premiere, 1-2 vs. N.S.P., 5-0 vs. Dregs)
Buffalo... 6-10 (1-3 vs. Premiere, 3-6 vs. N.S.P., 2-1 vs. Dregs)
Seattle... 5-11 (0-6 vs. Premiere, 2-3 vs. N.S.P., 3-2 vs. Dregs)
Oakland... 5-11 (2-4 vs. Premiere, 2-4 vs. N.S.P., 1-3 vs. Dregs)
Cleveland... 5-11 (0-7 vs. Premiere, 2-2 vs. N.S.P., 3-2 vs. Dregs)
Washington... 4-12 (0-6 vs. Premiere, 1-4 vs. N.S.P., 3-2 vs. Dregs)
Kansas City... 4-12 (0-6 vs. Premiere, 2-3 vs. N.S.P., 2-3 vs. Dregs)
Tampa Bay... 3-13 (2-4 vs. Premiere, 0-7 vs. N.S.P., 1-2 vs. Dregs)
Detroit... 2-14 (0-8 vs. Premiere, 0-2 vs. N.S.P., 2-4 vs. Dregs)
St. Louis... 1-15 (0-6 vs. Premiere, 0-5 vs. N.S.P., 1-4 vs. Dregs)

Three notes:
1.  How about those Chicago Bears, the Kings of the Basement!  Their non-Dregs win came against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second week of the season... which makes me wonder how well their season could have gone if they'd have faced easier competition.  (I also wonder how their season would have gone if Jay Cutler hadn't thrown all those redzone interceptions.  Ba-zing!)
2.  The Oakland Raiders somehow defeated the Eagles, the Steelers, the Broncos, and the Bengals this year -- but they lost in enormous routs to the mediocre Texans (29-6) and Jets (38-0) and were humbled fellow Dregs squads Washington (34-13) and Cleveland (23-9).
3.  Detroit went 0-16 last year so you'd figure they'd get an easier schedule this year, right?  Wrong.  They played nine games against high-level competition, eight contests vs. Premiere clubs and one game against defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh.

The Devil, You Say?

"The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist."
- Verbal Kint, The Usual Suspects

The quote above must have been referring to Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur.  How else could this man remain so far from the spotlight during his career?

He's led New Jersey to three championships and 14 playoff berths in his 15 seasons.  He owns the career record for most victories by a goaltender with 580 victories.  And yesterday he set the career shutout record for NHL goalies by blanking the powerful Penguins, 4-0.

The question deserves to be raised whether Martin Brodeur is the greatest goaltender of all time, but I yield to the smarter hockey pundits in that debate.

For now, let's merely applaud one of the greats of all-time in his sport.   A standing ovation would be preferable.

Roy Halladay is Classy

This was a great move on his part.

It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over

I bet the Chicago Bulls thought they had last night's game against the Sacramento Kings all sewn up.  After all, they led 79-44 just three minutes into the third quarter (and then 83-50 two minutes later).  Lock it up, close it down.  Have a good night, everybody!

The final score:  Kings 102, Bulls 98.

Say what?

Putting it plainly, the Kings were outscored 83-50 in the first 29 minutes before outscoring Chicago 52-15 over the final 19 minutes.  They finished in particularly awesome fashion, dominating the Bulls 33-10 in the fourth quarter.

Tyreke Evans scored the final nine points to clinch the win and insert himself deservingly into the "finest rookies in the NBA discussion."  It wasn't quite Tracy McGrady vs. the Spurs, but it's still good enough for me.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Controversy in Indianapolis

Game of the weekend?  It wasn't the Steelers/Packers.

It was Xavier vs. Butler in men's college basketball.

In case you missed it, and I somehow suspect you did (as I did), Butler's Gordon Hayward tossed in a layup with 1.2 seconds left to give the host Bulldogs a 69-68 lead.

One last chance for Xavier, right?


The officials went to the monitors and determined via stopwatch that the clock had paused for 1.3 seconds during Butler's crazy last possession.  They wiped out that time from the clock -- and the game was over.  Drive home safely, everybody!

From the game story, here was Xavier's reaction to this unexpected turn of events:

"[Xavier coach Chris] Mack waved his hand in disgust after hearing the decision and was escorted off the floor.  Dejected Xavier players were quickly directed to their locker room by Butler athletic director Barry Collier, the former Bulldogs coach, and in the stands, minor fights broke out.  Butler officials said no arrests were made.  Outside the Xavier locker room, a water fountain was torn off the wall...."

For your viewing pleasure, here are the final six minutes of the game.  The clock does some curious things, let me assure you.  Thank goodness I'm not a fan of the Musketeers or I might be pretty upset right about now.

Then again, as an ACC fan, I'm used to this sort of thing happening all the time against the Duke Blue Devils.

It's Not a Difficult Concept

The Washington Redskins have not officially fired head coach Jim Zorn yet, but they are coach-searching, already holding discussions with Mike Shanahan.  There is a feeling in the DC area that the Skins need a celebrity coach, a "big name," after flopping under the inexperienced Zorn.

Wrong.  The next coach does not need to be experienced.  He only needs to win.

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish recently fired head coach Charlie Weis.  There was a feeling that their new coach had to be better with the media, better with the donors, and better with the players... and the Irish felt that Brian Kelly from Cincinnati fit the bill.

Kelly does not need to be better with the media, the donors, or the players.  He only needs to win.

The same fallacy is raised every single time a coaching change occurred.  So-and-so's style didn't work, so let's hire the opposite of so-and-so.  If a dictator coach doesn't work, hire a relaxed coach.  If a relaxed coach doesn't work, hire a dictator.

But it's not really about style or personality just like it's not really about experience.  Plenty of older coaches have failed, same as plenty of young coaches.  Plenty of relaxed coaches have failed, same as plenty of dictator coaches.  Plenty of coaches who are terrific with the media have failed, same as plenty of coaches who are awful in the spotlight.

You know who the best coach is?  The guy who wins games.  Period.  A coach who wins games also wins over the team, the fanbase, and the media.  Okay, so the media probably won't appreciate a guy if he's prickly with them -- but then again, look at Chase Utley!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Counting is Not the Big Ten's Strength (and Neither is Football)

Apparently, the Big Ten is looking to expand.

If you were unaware, the Big Ten is composed of 11 teams.  If you were unaware, I'm sure that this surprises you a little bit and maybe even makes you laugh at the Big Ten.

My feeling is that if the Big Ten wants to stay proudly erroneous (and a name-change certainly doesn't look in the offing any time), do it up big.  Just 12 teams?  Expand to a 20-team Big Ten; then you can have a pair of Big Ten divisions -- and maybe at least one of those teams will be nationally competitive in football.

This Should Not Surprise Anyone

You know the recent news of concussions linked to brain damage and brain trauma in the NFL?  Now it's been connected to hockey.

Hockey is a violent sport, although not as overtly violent as boxing or football.  Men do square off in hockey and duke it out; in fact, there's at least one bruiser or enforcer on each team to take care of all the rough stuff.  There are crushing checks into the boards that bring a rise out of the fans and are catalogued in highlight reels as often as big football hits.

So, yes, it shouldn't surprise us that a hockey player should have "brain damage due to repeated head trauma."

Now let's see what the NHL does about this.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tom Boswell = Genius

From Boz's chat today:

Let the home team pick the rules before every game of the season: DH or no DH.

It would introduce an element of strategy into every game. Is our DH much better or much worse than theirs? Is our starting pitcher a much better or much worse hitter than theirs?

For years baseball has tried to find a way to reduce the prominence and value of DH's without kicking them out of the game __which the union would fight. The reasoning is that someone who only plays "half" of the game SHOULDN'T be worth as much. Under my idea, if you had a great DH, you could be sure he'd start 81 games at home and probably pinch-hit 70-to-80 times a year on the road at an absolute minimum. That's still 425 plate appearances. But it's not 625.

It might de-emphasize the DH just enough to appeal to common sense while unifying the DH for both leagues and making baseball One Game again. (Or, if letting the home team have the choice three hours before every game seems like too much of an advantage, then alternate the choice between the teams from game to game. Or let the visiting team choose if that's more appealing.)

I don't care if it's farfetched.  I agree totally with this idea.

Let me remind you, too, that there's a precedent for giving the home team a game-defining choice.  Until 1950 in the Major Leagues, the home team was allowed decide whether it wanted to bat first or last.

The Wizards are Bad

For the first time in quite a few seasons, the Washington Wizards are healthy.

If you pardon the pun, the crutch for the team was always its bad luck with injuries.  Stars Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, and (mid-level star) Brendan Haywood could not stay healthy and that was why, explained team apologists, the team's performance never lived up to its high payroll.  Even so, head coach Eddie Jordan was fired early last year.

Now the Wizards are healthy.  You know what their record is?

7-16, third-worst in the East, fifth-worst in the NBA.

They've lost to the Pacers twice, to the Bobcats, to the Pistons, to the Clippers, to the Thunder, and to the Raptors.  They lost last night to a Sacramento Kings team (albeit in Sacramento) that was missing star scorer Kevin Martin.

What's the excuse now?

The Wizards are playing competitive basketball.

It's true.  Washington has lost six games in a row by the combined deficit of 14 points.

You can also offer the bench as a scapegoat, if you'd like.

Butler hasn't been as good as he was the past few years and Arenas is still getting back his legs, but the Wizards' top four players have been asked to play the majority of minutes in their games because of the ineffectiveness of their bench.  Last night, the substitution of Andray Blatche for Haywood allowed the Kings to torch the Wizards' interior defense.  Meanwhile, the substitutions of Nick Young/Earl Boykins/Randy Foye for Gilbert Arenas made the Washington offense a one-dimensional jump-shooting outfit that struggled to get to the free throw line or get rebounds.  It was ugly.

The divide between the starters and the reserves was at its worst in the Clippers loss on Monday night.  Not one of the five starters had a plus/minus of below +4 (Haywood) while Arenas (+11) and Butler (+16) provided significant lead-swings while they were on the court.  But the Wizards still lost due to the poor play of Young (-9), Blatche (-11), Boykins (-13), and most damningly Dominic McGuire, who watched the Wizards get outscored by 19 points in the nine minutes he played.

So feel free to point to the competitiveness of the games or the poor play from the bench.

In the end, though, excuses don't hide this:  The Wizards are one of the worst teams in the NBA.  Period.

A Sigh of Relief in DC

Vinny Cerrato resigned this morning from his position as Washington Redskins Executive Vice President of Football Operations, the #2 spot in the organization under owner Daniel Snyder.

Redskins fans, rejoice!

The Redskins haven't been good recently.  Actually, they haven't been consistently good for a while, since the early 1990s or so.  Every now and then they'll go on a nice run and make the playoffs, but there's never been a feeling of powerhouse about them.

Fan frustrations being what they are, a losing team demands a target for anger and blame.  This year, that's been Dan Snyder, Vinny Cerrato, Jim Zorn, Albert Haynesworth, D'Angelo Hall, Carlos Rogers, LaRon Landry, Clinton Portis, Jason Campbell, Antwaan Randle El, Santana Moss, Devin Thomas, Malcolm Kelly, Fred Davis, Shaun Suisham, Danny Smith, and the entire offensive line.

Dan Snyder's not going to leave.  He's the owner, he's making money, he's not selling the team.  Fans realize this.  It doesn't make a lot of people happy, but they've moved on.

Jim Zorn's gone at the end of the year.  Fans realize this and accept it with satisfaction.  There is a hope that the next head coach will be better.

Placekicker Shaun Suisham's already gone.  His missed kicks provided a brief headache and his release has provided aspirin.

This is about Vinny.  He's gone now.  Today.  This morning.  Replaced by Bruce Allen, son of George Allen, former executive for the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In a lot people's minds, this means that Jon Gruden (who worked under Allen in Oakland and Tampa) will be the next head coach of the Redskins.  We'll see.

For now, there is a widespread sigh of relief in DC as well as a hope that winning times will soon return to the nation's capital.  There are still three more weeks to go this season, but all Skins fans are already looking forward to the offseason and 2011.

I'm one of them.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Quick Thought on Tiger

As both a person and a golfer, he's subpar.

Bada bing.

A Disconnect Between Greatness and Immortality

There is a 36-year-old player in baseball today who has played 14 full seasons in the Major Leagues, never failing to play at least 140 games in a season.  He has a 374 career stolen bases and an 80% stolen base success rate. He's batting .288 for his career with over 200 home runs, over 450 doubles, and 95 triples.  He has 10 seasons with at least 100 runs scored as well as seasons with 95 and 93 runs scored.

Last year he played in a terrific hitters park and posted a 126 OPS+, the best of his career, with 36 doubles and 24 home runs.  He needs to average 144 hits over the next four seasons in order to reach 3,000 career hits.

That would seem to put him up for distinct Hall of Fame consideration, wouldn't it?

He's Johnny Damon of the New York Yankees and I doubt anyone considers him a surefire Hall of Famer.

One of the oft-heard descriptors of the great Yankee teams of the 1990s was how they had no true stars, how they were just a tremendous team.  As time has passed, we now realize that Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter both rank among the best baseball players of all time at their positions.  Meanwhile, Ramiro Mendoza, Scott Brosius, and Paul O'Neill aren't going to get into the Hall without a ticket.

Bernie Williams, though?  Bernie was very, very good.  He batted .297 for his career with a sensational .858 career OPS and 125 career OPS+.  He came up in 1991 and was awful (despite drawing a lot of walks) in 85 games, played better in 62 games in 1992, then improved by leaps and bounds in the mid-90s.  The weird thing about Bernie was that compared to his performance-enhanced peers, he didn't hit a lot of home runs and he didn't drive in a lot of runs, certainly not enough to catch your eye except for a couple of big seasons at the turn of the century.  He didn't steal enough bases for a guy of his speed and he had a much-maligned throwing arm.  Mostly what he did was make pitchers work and stroke the ball all over the place.  He reached base 38% of the time and we're not talking bloop singles.  He averaged 35 doubles and 22 homers a season.

I doubt he'll get any real consideration for the Hall of Fame when he comes up in 2011 -- and the consideration that he gets will all center around his World Series rings rather than his actual talent output.

(People do this all the time, bringing up wins and championships to defend players who don't need defending.  This was the argument favoring Joe DiMaggio over Ted Williams in the 1940s, Derek Jeter over Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra in the 1990s, and Tom Brady over Peyton Manning in the 2000s.  It's never going to die, either.  There will always be that player for whom people feel the need to bring up his championships as a testament to his greatness -- rather than offer statistics that support the fact that the guy could play.)

What I'm wondering now is whether Bernie Williams and Johnny Damon would be seen as greater players if they did not play for the Yankees.

I grant you that their numbers were certainly helped by playing with such talented teams and they've also had the benefit of playing in the national spotlight thanks to their pinstripes.

But I think they've been overshadowed, too.

Remember how hyped Johnny Damon was when he was on the Royals?  People couldn't wait to extoll his virtues.  There is a sentiment every year to crown the "greatest pitcher," the "most dangerous hitter," and also the "greatest player you've never heard of."  Because of this last descriptor, above-average players on mediocre teams are considered to be far greater than they really are.  Look how much Nate McLouth's skills were blown out of proportion on the Pittsburgh Pirates, or how much everyone leaped on the Aaron Hill bandwagon.  There is a need for fans and media to create superstars even where none exist.  Put Bernie Williams on a bad team in the prime of his career and I'm convinced he would have been revered, and not just for his amazing instrumental skills.

In the end, though... in the choice between individual stardom on losing teams/Hall of Fame immortality and team stardom on winning teams/World Series championships, I think the majority of players would choose the latter.  At least, the team-oriented guys would choose the latter.

Those are the guys I'd want to vote into the Hall of Fame anyway.

Making Noise in the Northwest

Who is this man?

He's The Man.

He's Jack Zduriencik, Seattle Mariners General Manager, and it certainly looks like he's making all the right moves to put the M's back into the playoffs.

Here's what he's done:

  • traded for a bona fide ace in Cliff Lee
  • signed All-Star jack of all trades Chone Figgins for much less than people were expecting
  • kept the Mariners' top three prospects in Michael Saunders, Carlos Triunfel, and Greg Halman, as well as young gun Brandon Morrow
This comes on the heels of last year's acquisition of Franklin Gutierrez and David Aardsma, and the signing Jarrod Washburn, putting an excellent defense behind him, and swapping Washburn into a pair of Tigers prospects.

You know what's happening in the AL West?  The Athletics are limited by their finances.  The Angels are crumbling and aging.  The Rangers are poorly managed and put-together.

And the Mariners are flying high.

For years they tried to be the bashing, slugging team that their home ballpark detests.  Safeco Field is a pitcher's haven, highly unkind to the uppercut swings of Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre, and others.

Now Seattle has a team of pitching, defense, and speed, led by a pair of outstanding starters in Lee and Felix Hernandez, a rapidly-solidifying bullpen, an excellent defense, and a top of the lineup that features Figgins and future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki.

Join me on the bandwagon.

The man's name is pronounced 'Zur-EN-sik.'

Sunday, December 13, 2009

FICTION: Don't Mention it

We were down, 1-0, in the bottom of the ninth.  It was late in a bad season and it was hot as dickens, so you couldn’t blame me for nodding off on the bench.  Unfortunately, my left foot seemed bent on beating me to falling asleep, and so I uncrossed my legs and shifted my position on the bench.  That was when I caught sight of the goose egg on the scoreboard.

I elbowed Hodges right in his ample belly.

He grunted.  I’d woken him up.

“Hodges,” I said.  “How’d you do today?”

“0-for-3,” he said grumpily.  “Why?”

“Me, too,” I said.  I leaned forward.  “Hey, Dunlap.”

Dunlap stirred.  “What?”  His blue eyes were wide.

“How’d you do today?”

He thought about it.  “Let’s see.  Struck out.  Grounded out to first.  Popped up to short.  0-for-3.”

“Why?” asked Hodges.

I pointed at the goose egg.  “Look.”

Hodges squinted at the scoreboard through the dusk.  “Huh,” he said.  “How about that?”

“What?” asked Dunlap innocently.

I raised my voice.  “Jackson!”

Jackson lifted his chin from his chest and looked over at us.

We gestured for him to join us.

Jackson stood up and stretched.  He padded over.  “What’s on your mind?”

“Any hits today?” asked Hodges.

“No,” said Jackson.  “They’ve shut me out today.  Why?”

“Check the scoreboard,” I said.

Jackson did.  He whistled.  “Is that right?”

“Guess so,” I said.

As we watched, Ripling flied out to shallow right.

“What is that?” Jackson asked.  “One out?”

“Two,” Hodges said.  “One more.”

Jackson cracked a grin.  “Never seen one of these before.  You?”

Hodges and I shook our heads.

“Seen what?” asked Dunlap.

Griffin stepped up to the plate.

He walked on four pitches.

Hodges spat.  “Too much pressure.”

Jackson shrugged.  “It’s tough, man.  Can’t blame him.”

Dunlap tugged off his cap.  “What’s tough?”

Abernathy was the batter.

“Perfect,” said Hodges, anticipation high in his voice.

Jackson laughed.  “Look at him.  Has no clue.”

Strike one.

“Good kid,” grinned Jackson.

“Just missed it,” said Dunlap.

Hodges shook his head.  “Not even close.”

I agreed silently with Dunlap and took a deep breath.

Strike two.

Hodges clapped his hands and leaned forward.

Jackson jumped up and down.

“What is it?” Dunlap asked me.  “Tell me what’s going on.”

“Look at the scoreboard,” I said.

Ball one.

“Come on!” shouted Jackson.

“It’s okay.”  Hodges shifted nervously.  “He wasted that one.”

“Hey,” said Dunlap.

Ball two.

“He’s choking,” said Hodges.

“He’ll be just fine,” Jackson retorted.  “He’s facing Abernathy."

Dunlap pointed at the scoreboard and opened his mouth.

“Shut it, Dunlap,” said Hodges.

Foul ball.

“Had a good swing at that one,” said Jackson.

“Sure did,” said Hodges.

I put my hand to my heart.  It was beating fast.

Dunlap opened his mouth.

“Shut up, Dunlap,” said Jackson.

Ball three.

Jackson jumped up and down.  “Come on!”

Hodges took off his cap and wiped at his forehead.

I breathed deeply.

The pitcher looked in for his sign.  As he did so, Dunlap spoke up.  “I don’t go in for all that superstitious nonsense.”

We stared at him, aghast.

“What?  You think nobody in the stadium’s said anything about it?  No broadcaster?  No fan?  No beer vender?  No ticket taker?  Nobody listening or watching the game and telling their friends about it right now?"

“Shut it,” said Hodges."

“Shut up,” said Jackson.

“I won’t,” Dunlap retorted.  “It’s ridiculous to think any of us saying anything could jinx anything going on out there between the white lines.  Whatever happens was going to happen, like it or not.  You can have your personal nonsense, with your lucky thongs and your necklaces and your licorice sticks and maybe that somehow helps you hit the ball harder or throw the ball faster, but there’s no possible way you could say something, anything, from the dugout and affect the course of the game.”

The rest of the bench seemed to rise up like a grizzly bear roused from hibernation.  In one voice, they growled, “Shut up, Dunlap.”

“I won’t,” Dunlap said.  “It’s superstition and it’s ridiculous.”  And he raised his voice and shouted to the heavens, “They’re one strike away from a no-hitter!  A NO-HITTER!”

There was a crack! and all of us snapped our heads from Dunlap to the field just in time to see Abernathy’s fly ball disappear over the center field wall.

Silence choked the dugout.

Then Dunlap cracked a wide smile.  “Would you look at that,” he said.  “I believe we’ve just won the game.”  And off he went, loping out of the dugout to greet an ecstatic Abernathy at home plate.

I cornered him later.  “What was all that about?”

Dunlap’s blue eyes opened wide.  “Lou,” he said, “I just couldn’t bear to see that two-bit journeyman toss a no-hitter against us.  It would’ve been embarrassing.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” he said graciously.