Sports

From 2014 to 2018

No, this is not about Gov. Scott Walker’s chances of being reelected in 2018.

The soccer World Cup ended, from the U.S. perspective, yesterday with Team USA’s 2–1 extra-time loss to Belgium.

Keith Olbermann was his usual snarky self on ESPN2 last night, but if you ignore the snarkiness, he makes some valid points about how to increase Americans’ interest in soccer. Click here for the video, but here is the outline:

  1. Stop imitating the British and their incorrect grammar — for instance, “Belgium are,” which everyone knows should be either “Belgium is” or “the Belgians are.”
  2. Find an American play-by-play voice, even though Brit Ian Darke does an excellent job:

    Olbermann’s point is that soccer needs an American voice, as Vin Scully for baseball or Mike Emrick for hockey. He’s correct. The problem is that ESPN’s previous American soccer announcers, Dave O’Brien and Jack Edwards, were, in order, bland and not from soccer, and ridiculously jingoistic. (Anyone who has heard Edwards on Boston Bruins hockey can agree with the latter point.)
    ESPN Radio’s announcer, JP Dellacamera, is great …

    … but seems to not meet ESPN TV standards, or something.

  3. “Lay off the elitism,” or “stop trying to build soccer by tearing down other sports.”
  4. “Calm down,” which is based on a soccer referee’s tweet yesterday, “Soccer belongs to the world, and is not ours to do as we please.” A statement like that makes me want to never watch soccer again, at any level.
  5. More U.S.-appropriate Major League Soccer team names, instead of names that are “embarrassingly derivative” of international club names, such as FC Dallas, D.C. United, Sporting Kansas City, Toronto FC, Chivas USA (which is based not in Chivas, but in Los Angeles) and Real Salt Lake. (Of course, that runs into the danger of nicknames that generate offense in our perpetually offended society — Redskins anyone? — though I’m a bit surprised there haven’t been protests against Chivas by the anti-alcohol crowd.)
  6. “Stay away from FIFA,” the international soccer organization so corrupt that it “makes the IOC look like Doctors Without Borders.” (Lines like that are why Olbermann is in fact worth watching, maddening though he can be.) Olbermann suggests staging an American version of the World Cup here, which would generate an American Football League vs. National Football League rumble, which must have been fun to watch in the ’60s. Of course, the event that started soccer to becoming kinda-sorta popular in the U.S. was when the 1994 World Cup was held in the U.S., without requiring construction of new stadiums and stadium worker deaths, unlike Qatar now.
  7. Olbermann quoted surveys of 12- to 17-year-old boys that suggest they prefer soccer to baseball, concluding, “What kids really love is soccer video games.” He suggests figuring out a way to tap into that, which I think is a task for a demographic younger than Olbermann’s, or mine.

One unfortunate thing about Tuesday’s loss is that it may well be the final World Cup match for Tim Howard, who might have been the only reason the U.S. was in the game. Howard made a World Cup-record 16 saves, and his work in goal prevented a bloodbath. Howard is 35, and it’s not clear that a goalkeeper pushing 40 is likely to be in the 2018 plans, though finding a goalie as good as Howard seems unlikely, at least today.

The loss suggests that the U.S. remains far, far away from being a World Cup contender. In hockey, teams occasionally decide to be hyperaggressive on offense, and leave their goalie to be essentially the entire defense. That’s how goalies sometimes accumulate a huge number of saves, and sometimes give up a lot of goals; it’s a tradeoff to try to generate more offense, and it’s certainly fun for fans to watch. That’s not what the U.S. did — their offense is anemic, and so they played a defensive style, and yet Howard was still required to singlehandedly save the American bacon for the 90 minutes of regulation.

So for one game, the Americans were bad on defense, and for the entire World Cup, they weren’t very good on offense. Yes, they scored five goals in four games, but that’s in a World Cup that had a record number of goals in group play, and goal number four came after the U.S. was in desperation mode.

So how does Team USA get better than this? Or is this the best that can be expected of Team USA?

 

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Two steps forward, one giant step back

The Milwaukee Bucks’ new owners scored public relations points early by saying all the right things upon their introduction and by drafting Duke’s Jabari Parker.

Then came the trainwreck of the firing of coach Larry Drew and hiring of Brooklyn Nets coach Jason Kidd as their new coach/majordomo of basketball.

It’s kind of a given that professional athletes will be buttheads, particularly in the National Basketball Association, where the main off-court hobby seems to be fathering multiple children without bothering to marry their mother. It is generally expected, however, that the adults in the locker room will act like adults. This apparently has not been the case with Kidd, who had domestic abuse and alcohol issues during his playing days. There is not much evidence that, unlike former coach Scott Skiles, Kidd has actually grown up and stopped acting as if his age was his uniform number.

As bad, on a different level, is how Kidd engineered his exit from Brooklyn. Following one season as coach, when the Nets did well during half of the season, Kidd apparently decided he deserved more authority and campaigned with management to be moved above the Nets’ general manager in the hierarchy. Management declined, and so Kidd started talking with his friends the Bucks owners.

The Sporting News contributes this:

There is a certain decorum with which a coach in the NBA — and, indeed, a coach in most any major pro sport in the country — is expected to carry himself. Safe to say that, in the last few days, recently departed Nets coach Jason Kidd has violated several of them. Or, at least, the one that matters most.

“I think the one thing you know not to do as a coach is to talk about another job while it is still occupied,” one veteran NBA coach told Sporting News. “You just don’t do that. This is a tough business, there are only 30 jobs and no matter what you think of a guy, every one of us puts his heart and soul into what we do every day. And so you learn to respect your colleagues. But nothing is more disrespectful than gunning for someone’s job while he is still in it.”

What’s worse is that Kidd appears to have done this three times in a matter of days. First, Kidd attempted to usurp the general manager’s role with the Nets from Billy King, having seen Stan Van Gundy get the same broad powers in Detroit and Doc Rivers granted that title with the Clippers. But Brooklyn team ownership, led by Mikhail Prokhorov, had no interest in giving Kidd that level of power.

New Bucks owners Marc Lasry and Wes Edens then came into play for Kidd, receiving permission from the team to speak to him last week — Lasry was a former minority owner with the Nets, and knows Kidd personally.

That’s when Kidd attempted to sell the Bucks on an arrangement by which he would both run and coach the team. Problem is, the Bucks have two people doing those jobs already — coach Larry Drew and general manager John Hammond.

King. Drew. Hammond. That’s three employees Kidd attempted to oust. Kidd eventually came away with the job as Bucks coach, with Milwaukee sending 2015 and 2019 second-round picks to the Nets, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports first reported. Drew was never informed of the negotiations with Kidd.

What’s worse, it appears that one of Kidd’s motivations was resentment over the bigger financial packages awarded to Steve Kerr in Golden State and Derek Fisher in New York, each of whom reportedly got five-year, $25 million deals. Both of those coaches, like Kidd, are former players who have never been on a coaching staff before — not only as a head coach, but not even as an assistant. …

The coach also pointed out that this is one of the perils of hiring a coach with no experience — he has no sense of paying dues, no sense of how hard some coaches, like Drew, have worked to get where they are. Kidd is acting like a spoiled brat, perhaps because he never had to earn anything in the coaching business.

I’ve argued here before that the positions of general manager and coach need to be separate, at least in pro football. That more likely than not is the case in other pro sports as well. General managers acquire players by draft, trade or free agent signing; coaches coach them. Those are two full-time jobs, and given that Kidd apparently isn’t necessarily a candidate for Mensa, to think he can do both jobs seems optimistic at best.

Kidd supposedly wants to become the Bucks’ answer to Phil Jackson, possessor of several NBA championship rings and now president of the team he played for, the New York Knicks. Jackson was a role player on two NBA championship teams, but apparently while he wasn’t playing he was paying attention to what coach Red Holtzman was doing. Additionally, unlike Kidd, Jackson learned how to coach by coaching in the Continental Basketball Association (as did former Bucks coach George Karl). One season is really not a large enough sample size to determine if someone can coach.

The supposed upside here is Kidd’s supposed ability to get free agents to play in Milwaukee because he was able to get a couple to come to Brooklyn. (Which might be an indictment of Kidd’s coaching ability since the Nets didn’t start playing well until the second half of the season.) Milwaukee is not Brooklyn, and whether Kidd can duplicate that feat remains to be seen. Moreover, Kidd eventually will run out of player contemporaries who he supposedly can attract to Milwaukee to play.

None of this should be viewed as a defense of former coach Larry Drew (who is being paid handsomely to have read that he was about to be replaced) or general manager John Hammond. The Bucks deserved their record as last season’s second worst team in the NBA, and I saw little evidence of improvement. (Teams should never tank to improve their next-season draft position.) But I’m not sure at all that Kidd represents actual improvement.

The Wisconsin State Journal’s Tom Oates reinforces my point:

Kidd, who has alienated people throughout the NBA over the last 20 years, was available only because his own power play had been rebuffed by Nets ownership. He tried to oust general manager Billy King — the man who hired him despite his complete lack of coaching experience — and gain control of all basketball decisions in Brooklyn, but the Nets instead seemed eager to let him move on. That should have told the Bucks owners something right there, but apparently they weren’t listening.

The way [Marc] Lasry and [Wesley] Edens handled this entire matter — especially interviewing a prospective coach when they already had one under contract — shows either a lack of character or an amazing amount of naivete. It was cutthroat or clumsy or both, all of which bodes poorly for a franchise that is coming to the plate for its final at-bat in Milwaukee and can’t afford to make mistakes.

The immediate response to the Kidd news was that these are the same old dysfunctional Bucks. They still have owners who think they know more about basketball than they actually do and like to meddle in decisions they’re not qualified to make.

And speaking of unqualified, there is nothing in Kidd’s resume that would qualify him to run the basketball operations in an NBA franchise. He was a point guard for 19 seasons and a coach for one, but he’s never spent a day in an NBA front office.

Still, the Bucks’ starstruck new owners seemed willing to hand their franchise over to him. Perhaps they should have asked why the Nets’ owners, who are more familiar with the NBA and know Kidd better than anyone, weren’t willing to give him that control. …

But just because Kidd was hired only to coach the team doesn’t mean this story is over. His desire to make personnel decisions likely hasn’t changed and, given the clout he carries with the new owners, it’s only a matter of time before he has both jobs. …

Of course, if Kidd has success as a coach, much of this will be forgotten. But it seems like only a matter of time before Kidd is in control of the team’s basketball decisions, and that ought to scare everyone.

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A(merican) knockout in the knockout round

The Associated Press’ Raf Casert explains why the U.S. will lose to Belgium in the World Cup later today:

TOUGH DEFENSE: Belgium didn’t concede a single goal in open play during the group stage. Talk about a hermetic seal. It has Thibaut Courtois, at 22, already one of the top goalkeepers around. He anchored Atletico Madrid to the Spanish league title and also the Champions League final. Playing ahead of him is Vincent Kompany, who led Manchester City to two of the last three Premier League titles. And amazingly at 36, Daniel Van Buyten is still one of the standout defenders at the World Cup.

“KAMPFSCHWEIN” COACH: If you are looking for fighting spirit, coach Marc Wilmots fits the bill. Such was the toughness of his attitude and the challenges he made as a player with Schalke in the Bundesliga, the working class fan base immediately took a liking to him and called him Kampfschwein — which translates as fighting boar. Now aged 45, that determination survives. As a coach, he goes looking for victories at the World Cup whether they involve beautiful football or not. His team’s three one-goal victories have so far proven it to be the right strategy.

EDEN HAZARD: The playmaker has huge expectations to live up to. At 23, he is already among a handful of European players with global appeal. He is now the creative genius at Chelsea and is seeking to emulate that for Belgium at the World Cup. So far, the results have been mixed. He has been decisive in both matches he played in, providing the winning assist late in the game each time, in a 1–0 win over Russia and a 2–1 victory against Algeria. But he has yet to take the mantle of leadership in the team and this is what Wilmots will be looking for against the United States.

SPOILT FOR STRIKERS?: Don’t be fooled by the measly four goals from three games, Belgium does have its share of good strikers. Christian Benteke was supposed to be the first choice for Wilmots, but the Aston Villa striker ruptured his Achilles tendon in April. No worries. There’s also Romelu Lukaku, the Everton forward. Despite a sterling preparation campaign and key goals in qualifying, he has been a bitter disappointment so far in Brazil. Wilmots went looking for an alternative, and found one. Divock Origi, at 19, has been crucial. He scored the winner against Russia and provided the shot which allowed Jan Vertonghen to tap in the winner against South Korea. Now, Origi is a fan favorite to start against the United States.

Soccer fans: Do you really think the U.S. can compete against that?

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Backing into the knockout round

Team USA backed into the World Cup knockout round with its 1–0 loss to Germany and Portugal’s 2–1 win over Ghana Thursday.

So Team USA, with a 1–1–1 record and as many goals scored as given up, is one of the 16 best soccer teams on the planet, as defined by the World Cup. The countries that cannot make that claim include 2010 World Cup champion Spain, England and Italy. Oddly, the U.S. lost its match yet advanced to the knockout round, whereas Portugal (which tied the U.S. Sunday) won but was eliminated.

I didn’t expect the U.S. to get out of what some soccer observers called “the Group of Death” (though that proved inaccurate). Apparently others may not have expected a good result today either, given that some writers chose yesterday to pan soccer, or at least Americans’ every-four-years interest in it.

Ann Coulter wrote a piece that is basically nothing more than clickbait (it might as well have been headlined “You Won’t Believe What Ann Coulter Said About Soccer!”), though she did have a few amusing points:

Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay. …

(3) No other “sport” ends in as many scoreless ties as soccer. This was an actual marquee sign by the freeway in Long Beach, California, about a World Cup game last week: “2nd period, 11 minutes left, score: 0:0.” Two hours later, another World Cup game was on the same screen: “1st period, 8 minutes left, score: 0:0.” If Michael Jackson had treated his chronic insomnia with a tape of Argentina vs. Brazil instead of Propofol, he’d still be alive, although bored.

Even in football, by which I mean football, there are very few scoreless ties — and it’s a lot harder to score when a half-dozen 300-pound bruisers are trying to crush you.

(4) The prospect of either personal humiliation or major injury is required to count as a sport. Most sports are sublimated warfare. As Lady Thatcher reportedly said after Germany had beaten England in some major soccer game: Don’t worry. After all, twice in this century we beat them at their national game.

(5) You can’t use your hands in soccer. (Thus eliminating the danger of having to catch a fly ball.) What sets man apart from the lesser beasts, besides a soul, is that we have opposable thumbs. Our hands can hold things. Here’s a great idea: Let’s create a game where you’re not allowed to use them!

(6) I resent the force-fed aspect of soccer. The same people trying to push soccer on Americans are the ones demanding that we love HBO’s “Girls,” light-rail, Beyonce and Hillary Clinton. The number of New York Times articles claiming soccer is “catching on” is exceeded only by the ones pretending women’s basketball is fascinating.

I note that we don’t have to be endlessly told how exciting football is.

(7) It’s foreign. In fact, that’s the precise reason the Times is constantly hectoring Americans to love soccer. One group of sports fans with whom soccer is not “catching on” at all, is African-Americans. They remain distinctly unimpressed by the fact that the French like it.

(8) Soccer is like the metric system, which liberals also adore because it’s European. Naturally, the metric system emerged from the French Revolution, during the brief intervals when they weren’t committing mass murder by guillotine.

Despite being subjected to Chinese-style brainwashing in the public schools to use centimeters and Celsius, ask any American for the temperature, and he’ll say something like “70 degrees.” Ask how far Boston is from New York City, he’ll say it’s about 200 miles.

Liberals get angry and tell us that the metric system is more “rational” than the measurements everyone understands. This is ridiculous. An inch is the width of a man’s thumb, a foot the length of his foot, a yard the length of his belt. That’s easy to visualize. How do you visualize 147.2 centimeters? …

The USA-Portugal game was the blockbuster match, garnering 18.2 million viewers on ESPN. This beat the second-most watched soccer game ever: The 1999 Women’s World Cup final (USA vs. China) on ABC. (In soccer, the women’s games are as thrilling as the men’s.)

Run-of-the-mill, regular-season Sunday Night Football games average more than 20 million viewers; NFL playoff games get 30 to 40 million viewers; and this year’s Super Bowl had 111.5 million viewers.

Better arguments come from Ted Bromund:

In 1994, the United States hosted what remains, by measure of attendance, the most successful World Cup of them all, so clearly there is an American audience for soccer. But it’s a limited one. Why? Sports historians have concluded that it’s because, around the world, soccer began as the game of the working man.

But in the United States in the mid-19th century, baseball, the game of the Northeast’s cities, claimed soccer’s audience before it could establish itself. In the early 20th century, college football and then basketball grabbed the rest of the crowds, leaving the United States, as in so much else, an exceptional nation.

While we don’t play (much) soccer, it’s immensely popular around the world, partly because you need only a ball. Although it began as the game of the common man, at the top level, it’s now the property of the rich, and there’s no better evidence than the World Cup.

Figuring the cost of hosting a major sporting event is difficult, in part because it’s become so high that nations have an incentive to lie about it. While Brazil claims to have spent $3.5 billion, Forbes estimates the true cost at $11 billion, a price accompanied by the usual corruption, forced slum clearances, and serious concerns about whether the facilities would be ready and safe.

As always, the justification for this splurge is that it will make everyone better off by creating jobs and funding modern infrastructure. A majority of Brazilians — 61 percent, in a recent survey — don’t agree. And they’re right. With Brazilians themselves buying more than 60 percent of the tickets, the World Cup is not so much bringing new money into the country as it is shuffling old money around.

Building an airport terminal can sometimes make sense, but new stadiums, which sit empty most of the time, are a waste of money. And rushing to build infrastructure quickly guarantees even more money is wasted. The World Cup is like stimulus spending on steroids, and it’s no more effective.

The opening of this World Cup was marked by riots, though so far nothing compared to the protests by the 1 million Brazilians who took to the streets in June 2013, in part to protest World Cup spending. And they’re not the only ones who are tired of these expensive circuses: The Olympics are feeling the fatigue, too.

Of the eight nations that seriously considered bidding for the 2022 Winter Games, four have dropped out. Sweden is shaky, and Ukraine has no hope. That leaves China and Kazakhstan, autocracies that want to advertise themselves and don’t care about costs — or the will of the people.

But now the spotlight is on soccer. The next World Cup will be held in Vladimir Putin’s Russia in 2018. In 2022, the circus moves to Qatar, an Arab nation with no tradition of top-flight soccer, where hundreds of near-slaves have already died building stadiums, and where the average summer temperature exceeds 100 degrees.

Qatar has no business hosting anything. It got the job the old-fashioned way: by buying it. The fact that FIFA, soccer’s governing body, calls criticism of Qatar “racist” tells you all you need to know about its Mafia-like culture, where what matters is the payoff a bidder can deliver.

Similar to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, what made the 1994 World Cup great was two words: “private sector.” No near-slaves died building stadiums because not a single stadium was built for the World Cup. Every game was played at an existing stadium (including the final at the Rose Bowl), which had to be modified only by replacing artificial turf in some cases with grass, and in some stadiums expanding the field surface for soccer.

The everyone-else-is-watching-it-so-you-should-too argument makes as much sense as the everyone-else-is-doing-it-so-you-should-too argument. (I heard earlier this week that the U.S. is one of only three countries that doesn’t give paid parental leave by law. So the U.S. should do things like Russia, Iran, North Korea and Nigeria, a country in which 40 women and children were killed earlier this week, but that’s OK because they have paid parental leave!) This World Cup apparently set a record for most goals scored in group play, but that may say more about the quality of the losers than about improved offense.

The excess of ties (and one tie is too many) prompted FIFA, the international soccer organization (which appears to have as much integrity as the National Collegiate Athletic Association), to award three points, instead of two, for wins. The simpler solution for eliminating ties is to award points only for wins. Ties would thus become not draws, but double losses. The necessary corollary is to play sudden-death overtime for all ties after regulation — win or die trying.

The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Ezkenazi is a fan of soccer, but admits it’s never going to get very big in the U.S.:

Regardless of how the U.S. team does, a month from now this outbreak of soccermania will join the excitement over the victorious U.S. women’s World Cup team in 1999 as another never-happened turning point. The truth is, soccer isn’t an American game and never will be. It’s not adventurous enough. Not enough happens in games. You can hardly make out individual stars. What statistics are there to talk about?

In our Big Three sports there’s a lot going on. At any given moment during the action, the score can change instantly, with a baseball home run, a football touchdown pass or a basketball three-pointer. In the World Cup on Tuesday, England limped out of the competition by tying Costa Rica with the scintillating score of 0-0. At any given moment in a soccer game, someone is almost certainly not going to score. Because the player will be too busy falling down at the slightest touch, writhing in agony and hoping for a penalty call. If none comes, he almost invariably pops up, miraculously recovered and ready to play. …

The founding of the North American Soccer League in 1968 may have been the first “soccer is finally breaking through in America” moment. What prompted a few otherwise smart businessmen to invest in the sport? The healthy ratings for NBC’s broadcast of the 1966 World Cup final in London when England beat West Germany 4-2. There were only three networks then, so a significant number of Americans would be watching one of the channels, no matter what was on. And the fact that the game aired just before the major-league baseball game of the week no doubt helped.

The NASL was formed from two rival professional leagues—boy, was soccer really catching on!—but despite efforts to jazz up the game for an American audience by tinkering with the rules to avoid ties and to encourage scoring, the soccer breakthrough never happened. It was fun to see aging stars like Pelé and Italy’s Giorgio Chinaglia and West Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer add some vigor and juice to the arriviste sport. Still: no sale. Attendance faded. The league folded in 1984.

These days, we have Major League Soccer, which has elevated the game to something more than a niche sport. Attendance averages more than 18,000 per game. And that’s about where the numbers will remain, I dare say. The soccer birth-death-revival routine is getting stale. With millions of other Americans, I’ll be rooting for our World Cup boys on Thursday, admiring how the players can dribble a ball on their toes and maybe even once in a while take a meaningful shot. But I’ll miss the individual beau geste that marks truly American games.

Eskenazi makes the strange statement that soccer is a democratic sport because you don’t have to be huge to play it. The same could be said about baseball, except that baseball requires mastery of the most difficult skill in sport — to hit a baseball. (It’s so difficult, in fact, that major leaguers who hit the ball successfully one time in every three at-bats are at the top of the game.) Soccer’s two most important skills are scoring, and stopping scoring. Scoring happens very infrequently, which is a good thing for goalkeepers because percentage-wise goalies don’t stop shots that often, because they don’t see shots that happen. Moving the ball around — supposedly “the beautiful game” — without scoring gets tedious to watch.

Ten years ago, Chuck Klosterman had a few related things to say about soccer, including a point I can certainly relate to:

Soccer unconsciously rewards the outcast, which is why so many adults are fooled into thinking their kids love it. The truth is that most children don’t love soccer; they simply hate the alternatives more. For 60 percent of the adolescents in any fourth-grade classroom, sports are a humiliation waiting to happen. These are the kids who play baseball and strike out four times a game. These are the kids afraid to get fouled in basketball, because it only means they’re now required to shoot two free throws, which equates to two air balls. Basketball games actually stop to annihilate them.

That is why soccer seems like such a respite from all that mortification; it’s the one aerobic activity where nothingness is expected. Even at the highest levels, every soccer match seems to end 1-0 or 2-1. A normal eleven-year-old can play an entire season without placing toe to sphere and nobody would even notice, assuming he or she does a proper job of running about and avoiding major collisions.

Soccer fanatics love to tell you that soccer is the most popular game on earth and that it’s played by 500 million people every day, as if that somehow proves its value. Actually, the opposite is true. Why should I care that every single citizen of Chile and Iran and Gibraltar thoughtlessly adores “football”? Do the people making this argument also assume Coca-Cola is ambrosia? Real sports aren’t for everyone. And don’t accuse me of being the Ugly American for degrading soccer. That has nothing to do with it. It’s not xenophobic to hate soccer; it’s socially reprehensible to support it. To say you love soccer is to say you believe in enforced equality more than you believe in the value of competition and the capacity of the human spirit. It should surprise no one that Benito Mussolini loved being photographed with Italian soccer stars during the 1930s; they were undoubtedly kindred spirits.

Soccer has elements that Americans will never approve of — or,  more accurately, lacks what Americans want — claims Stephen Moore:

Every soccer match is like watching a North Carolina basketball game before the shot clock when Dean Smith invented the four corner offense.

I’ve often said that after having to watch my three sons play junior soccer, now I know why Europeans riot at soccer matches. For the same reason that inmates riot in prisons: there’s nothing else to do. It’s good exercise for sure, but to what end? If golf is a good walk spoiled, then soccer is a good run spoiled.

And what is with the ugly polyester soccer uniforms?

I’m an American. I want scoring. I want action. Maybe it’s part of the instant gratification culture but 90 minutes of kicking with zero or one or two goals doesn’t exactly move heaven and earth.

And because scoring is such a lightning striking rarity, once a team gets up by two or three goals, turn the lights out, it’s like being down 49-0 in football. In other words, soccer lacks one of the best parts of watching a sport: the comeback. It almost never happens. If a team gets up by three goals they might as well invoke the slaughter rule.

Because scoring is so nearly impossible, many of the matches come down to faking a penalty (flopping) in order to get a penalty kick. The referees are the most important people on the field.So the key to being a good soccer player is to be a really good actor.

I’ve also argued that soccer is a manifestation of the labor theory of value applied to sports—which may explain why socialist European nations do so well.

Soccer is a huge expenditure of human effort and exertion with almost no return. Under capitalism the idea is to produce the most output with the least amount of work. Because there is so little scoring and so little of the action bears on the outcome of the game, every crazed soccer mom can convince their child that they are above average.

Here we are in America, the world’s economic and military superpower, and the richest place on the planet. Yet the odds of America winning the Cup this year are 100-1. We’re like Fairleigh Dickinson going up against Kentucky in the NCAA basketball tournament.

Now basketball, that’s real action. And we are indisputably the world superpower in that sport.

Or let’s have a World Cup tournament in “football” on the gridiron. Given the lousy state of the economy, the ISIS offensives in Iraq, and a White House that seems to be fighting a new scandal every 24 hours, America needs a lift.

The U.S. plays Belgium Tuesday. A U.S. win would equal the best U.S. performance ever, in 2002, when Team USA won its first knockout game before losing in the quarterfinals to Germany. Tuesday is, however, probably when the U.S. visit to the World Cup will end. The U.S. has neither the best coach in the world (in contrast, say, to the 1980 Winter Olympics, when hockey coach Herb Brooks proved smarter than every other coach in the tournament) nor any single player in the conversation of the best players in the world at his position.

Getting to the knockout round in consecutive World Cups is an accomplishment, but the Americans are not a world-class World Cup team. They may never be.

 

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Hey! I know this guy!

The Wisconsin State Journal’s Doug Moe interviews Winston-Salem State men’s basketball coach James Wilhelmi:

James Wilhelmi is among the fortunate few who knew early what they wanted in life. Wilhelmi wanted to coach college basketball.

He even knew who he wanted to emulate. In junior high school in Burlington — Wilhelmi was born in Madison, and returned for high school, at Madison La Follette — he would watch the Georgetown Hoyas play on television and marvel at their head coach, John Thompson.

It was how Thompson carried himself: a mix of authority and compassion. Thompson might embrace a player who had fouled out, or put his arm around a young man who had made — or missed — a big shot at game’s end.

“You could see he was a father figure,” Wilhelmi, 43, was saying last week. “I knew some day I wanted to have that kind of influence.”

And then, during college, Wilhelmi had the chance to meet his hero. Wilhelmi was attending UW-Whitewater, and a coach who knew his future aspirations suggested he write to college programs that were running summer camps, offering to help out. Naturally, the Georgetown camp run by Thompson was at the top of Wilhelmi’s list.

Word came back: They wanted Wilhelmi at the Georgetown camp.

Wilhelmi gave a fist pump. “Yes!”

Sure enough, at the camp, Wilhelmi got to shake hands with Thompson and tell him how much he admired him. You made me want to be a coach, Wilhelmi said.

At which point John Thompson said, “Don’t go into coaching.”

Wilhelmi blinked.

“The kids have changed,” Thompson said. “Everything has changed.”

Recalling that story last week, Wilhelmi laughed. “Actually,” he said, “the kids are still the kids.”

Wilhelmi, it should be noted, did not take Thompson’s advice. Last Thursday, Wilhelmi was officially introduced as the new men’s basketball head coach at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina. There was a news conference in the Division II school’s field house. Wilhelmi was flanked by the chancellor and athletic director, and after they each spoke briefly, it was the new head coach’s turn.

It was a proud moment and the culmination of a long journey for Wilhelmi, who had stops in high school coaching and as an assistant at eight different college programs before joining Winston-Salem, as an assistant, in 2011.

Early in his remarks, Wilhelmi evoked a famous quote from the late North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano about finding a way to laugh, think and cry on any given day. Wilhelmi figured he might do all three at his introduction, and he wasn’t wrong. The tears came when he thanked his family for their support.

I spoke to Wilhelmi the day following his press conference. He seemed happy to talk to someone from the city to which he returns regularly; his parents still live in Madison.

Wilhelmi participated in football, basketball and track at Madison La Follette. His best sport was likely football, but he played four years of varsity basketball. The basketball game that he has never forgotten was in his junior year, a tournament game with Madison West. The Regents, with Damon Harrell, had beaten La Follette soundly twice during the regular season. Not so in the tournament.

“We ended up winning on a last-second shot by Mark Paulson,” Wilhelmi said.

Here’s how old I’m getting: I covered Wilhelmi at La Follette. I remember the game Wilhelmi referred to, which proves that postseason wins are always better than regular-season wins. The nailbiter set up another one one night later, but first …

I remember a moment Wilhelmi probably would prefer to forget — the night he got a technical foul. I don’t remember the opponent, but something didn’t go his way — either a turnover or an unfavorable call, probably — and he slammed his hand on the floor, which the official followed with the dreaded T. Today, the hand-slam probably wouldn’t get called, because I’ve seen players get away with it.

Later that season — in fact after the big West win — La Follette played Onalaska at Baraboo for a trip to state. The Lancers fell behind by, I believe, 17 points midway through the third quarter. And then over the next 16 minutes and change they climbed back into the game, thanks to hitting shots and the Hilltoppers’ missing shots and particularly free throws. At one point Wilhelmi drained a three-point shot, the first one I’d seen him hit in two years of watching him play.

Wilhelmi’s teammate, Mike Corbett, hit a jumper to give La Follette a one-point lead with 17 seconds left to complete the comeback. Unfortunately, Onalaska scored with seven seconds left, and a turnover ended La Follette’s season in the last La Follette boys basketball game I covered for the Monona Community Herald. Onalaska went on to win state, which was a nice career highlight for the Hilltoppers’ coach, John Gustafson, who died a few years later of cancer. (The star center of that team, Andy Hutchens, showed up a year later as the Hilltoppers’ pitcher and third-place hitter when I was in Lancaster. The difference, though, was that Lancaster won their sectional semifinal meeting on the way to one of the most unlikely state trips I ever got to cover.)

Now, more Moe:

Wilhelmi accepted a scholarship to play football — he was a wide receiver — for St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, but stayed only a year. He came back to Madison, worked for a time and then enrolled at UW-Whitewater. There he played football and found himself influenced by Stan Zweifel, the Warhawks’ offensive coordinator, now the head coach at the University of Dubuque.

“I did not make a lot of catches or score a lot of points,” Wilhelmi said. “But he treated me like I was a special guy. I appreciated that. Some coaches only pay attention to the stars.”

Wilhelmi filed that memory, as he did the encouragement he’d received to apply for coaching positions at summer camps. The camps were the ideal place to network. Wherever Wilhelmi went, he tried to learn something.

No place may have had greater influence than an early stint as an assistant at UW-Stevens Point, where a head coach named Jack Bennett, who won two national championships, laid out for Wilhelmi a philosophy for building a successful collegiate basketball program.

“He was my compass,” Wilhelmi said of Bennett, both in our conversation and during his news conference a day earlier.

In March, Wilhelmi traveled to Virginia to watch UW-Whitewater play for a Division III national basketball championship. Jack Bennett’s son, Nick Bennett, is now a Whitewater assistant. The Warhawks won the title.

The stars seemed to be aligning. Less than a month later, Wilhelmi was named interim head coach at Winston-Salem, replacing the departed Bobby Collins. On June 6, “interim” was removed and Wilhelmi was named head coach.

The press conference six days later drew a lot of attention. Winston-Salem plays in a highly competitive conference in basketball-crazy North Carolina. I mentioned to Wilhelmi that this must all be pretty exciting.

“It is,” he said. “And it’s just the beginning.”

This makes me feel a little old, but it’s excellent news for us La Follette alumni.

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50 years ago, and thereafter

Sunday is the 50th anniversary of what is considered to be one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history. Of course, it involved the Chicago Cubs.

On June 15, 1964, the Cubs traded outfielder Lou Brock and pitchers Jack Spring and Paul Toth to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitchers Ernie Broglio and Bobby Shantz and outfielder Doug Clemens.

The trade a month into the 1964 season was the first chapter in an unlikely season that ended with the Cardinals’ winning the 1964 World Series over the New York Yankees, after which the Yankees fired first-year manager Yogi Berra (yes, that Yogi Berra) and replaced him with … Cardinals manager Johnny Keane.

The Cardinals’ and Yankees’ seasons are chronicled in David Halberstam’s book, October 1964, which is a great read for fans of baseball. From the Cardinals’ perspective, it was probably a season that Hollywood would have rejected as a story idea because of its improbable nature.

The 1964 season turned out to be the last American League pennant-winning season for the Yankees after a stretch in which the damn Yankees were as inevitable as the sun setting in the west. From 1947 until 1964, it’s simpler to list the years the Yankees did not win the AL pennant — 1948, 1954 and 1959. The 1964 season was their fifth consecutive AL pennant-winning season, though disturbances could be felt in the Force, so to speak, since the Yankees did not win the 1960 and 1963 World Series.

The Cardinals won the 1946 World Series, and had not been back since then. Most years, the Cardinals didn’t get close, though they finished six games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1963. On June 15, the day of the trade, the Cardinals lost to Houston 9–3 to drop to 28–31.

Then Brock showed up, and the Cardinals won four games in a row to jump over .500. From the day of the trade to the end of the season, the Cardinals went 65–38 to finish at 93–69, one game better than the Philadelphia Phillies.

For Spring, it was the second time he’d been traded in a month; the Cubs acquired Spring from the Los Angeles Angels May 15. Shantz wasn’t done moving either; Philadelphia purchased Shantz from the Cubs Aug. 15.

Around the time of Shantz’s move from Chicago to Philly, those Phillies appeared to be running away with the National League pennant. (Two months earlier, pitcher Jim Bunning threw a perfect game on Father’s Day.)

So, based on the advice of his advisor Branch Rickey (yes, that Branch Rickey), Cardinals owner Gussie Busch fired general manager Bing Devine, and planned to fire manager Johnny Keane at the end of the season. (The initial speculated replacement was Leo Durocher, who was sort of Billy Martin before Billy Martin, though as far as I know Durocher was never reported as punching a marshmallow salesman.)

Three days after Busch fired Devine, the Chicago White Sox beat the Yankees 5–0 to complete a sweep at Comiskey Park. As the Yankees’ bus was heading toward O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, according to Yankees pitcher and Ball Four author Jim Bouton (or read the Associated Press version), infielder Phil Linz pulled out a harmonica and started playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Berra, at the front of the bus, told Linz to stop playing. Linz didn’t hear Berra and kept playing. Berra then said, “If you don’t knock that off, I’m going to come back there and kick your ass.” Linz didn’t hear that either and asked teammate Mickey Mantle what Berra had said. Helpfully, Mantle said, “He said play it louder.”

So Linz did, and Berra stormed to the back of the bus and slapped the harmonica out of Linz’s hands. The harmonica bounced off the knee of first baseman Joe Pepitone, who, according to Bouton, yelled, “Ow! You hurt my wittle knee!”, because the harmonica actually cut Pepitone. Yankees coach Frank Crosetti called the incident the worst he’d seen in his 33 years with the team. (Which didn’t impress Bouton.)

As stupid as that incident was — expecting maturity from baseball players is about as reasonable as expecting temperance from drunks — it apparently convinced Yankees management to fire Berra at the end of the season. And indeed, Berra was fired after his first season, despite the Yankees getting to the seventh game of the World Series. Halberstam’s book reports that the Yankees talked to Keane during the season about replacing Berra in 1965.

None of this would have been very interesting had the Phillies continued to play well and clinched the NL pennant in September. But a funny thing happened to the Phillies on the way to the ’64 pennant — the Phillies collapsed. Their 6½ game lead on Labor Day, with 25 games to go, was maintained despite a sudden torrent of injuries and pitcher ineffectiveness.

Then, the Phillies managed to lose every game of a seven-game homestand, and went to St. Louis and lost three more, dropping them into third place. Cincinnati got the league lead briefly, then the Cardinals got it, then the Cardinals nearly lost it, but beat the (hideously bad) New York Mets to avoid a three-team tie at the end of the season, and more importantly win the NL pennant. The loss of a 6½-game lead over the season’s last 12 games is known in Philadelphia as the Phold.

The Yankees, meanwhile, managed to hold off the White Sox by one game and Baltimore by two to get to the World Series, which, it must be noted, began with …

… Cardinals backup catcher Bob Uecker (yes, that Bob Uecker) shagging fly balls with a metal tuba before the first game. (Uecker had already distinguished himself and foreshadowed his future career by imitating Cardinals announcer Harry Caray in the locker room after the pennant-clinching win. As Uecker put it years later, he had been “announcing” in the bullpen for years; all he had to do to broadcast was take out the obscenities.)

The aforementioned Bouton won two games, but the Cardinals won the World Series in seven games.

And then the fun started. The morning after game 7, Busch met with Keane about continuing as manager. Instead, reported the Associated Press:

Keane personally presented to Cardinals owner August A.  Busch Jr. Friday morning his letter of resignation typed by his wife and dated Sept. 28. Busch, whose Anheuser-Busch brewery owns the Cardinals, was visibly shaken.

“This really has shocked me,” said Busch, who earlier had been reported offering Keane’s job to Leo Durocher, then a coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers. “I didn’t know a thing about it until I saw Johnny this morning. All I can say is that I’m damned sorry to lose Johnny.” …

“I told Mr. Busch not to make any offer,” said Keane. “I handed him my resignation and said my decision was firm — that I didn’t want to embarrass him — but that no offer would be acceptable.”

Meanwhile,  elsewhere on the AP wire …

NEW YORK  (AP) — Colorful Yogi Berra’s tenure as manager of the New York Yankees has ended after one year.

The announcement of Berra’s dismissal was made to a stunned press conference by General Manager Ralph Houk, whom Yogi succeeded as Yankee skipper last Oct. 24.

Hoak, straining to be tactful, said Berra had accepted a two-year contract in the Yankee organization as a special field consultant working under Houk.

“The decision was made before the World Series,” said Houk …

Under questioning, Houk said, “This was the first Yogi knew about this.” …

Houk was asked if players had complained about Berra’s managing, as reports have indicated, and he answered: “I don’t want to put the blame on anybody.”

However, there had been reports of players’ dissatisfaction with Berra’s managing, and Houk reportedly was disenchanted with Berra’s handling of pitchers during his tenure.

Keane, whose resignation was the last act of 35 years with the Cardinals, was offered the Pirates’ job (to replace Danny Murtaugh, who had retired due to health problems; Murtaugh would return three times, the last to lead the Pirates to the 1971 World Series title), but became the Yankees’ manager. The Cardinals promoted coach and former second baseman Red Schoendienst to manager.

The moves worked better for the Cardinals than the Yankees. Schoendienst got to back-to-back World Series, winning in 1967. Keane inherited an aging lineup whose past stars weren’t successfully replaced. Houk fired Keane early in the 1966 season, replacing him with … Houk, who didn’t do any better. Keane died after the 1966 season.

Berra fared just fine; becoming a coach for the Mets, which won the 1969 World Series, then became the Mets manager after Gil Hodges died, and got to the 1973 World Series. (The Mets were 1969’s answer to the 1964 Cardinals, while the Cubs — remember them? — did their imitation of the 1964 Phillies under manager Durocher, taking the entire month of September to crash like the Hindenburg.

Berra then became a Yankees coach and then manager, getting fired by George Steinbrenner (which never happens) early in the 1985 season. Berra refused to set foot in Yankee Stadium as long as Steinbrenner owned the Yankees, and stayed out until 1998, when Steinbrenner went to Berra’s house to personally apologize.

Two more connections of interest: One of Keane’s coaches, Joe Schultz, became the first manager of the expansion Seattle Pilots, where one of his pitchers was Jim Bouton, whose aforementioned book chronicled Schultz’s favorite phrase, “Pound that Budweiser,”  and apparent favorite obscenities, “shitfuck” and “fuckshit.” After the Pilots went bankrupt following their only season, they ended up in Milwaukee to become the Brewers, whose announcer for four decades has been .. Bob Uecker.

 

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My obligatory every-four-years soccer post

As regular as elections, and to most Americans as exciting, soccer’s World Cup begins today.

The U.S. Men’s National Team has at least three games — Ghana Monday at 5 p.m., Portugal June 22 at 5 p.m., and Germany June 26 at 11 a.m.

You can set your watch (if you had a watch you had to manually set) to two things by the time the World Cup begins — (1) opinions wondering if Americans will ever like soccer, and (2) opinions exhorting Americans to care about the World Cup.

The former is covered by World Soccer Talk:

Any time the prestigious tournament rolls around, the sport catches the attention of the United States for a brief amount of time. Numerous television networks fight for the broadcasting rights, as the ratings for soccer seem to soar during the period despite never recreating those strong numbers any other time of the year. It begs the question of, “does the U.S. have a passionate enough of a following to warrant any success the team may garner in the tournament?”

Soccer still lags far behind the major sports in this country in terms of viewership and attendance, despite the recent trends of growth that suggest a shift could occur in the near future. It’s safe to say there are more than enough eyeballs on the one month that consists of the World Cup, but how about the other times of the year when Major League Soccer is in session?

It’s tough to pinpoint the exact reason why the average American will tune into the World Cup and cheer on their team but insists on ignoring the existence of a league within the country’s borders. It may be a lack of awareness and perhaps some teams have yet to reach out and publicize themselves enough in their area to get more fans in the stadium.

Maybe there isn’t a team nearby for them to cheer for. MLS consists of 19 teams at the moment, with two more to join for the 2015 season, and another arriving two years later.  Some of these teams are filling holes in the map where the lack of a professional soccer team is very apparent. It seems Commissioner Don Garber has made it his mission at the moment to focus on expanding to the Southeast, where previous teams folded at the start of the millennium, and also gain teams in bigger markets to feed more money into the league.

MLS isn’t the richest league in the world by any means, which might be a reason why it hasn’t caught on yet because it doesn’t have the same amount of reach as the Premier League or La Liga. That by no means negates MLS’s development, which has been incredible since its inception in 1996, as the number of teams has nearly doubled and the level of play has vastly improved. The fact remains, though, that the sport can’t acquire the TV deals it desires to extend to broader audiences. Networks that broadcast MLS games seem to only acquire a dozen from the entire slate of games and, of the teams chosen, there doesn’t appear to be much diversity.

There is no doubt that the average MLS follower most likely is a fan of the U.S. national team and will watch every single match it participates in this summer. A typical MLS fan seems to be well-versed in the sport, watching the games of other teams in the league, following the play of various leagues around the world, as well as observing the progress of several different national teams. Perhaps this is no different than any other soccer fan from another part of the world, but the point is that there seems to be a certain type of passion that only exists within a soccer fan, as opposed to a fan of another sport.

Soccer fans seem to be the ones most willing to jump up and down, scream, wear the colors of their team, and stay proud regardless of a win or tie. They never give up, and this attitude continues to be reflected when it comes to the national team as well. The connection of the love of your soccer team and the love of your country is tied together because every four years the players you follow take part in the most important games of their lives.

This type of fanaticism and passion seems limited in the U.S. as the majority of the population hardly pays attention to the sport anyway. So the question remains if the future of soccer within the United States is a bright one or not. Does it have a tough road to complete in order to garner more fans, to create a tough, competitive league that can win over the casual viewers and make admirers out of them?

The World Cup is the battleground, not only for the U.S. national team in Brazil, but also for the popularity of the sport amongst Americans. Will this be the year that more people take an interest and wonder who are these faces representing them down in South America, what teams they play for, what their histories are, or why they’ve been chosen as opposed to others?

As for the latter, Sports Illustrated says:

Why should I watch this if I’m not a soccer fan?

  1. Everyone is good looking.
  2. Referees are part of the game: they make important calls with little to no technological help, and they can make the decision not to call a foul if they think doing so would give an advantage to the team that fouled. We can argue about whether this freedom for the refs makes soccer better or worse than other sports, but it’s certainly different (and with all the complaints about MLB’s new replay system, hopefully it’s refreshing, too).
  3. Everyone gets REALLY emotional because everything (well, not everything, but you know what I mean) is at stake:

  4. Watching a World Cup held in Brazil will be a spectacle like none other. This will be the party of a lifetime (assuming strikes, riots and a bevy of other issues that the country has faced leading up to the event don’t interfere)
  5. Flopping is a genuine part of the game, and everyone likes to watch good acting. Dwyane Wade would fit right in.

SI didn’t mention, but should have …

… Landon Donovan’s stoppage-time goal that got Team USA into the round of 16 by defeating Algeria 1–0 in 2010. Donovan won’t duplicate his feat this summer because he’s not on the 2014 team. You will, however, probably find out soon enough who the 2014 American players are.

To answer the questions posed by World Soccer Talk and SI: Americans sports fans pay attention to world-class events when the U.S. is involved and the U.S. does well, basically, since 1994, when the U.S. gets out of group play. Given that the U.S. group is called the “Group of Death,” the U.S. may make an early exit this year.

Soccer is also a big and growing participatory sport. Soccer’s problem is that participation hasn’t led to more fan interest. Yes, there now is Major League Soccer, but interest in the teams is limited to the teams’  markets. There is no MLS team with a following beyond its own market, like the Yankees or Packers.

The other problem is that soccer as a sport lacks something casual American fans like — scoring. Passionate soccer fans, like hockey fans (and, in different senses, baseball fans with pitching and defense), can appreciate defense and passing to set up shots. Less-passionate fans want end-to-end action  and scoring. There is not a lot of scoring at the highest levels of soccer. Casual fans are bored by “nil-nil” matches where, they think, no action is taking place. (Several years ago I saw the end of a match on ESPN where the announcers apologized for the game’s lack  of scoring.) The key to growing soccer is getting more interest from the casual fan, and that’s going to be difficult until the casual fan has more action to see. The National Football League has emphasized offense over all, and that’s worked out rather well for the NFL in expanding fan interest.

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The Mayor of Rush Street

Harry Caray died in 1998, but he can still make news today.

Caray announced for 25 years for the Cardinals before he was fired by owner Gussie Busch. I have heard, from people who were in a position to know, more than one version as to what specifically got Caray fired, though the general detail is consistent, as reported by Chicago Sports Memories:

After the 1969 season, his 25th with the Cardinals, Caray was abruptly fired. “I expected a gold watch,” he later joked, “but what I got was a pink slip.” It was a devastating blow, but not a complete surprise in light of allegations that he had become amorously involved with the attractive young wife of an Anheuser-Busch executive. Caray never denied it. “I’d rather have people believing the rumor and have my middle-aged ego inflated,” he said, “than deny it and keep my job.”

The other version, by the way, was that he “had become amorously involved” with the girlfriend of a very, very, very senior “Anheuser–Bush executive.”

After one season in Oakland, Caray moved to Chicago to announce for the White Sox.

But most baseball fans know Caray from his years announcing the Cubs.

After the Cubs improbably won the 1984 National League East title, Caray said in the Cubs’ locker room …

According to this Chicago Sun–Times story, Caray usually got his wish, even keeping records:

Grant DePorter, CEO of the Harry Caray’s chain of eateries, inherited the diary, one of eight, all from the ’70s and early ’80s, in four boxes of memorabilia, World Series tickets and cashed checks, that the executor of Caray’s estate found when he cleaned out his office.

Knowing my interest in all things historical, DePorter asked if I wanted to take a peek at one, and I swung by Harry’s and walked away with 1972.

I should say right away that this is not a Dear Kitty, pour-out-your-heart, frank-assessment-of-my-friends kind of diary. Old Harry was not big on introspection, as he was the first to admit.

“I’m a convivial sort of guy. I like to drink and dance,” he told an interviewer once.

Caray was the Cardinals’ color broadcaster for many years in St. Louis. Driven out of town in 1969, he migrated to Chicago, via a misfire year in Oakland, to announce first for the hapless White Sox, finishing his career in a golden twilight glow with the Cubs.

In 1972, he had just begun his tenure with the Sox. A savvy businessman, Caray cut a deal pegged to ballpark attendance, which doubled, largely thanks to his flamboyant presence. It would make him very wealthy, though in 1972 he was still tallying each bar tab.

“Remember, you used to be able to deduct a three-martini lunch,” DePorter said.

Saturday, Jan. 1, lists four bars: the Back Room, still on Rush Street, plus three long-ago joints: 20 E. Delaware, Sully’s and Peppy’s, with expenses for each $10.30, $9.97, $10, and $8.95. This in a year when a six-pack of Old Style set you back $1.29.

You needed to cite who you entertained to get the write-off, so on New Year’s Day he lists Dave Condon, the Tribune sports columnist; Billy Sullivan, who owned Sully’s; and Joe Pepitone, the former Yankees first baseman who had been traded to the Cubs.

And so it begins. A chain of old-time Chicago bars — Riccardo’s, Boul Mich, Mr. Kelly’s. A posse of early 1970s sports figures — Wilt Chamberlain, Don Drysdale, Gale Sayers. Plus a few unexpected blasts from the past: boxer Jack Dempsey, comedian Jack Benny.

“These guys did nothing but go out and have a few cocktails,” said Jimmy Rittenberg, who owned Faces, which Caray visited 14 times in 1972. “I don’t know how they did it. They were 20, 30 years older than me and I couldn’t keep up with them.”

Jan. 16 something unusual happens. Caray is in Miami, yet there are no expenses, just one enigmatic word, “Super.”

After that break, if indeed it was, comes 288 consecutive days in bars, not only in Chicago, but New York City, and of course on the road with the Sox, beginning with spring training in Sarasota.

The unbroken streak pauses Nov. 3, when all we get is “to K City @310.” The only completely blank day is Monday, Nov. 6 — what must THAT have been like? Then off to the races again.

Clay Felker, founder of New York magazine. Caray’s former boss, A’s owner Charlie Finley. A few surprises: Sox owner John Allyn. Several times. That surprised me, though it shouldn’t have. All I knew about their relationship was that Allyn fired Caray, and Caray replied with this timeless retort:

“I can’t believe any man can own a ballclub and be as dumb as John Allyn. Did he make enough to own it, or did he inherit it? He’s a stupid man. This game is much too complicated for a man like John Allyn.”

But that was 1975, the epic year when White Sox players complained they did so poorly because of Caray’s critical broadcast booth assessments, drawing my favorite Caray line: “Hey, you can’t ballyhoo a funeral.”

So what was it like to stand in the Pump Room (16 visits in 1972) and hoist a few with Caray?

“I was out with Harry Caray a couple of times,” the Tribune’s Rick Kogan said. “It was always at the Pump Room. He was one of the most charming people in the world.”

How so?

“Drunk but joyful,” Kogan said. “It always wound up being a joyful, laughter-filled time.”

Caray was always surrounded by friends like TV sportscaster Tim Weigel.

“He really liked Tim Weigel,” Kogan said. “I was an audience, at best, with those two characters around. They had incredible mutual affection. There was no better place to share that mutual affection than over way too many cocktails.”

I assumed that White Sox broadcasters today do not hang out in bars every night fraternizing with ballplayers and other assorted celebrities. But, not liking to assume things, I phoned the Sox and asked whether current announcers Steve Stone, who shared a mike with Caray, or Ken Harrelson, burned the midnight oil.

They declined to comment.

That kinda says it all, huh?

Toward the end of the diary, on Dec. 24, comes the kicker. After spending at least 354 of the previous 357 days in bars (DePorter counted 61 different tap houses) Caray writes, in a bold hand, “Vacation in Acapulco. Then “Vacation” every day until the year runs out.

Which makes me wonder how he knew he was on vacation. I guess if nobody was playing baseball in front of him and when he looked over the rim of his drink he saw Mexico, then he knew he was on vacation.

But give Caray credit. As old-fashioned, and perhaps even pathological, as the bar-crawling seems today, there is another truth worth mentioning: Harry Caray could have taken his drinks at home. He went out because it was his job.

“He felt the bartender and bar people were his fans,” Rittenberg said. “He felt he was responsible He would stop in 10 joints. He was just a gregarious guy.”

Bleacher Report adds:

Jimmy Rittenberg, former proprietor of Faces—a bar Caray visited 14 times over the course of 1972—says Caray and his drinking buddies could outlast men 30 years their junior at the bar.

“These guys did nothing but go out and have a few cocktails,” Rittenberg said. “I don’t know how they did it. They were 20, 30 years older than me and I couldn’t keep up with them.”

Well, this being Wisconsin, it is hardly our place to criticize one’s drinking habits as long as one can hold one’s liquor. As far as I know, Caray was never arrested for drunk driving, and Caray was well known for drinking, not for incidents resulting from said drinking.

After Caray died, his son, Braves announcer Skip Caray, told the story of Harry, his then-broadcast partner Jack Buck, and young Skip going out the night before a Cardinals spring training game. The next day’s game against the White Sox included a catcher (who later ended up with the Brewers) named Gerry McNertney, whose last name proved difficult to announce for the presumably hung-over older Caray and Buck. “McNertney” proved so difficult, in fact, that the two decided to replace him before his third at-bat, despite the fact that McNertney was still playing. Radio is theater of the mind, after all.

(I might as well point out here that I have never broadcast while inebriated, though I have occasionally had a beer or two before games, and I have never imbibed during games. There is no opportunity to do so in high school and college games, unless you figure out a way to sneak in a bottle. I assume that announcing while impaired in today’s society is a good way to make that game your last game as an announcer.)

Skip Caray was known to hoist a few, too, or at least make drinking references. More than once, he said, “The bases are loaded, and I wish I was too,” sometimes replacing himself with the manager having to deal with the bases-loaded mess. Caray would also, until Braves owner Ted Turner made him stop, announce the bottom of the fifth inning by saying, “We’ve come to the bottom of another fifth.” Unlike his father, however, Skip’s health — according to one account, diabetes, congestive heart failure, an irregular heartbeat and reduced kidney and liver function — made him stop drinking, though after Harry missed a few games after becoming overcome during a game in Florida he reportedly switched to nonalcoholic beer.

Skip Caray died at 68. His father, Harry, was reportedly 83 when he died. Skip claimed Harry reduced his age every time he got a new employer, which, whether true or not, certainly adds to the aura, doesn’t it?

 

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Hockey hockey hockey!

The National Hockey League Stanley Cup Finals begins tonight, with the New York Rangers at Los Angeles.

I wrote last week about my geographically unusual affinity for the Rangers, the result of being able to see Rangers games, and no one else’s, when I was growing up.

I was hoping the Stanley Cup Finals would feature the Chicago Blackhawks, which arguably are the NHL’s most popular team now, but the Hawks lost their conference final in overtime to the Kings. Though Los Angeles is no one’s idea of a hockey hotbed, the Kings won the 2012 Stanley Cup and figure to be the favorite in this series, for, among other reasons, their better record, which is why the series opens in L.A. tonight.

The Kings have one Wisconsin connection — their TV announcer. Bob Miller was one of the UW hockey radio announcers in the early ’70s. Miller left for Los Angeles after the Badgers won their first NCAA championship in 1973. (Proving once again that announcers’ careers are helped by their teams’ winning championships.) Miller was selected for the job by the legendary Chick Hearn, long-time L.A. Lakers announcer, who was asked by Kings and Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke to recommend a candidate out of a pile of audition tapes.

The Rangers have a more direct Badger connection, forward Derek Stepan, who played two years for the Badgers. (Stepan is also a second-generation Ranger; his father was drafted by the Rangers.) The Rangers’ most direct connection is probably former goaltender Mike Richter, who played two seasons for the Badgers and was the goaltender for the 1988 Olympic hockey team.

I detailed the Rangers’ history starting when I started following them. The Rangers for many years had what might be called George Steinbrenner Syndrome, except that it probably predates Steinbrenner — pick up name players and coaches, whether or not the acquisition improves things. One Stanley Cup-winning coach, Fred Shero (with Philadelphia), wasn’t able to win another. One Stanley Cup Finals-appearing coach, Roger Neilson, wasn’t able to win one in New York. Nor was Herb Brooks, of the 1980 gold medal U.S. Olympic hockey team.

The coach who did win a Stanley Cup, Mike Keenan, was in New York for one season. Keenan was of the improve-fast-but-wear-out-your-welcome style of coach, comparable perhaps to baseball’s Billy Martin (though without the legendary drinking problem). Keenan, who last month won a Russian league title, contributes his opinion:

Henrik Lundqvist is the reason the Rangers are in the Stanley Cup finals. And Henrik Lundqvist is the reason why the Stanley Cup will be coming back to New York and the Garden.

Lundqvist can win this series on his own. You need strong defensive play, you need timely scoring, you need special teams, which have worked well for the Rangers in the playoffs, but Lundqvist is the key.

I expect to see the best goaltending exhibition he has ever put on in his life. I have that much confidence in him — his leadership skills, his technical skills, his competitive skills, and he’s completely, as has the rest of the group, capable of doing whatever it takes to win.

Then I look at some of the experienced players. Martin St. Louis has inspired the group emotionally, through some of his own personal hardships, but certainly, he’s captured the room in the sense that he’s the emotional ingredient they perhaps didn’t have at the same level prior to his arrival. Not to say that Ryan Callahan didn’t have it, but St. Louis is on a mission.

St. Louis and Brad Richards have won the Cup, and that’s going to be critical because there’s going to be breaking points in every game, and in the evolution of the series itself, they will need guidance and confidence from the leadership group in the locker room.

Chris Kreider is a kid that’s come out of nowhere and continues to get better. Speed is a very, very important part of Stanley Cup championship, and Kreider brings a great deal of speed, he’s got size, he does get to the net.

Derek Stepan’s played well, Mats Zuccarello has scored some timely goals for them. They have a big centerman in Brian Boyle — he will be a big factor in this series because of his size and strength down the middle.

Rick Nash has got a skill set where he can be a game-breaker, and I’m sure that he’s up to that task. Nash has to be a big contributor here, not necessarily always scoring, but he has to create offensive opportunities that might result in somebody else getting a scoring chance or getting some goals. He’s a big, strong, determined winger, much like the wingers the Kings possess.

And belief can take the Rangers the distance, because that’s exactly what you need, you need a sense of mission. And they’re on a mission now, just as the Kings are. Our Stanley Cup team in ’94 had that same sense of mission, and it came right from the top players, from Mark Messier and Adam Graves, and I can start naming most of them now. There has to be that sense and confidence and the feeling that they’re capable of elevating their play. …

I coached against Alain Vigneault in Calgary a lot — don’t underscore his presentation. He’s a pit bull. And he’s a competitor. And it may not look like it, but his teams play like it. His demeanor on the bench isn’t as overt or demonstrative maybe as some others. Sutter’s pretty calming as well in terms of his presentation.

Alain’s going to make some adjustments on the bench and on the fly in Games 1 and 2 and find a way to neutralize as best he can the advantage the home team has with the last changes. …

Los Angeles has a great deal of championship experience in the core group. You look at the size and strength of their team, but that starts with the centermen, they’re really strong and deep down center, they’ve got some flexibility to move some of the centermen to wings if they want to shorten their bench. They’re big, they’re strong, they’re fast, they’re deep … and they’ve got a superstar defenseman, much like Brian Leetch for us when we won the Cup, in Drew Doughty. He commands respect of everyone that plays against him, and their goaltender Jonathan Quick is outstanding.

It won’t be enough.

Keenan points out probably the number one factor to success in the playoffs — the goalie. The other, if you’re not the team with home-ice advantage, is to win one of the first two to take away home ice advantage. The Rangers’ chances of winning the Cup improve greatly if they go to New York for games three and four tied 1-1 instead of down 2-0. In the Eastern Conference final, the Rangers improbably won the first two in Montreal, and went on to win in six.

Grantland has an interesting analysis of how the Rangers’ roster was built:

It’s been an inspiring run for the Rangers, who weren’t widely considered a Cup favorite when the playoffs began. The NHL is a copycat league, so there will no doubt be plenty of teams looking at New York’s success and trying to come up with a way to duplicate the blueprint.

But those teams will run into a problem: There doesn’t seem to be one.

No team is built by following just one strategy; every roster is pieced together in a variety of ways. But with most teams, there’s at least some tendency that stands out. This year’s Canadiens have been largely built through the draft. The Kings and Bruins draft well and then trade aggressively. The Red Wings specialize in finding gems late in the draft. The Maple Leafs trade well and sign horrible free-agent deals. The Oilers draft first overall.

But no such pattern stands out with the Rangers. A look down their roster reveals key players acquired in just about every way imaginable. If there’s an overarching plan in place beyond “go out and get good players,” it’s well hidden. And needless to say, whatever they’re doing is working.

It wasn’t always this way. For years, the Rangers were the poster child for the NHL’s big spenders, throwing dollars at the biggest free agents and using their wealth to pluck aging stars out of smaller markets in trades. And as we’ll see, they still do those things. But their ability to flex their financial muscles has been limited by the salary cap, and they’ve responded with a more balanced approach …

The blockbuster: Martin St. Louis

Martin St. Louis [as of the conference finals was] the Rangers’ leading postseason scorer. That’s not bad for a guy who wasn’t even on the team three months ago, and likely wouldn’t have wound up in New York at all if Lightning GM Steve Yzerman hadn’t left him off the initial Canadian Olympic roster. That move was reportedly the final straw that led to St. Louis requesting a trade — and then using his no-trade clause to specify New York as his desired destination.

Despite the circumstances, the former MVP didn’t come cheap. The Lightning did a good job of extracting value, including then–Rangers captain Ryan Callahan and two first-round picks. But it was an example of the Rangers doing something they’ve specialized in over the years: identifying another team’s star player who wants out, and then moving aggressively to make sure he ended up landing in New York.

It worked for guys like Eric Lindros, Jaromir Jagr, and (going even further back) Mark Messier. And it also worked for current Rangers winger Rick Nash, who came over from Columbus in a 2012 deal under somewhat similar circumstances.

The marquee free agent: Brad Richards

No NHL team has been as active as the Glen Sather–era Rangers when it comes to spending big money on free agents. The sheer volume of names is impressive: Bobby Holik, Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Darius Kasparaitis, Wade Redden … whenever there was an offseason bidding war, the Rangers were right in the middle of it. And they usually won.

That held true again in the summer of 2011, when the free-agent class basically consisted of just one major name: Brad Richards, the former Lightning and Stars center who’d been about a point-per-game player over recent years. The Rangers were widely assumed to be the front-runners, and they got their man, thanks to a nine-year, $58.5 million offer.

The deal was a throwback to the team’s big-spending ways, but with a modern wrinkle — it was heavily front-loaded, with several low-salary years tacked on to the end to keep the cap hit low. Given that Richards was already on the backside of his career at 31 years old, it seemed like the Rangers were gambling on a few good years up front to offset the contract’s later seasons (and maybe also banking on a wink-nudge agreement that Richards would retire midway through the deal).

So far, Richards has largely lived up to expectations. His 0.72 points-per-game with the Rangers is down from his career average, but still in borderline first-line territory. But he struggled in last year’s playoffs and was scratched by then-coach John Tortorella in a move that made headlines and led to suspicion the Rangers would make him a buyout casualty. That didn’t happen, and so far Richards has put up 11 points through three rounds while centering the team’s most productive line. …

The robbery: Ryan McDonagh

Sorry, Habs fans. We have to talk about it.

When New York signed [Scott] Gomez to a seven-year, $51.5 million deal in 2007, it was easy to be skeptical just based on the Rangers’ track record alone. But Gomez was a well-respected player, posting solid offensive numbers and playing a reliable defensive game. He had two Cup rings from his time in New Jersey, and the Rangers were stealing him away from a divisional rival. After the first two years of the deal, though, some of the luster had worn off. Gomez had been fine, but at a $7 million–plus cap hit, his name was starting to crop up in the dreaded “worst contracts” discussions.

And that’s when the Canadiens stepped in, making an inexplicable deal to acquire Gomez that will go down as one of the worst in recent league history. In fairness, Montreal needed a center and had the cap room to make the move, and Gomez was still reasonably productive. With five years left on his deal, taking a chance on him was risky, but not indefensible. If the Canadiens were simply sending a few spare parts to New York in exchange for taking on what was left of Gomez’s deal, the move would have made some sense.

But instead, they negotiated a seven-player deal that cost them McDonagh, a former first-round pick and one of the team’s best prospects. By now, you know how that turned out. Gomez had one decent year in Montreal, and then hit an extended slump that at one point saw him go a full calendar year between goals. The Canadiens bought him out last year.

Meanwhile, McDonagh was a Ranger regular by 2010 and has established himself as one of the league’s best young defensemen.

The first-round pick: Chris Kreider

Conventional wisdom says today’s contenders need to be built largely through the draft, especially with blue-chip prospects obtained with high draft picks that often come from years of losing. A quick look through the list of recent Cup winners supports that theory — each of the last five champions, and 16 of the last 18, have featured at least one player the team drafted with a top-three choice.

But the Rangers apparently missed that memo, because their roster is remarkably short on their own first-round picks. Their recent draft history is littered with first-round busts like Hugh Jessiman, Bob Sanguinetti, and Pavel Brendl (plus one tragedy in Alexei Cherepanov). That’s left them with only three players on the current roster who were Rangers first-round picks: Kreider, Marc Staal, and J.T. Miller.

But while none of those players is a franchise-defining pick like Jonathan Toews or Drew Doughty, all three have contributed. Staal is a dependable defensive presence who logs 20 minutes a night, while the 21-year-old Miller has chipped in when called upon as a roster fill-in.

Meanwhile, the speedy Kreider missed the first 10 games of the postseason with a hand injury, but has been a steady contributor since returning. He’s had a pair if multipoint games and put up four points in the Montreal series. And of course, Habs fans will point to his collision with Carey Price as a defining moment in the series.

The late-round steal: Henrik Lundqvist

While the Rangers’ success rate with first-round picks has been underwhelming, they struck gold in the late rounds of the 2000 draft. That’s when they used the 205th pick on Lundqvist, a relatively unheralded Swedish goaltender. In a draft that featured NHL busts like Mathieu Chouinard, Brent Krahn, and first-overall pick Rick DiPietro, a total of 21 goalies had their names called before Lundqvist did.

He wasn’t the first goaltender picked by the Rangers — that honor went to Brandon Snee, who never made it past the ECHL. And he didn’t even manage to be the first member of his own family taken — that was his twin brother, Joel, a forward picked by the Stars in the third round.

Lundqvist didn’t make his NHL debut until five years after he was drafted, but he established himself as an elite goaltender almost immediately. He finished in the Vezina voting in each of his first three seasons and finally won the award in 2012. He seems likely to be remembered as the top goaltender in Rangers franchise history. …

The undrafted free agent: Dan Girardi

Lundqvist may have had to wait around all day, but at least he got his name called. Not so for Rangers’ alternate captain Dan Girardi, who went undrafted in 2003 and eventually signed as a free agent with the Rangers’ AHL affiliate.

He’s gone on to become a top-pairing mainstay in New York. In 2011-12, he made the All-Star team while leading the league in minutes, and has been a steady defensive presence over the course of an NHL career that’s now in its eighth season. Not bad for a guy every team in the league passed on. Girardi has some company as a key Ranger who went undrafted — forward Mats Zuccarello, who led the team in regular-season scoring, was also passed over. He didn’t even sign an NHL deal until he was 22.

Want a reason to root for the Rangers? Read about Dominic Moore, whose goal in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals got the Rangers to tonight:

There’s is nothing that can take away the pain that New York Rangers forward Dominic Moore has felt in the last couple of years, but what happened Thursday should have at least offered a temporary reprieve for the NHL journeyman.

Moore scored the only goal in the Rangers’ Game 6 win over the Montreal Canadiens, which clinched the Blueshirts’ first Stanley Cup Final appearance in two decades. By all accounts, it couldn’t have happened to a better guy.

For those unfamiliar with Moore’s story, he’s been through hell and back. He lost his wife, Katie, to a rare form of liver cancer in January of 2013. In a move that no one could blame him for, Moore decided to sit out the 2013 season coming out of the NHL lockout. The heartbreaking story was documented on an episode of ESPN’s “E:60″ earlier this season.

The 33-year-old decided he’d return for the 2013-14 season, and he signed with the Rangers in July. Moore has played for nine different teams during his career, but going back to the Rangers was a return to the team he started with when he broke into the NHL during the 2003-04 season.

Moore had a serviceable year on the Rangers’ fourth line. He appeared in 73 games, scoring six goals to go along with 12 assists. He helped add to New York’s forward depth — a big reason they’re going to play for the Cup starting Wednesday. He’s been even better in the playoffs, tallying three goals and four assists. His third goal, coming on Thursday night against Montreal, was the biggest of his career. …

One of the best parts about Moore’s story is that his teammates swear by him. Moore is close friends with all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and Lundqvist was there beside him as Moore went through that extremely difficult time.

His other teammates have gotten a chance to see what kind of player and person Moore is over the course of the season, and you won’t find anyone saying anything bad about him. “To get that game-winner, it couldn’t happen to a better guy. He deserved that one,” Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello said, also according to NHL.com. “He’s been working hard all year and been a great teammate. It was nice to see him get that.”

Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said Thursday night that he thinks Moore has been able to find “refuge” in going to the rink and being around his teammates every day. That certainly was apparent in Game 6.

There is, of course, a long-standing animus toward New York teams among fans of non-New York teams. (Similar to the long-standing animus toward L.A. teams among fans of non-L.A. teams.) The New York Post’s Mike Vaccaro writes a nice analysis of what happens when a Noo Yawk team is a winnah:

It is quite simple, of course: 20 years ago [Adam] Graves and three other names and numbers flanking him in the ceiling from his blue crew — Mark Messier’s 11, Brian Leetch’s 2 and Mike Richter’s 35 — won a Stanley Cup championship, outlasted the Vancouver Canucks in a gritty seven-game series, delivered generations of Rangers fans to the mountaintop…

And have been celebrating ever since.

Been celebrated ever since.

“It goes without saying that not a day goes by without somebody telling me how much that Cup meant to them,” Graves said. “But I’m not lying when I tell you that rarely a few HOURS go by without someone wanting to share that. It’s incredible, how much that means. And still means.”

Ours is a demanding town. Ours is an exacting town. We boo you when you strike out, and we kill you when you throw an interception. We are quick to fire you when we think you’ve lost your team, quicker to exile you when we think you’ve lost a step. Maybe it shouldn’t be that way. Tough. It IS that way. Babe Ruth was booed. Joe DiMaggio was booed. Phil Simms was booed. Clyde Frazier was booed.

But here’s the thing: we are also a town that will embrace you forever if once, just once, you prove yourself equal to our expectation. You win a championship? It doesn’t matter if you’re a star (Joe Namath, Eli Manning, Tom Seaver, Willis Reed) or a sub (Phil McConkey, Art Shamsky, Mike Riordan, Brian Doyle), you’ll never buy a beer in this town again, never buy a meal with your own money, and never walk more than two blocks without the love of a grateful city parting your path.

“Winning here isn’t like winning anywhere else,” said Reggie Jackson, who knew about winning like few athletes do. “It’s amazing, times a thousand.”

So that is what awaits these 2014 Rangers, if only they can win four games across the next 14 days in any combination, using as much or as little of this Stanley Cup final as necessary. For now, for many, these are just anonymous names found mostly in agate type — Moore, Zuccarello, Richards, Girardi, Boyle — with a few bold-faced names — ST. LOUIS! LUNDQVIST! — sprinkled in.

Get those four wins, though?

“Your legacy,” Graves said, “is written in concrete.”

Or in cloth. Graves was a terrific player, and he scored 52 goals for those ’94 Rangers; Vic Hadfield was essentially the same player. Brad Park (Hall of Famer, 14 All-Star games) had essentially the same career as Brian Leetch (Hall of Famer, 15 All-Star games, two Norris Trophies – without Bobby Orr perennially in the way, as Park had).

But Hadfield doesn’t share 11 in those eternal rafters, and Park doesn’t share 2 with Leetch. Why? Because unlike those ’94 Rangers, the ’72 club that captured so many imaginations and spawned so many hockey fans couldn’t seize on its one chance at the Cup, falling two games shy against the Bruins.

Make no mistake, that ’72 team and those players are still warmly received when they come back to the Garden, same as the ’79 team is. They are still cornerstones of the Rangers’ history book. But there IS a difference. Yes, ours is a demanding town. But you give us a reason to love you, we can become Tuscaloosa in a big hurry.

And we stay that way forever.

Pregame postscript: NBC is carrying game 1 of the series tonight. But NBC will not have its lead hockey announcer, Mike Emrick, due to the death of Emrick’s father-in-law. Tonight’s play-by-play announcer will be Kenny Albert, the Rangers’ radio voice, who also announces football for Fox. Shades of Ray Scott calling the 1965 World Series for NBC and the 1965 NFL championship for CBS.

 

Categories: Sports | Leave a comment

Go Fish/Hats/Wolf/Ducks Go!

A friend of mine said on Facebook Wednesday:

Yeah yeah we got the Mallards. They even have a mascot that endears to me intimately. But they’re a Cape Cod team. There’s no reason we can’t have a Brewers farm team–at the very least an A-team but why not the AAA-team?

We sure would go to a lot more games if it was a Brewers farm team.

Those outside the Madison area may not realize that Madison does have a minor league team, the Mallards, part of the independent (that is, unaffiliated with Major League Baseball) Northwoods League. The Mallards and their other Northwoods brethren use college players, and their season runs from late May through August.

I pointed out (after which he said, “I love how you always break things down to gravel”; I’m not sure what he meant by that) that while there are Class A teams near Madison, the obvious problem is that the Brewers already have a Class A affiliate, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, based in the Fox Cities. The Midwest League Rattlers, which have only been a Brewers affiliate since 2009, are the former Appleton Foxes, which had a long and distinguished history. The Foxes became the Timber Rattlers in 1995, the year they moved into Fox Cities Stadium, which hosts the WIAA spring baseball championships and the NCAA Division III College World Series.

There have been several minor league teams in Madison, over three eras, the last of which started in 1982. Before that, the Madison Senators played in the Wisconsin-Illinois League from 1907 to 1914, as a Class D (then the lowest level of the minors) team for three years and a Class C team the remaining five years. (The league’s other teams, depending on the year, included the Appleton Papermakers, Eau Claire Tigers, Fond du Lac Webfoots, Green Bay Orphans and Bays, La Crosse Badgers, Marinette-Menominee Twins, Oshkosh Indians, Racine Belles, Wausau Lumberjacks, Aurora (Ill.) Blues, Freeport (Ill.) Pretzels and Rockford Wolverines and Wolves.)

Minor league ball returned to Madison in 1940 when the Blues joined the Class B Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League, with the opponents the Cedar Rapids Raiders, Clinton (Ill.) Giants, Decatur (Ill.) Commodores, Evansville (Ind.) Bees, Moline Plow Boys, Springfield (Ill.) Browns and Waterloo (Iowa) Hawks. The Blues were a Cubs affiliate in their final year, 1942.

Forty years later, the Class A Midwest League’s Madison Muskies arrived and were initially a hit beyond all expectations. The Muskies were an affiliate of the Oakland Athletics, and the Muskies had several players who would end up with the great A’s teams of the late 1980s, including Jose Canseco, Terry Steinbach and Walt Weiss, or with other teams, including outfielder Luis Polonia and pitcher Tim Belcher (who opened the 1988 World Series for the Dodgers against the A’s in what you should know as the Kirk Gibson Game). Warner Park, a high school diamond, underwent in-season expansion projects to accommodate the crush of interest. The Muskies ended up losing the Midwest League championship to Appleton, but were unquestionably the league’s biggest hit, and maybe the biggest hit in all of minor league baseball. (That was in the same year the Brewers got to the World Series, so arguably 1982 was the zenith of baseball in the state of Wisconsin, among the Brewers, Foxes and Muskies.)

Unfortunately for the Muskies, the first year was their best year. As with nearly all minor league teams, sometimes the Muskies were good; sometimes they weren’t. Warner Park was never significantly improved, which posed a problem when the minors became popular and better stadiums started to be built. The Muskies changed owners, and the new owners moved the franchise to Grand Rapids, Mich., to become the West Michigan Whitecaps. The one-season replacement was the Madison Hatters, a Cardinals minor league team formerly located in Springfield, Ill., but they were at Warner Park for just 1994 before they moved to Battle Creek, Mich. (They are now in Midland, Mich., and called the Great Lakes Loons. Really.)

Madison’s first independent minor league team was the Black Wolf, which played in the Northern League at Warner Park from 1996 to 2000. (Jimmy Buffett — yes, that Jimmy Buffett — was a minority owner.) After five seasons, the Black Wolf moved to Lincoln, Neb., to become the Saltdogs.

Exit the Black Wolf, but enter Steve Schmidt, owner of The Shoe Box in Black Earth. Schmidt played baseball at Madison Area Technical College (which has one of the best junior-college baseball programs in the country, though most Madisonians probably don’t know that). Schmidt hit upon the idea of a short-season team, which conveniently eliminated the problem of playing baseball in April and May before tens of fans. The Mallards have been successful on the field (two league titles) and seem to be successful enough off the field.

The question my friend asks, however, is about Madison’s return to what could be called Organized Baseball. The next level up, Class AA, is unlikely due to geography. The closest AA league is the Eastern League, and by “closest” I mean the closest team is in Akron, Ohio. That leaves Class AAA, and Madison sits between its two leagues — the International League has teams in Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio, and the Pacific Coast League has teams in Des Moines and Omaha.

As a Class AAA market, Madison would be on the small side, but with a metro area of half a million people (counting Iowa and Columbia counties) would be comparable to such markets as Durham, N.C., Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (home of the Yankees’ top farm club), Syracuse and Toledo.

What about the Brewers on the other end of Interstate 94? As close as they are, that wouldn’t be the shortest distance between parent club and AAA affiliate. The Tacoma Rainiers are 32 minutes south of their Mariners parents, and the Gwinnett Braves are 37 minutes north of their Braves parents. Of course, Seattle and Atlanta are considerably larger than Milwaukee.

The Brewers are much more of a statewide team than they used to be, thanks to the Miller Park roof and Brewers marketing people who actually know something about marketing. (Their predecessors in the Bud and Wendy Selig era didn’t, or didn’t have any money for marketing outside Milwaukee.)

These three dangerous-looking characters are my father (on the left; I look more like my mother, the Miss Wisconsin-USA finalist, though Dad and I have the same body type, and we are the first two generations of trumpet players in the family) and two of his high school friends, from Richland Center, one of whom has season tickets. It is unlikely anyone from Richland Center, unless a diehard baseball fan, would have season tickets at Milwaukee County Stadium, given Milwaukee’s bad spring weather and distance from southwest Wisconsin. The Wednesday afternoon we were there, it was 44 degrees outside. The game drew 24,000 at Miller Park; it probably would have drawn 4,000 at County Stadium.

What obviously is a huge plus to the Brewers is a minus for competitors for the entertainment dollar. If you buy tickets for a Brewers game, wherever you are, you have absolute certainty that the game will be played. The only thing the weather will affect is the comfort level of your pregame tailgate party. To no one’s surprise, the Brewers’ attendance as a percentage of available tickets (capacity times game dates) is substantially higher than it was in the County Stadium days, even when the Brewers had good teams. (The Brewers’ attendance record in County Stadium was in 1983, 2.3 million fans, or 53 percent of capacity. The Brewers so far are averaging 76 percent of capacity, slightly better than in 2013, and the Brewers have exceeded 3 million fans, which is about 90 percent of capacity, three times since moving to Miller Park.)

The stadium question is one of the biggest hurdles. A Class AAA stadium seats about 10,000 to 15,000. There is no obvious place in Madison to put a baseball stadium other than possibly the Dane County Fairgrounds, though Dane County has never expressed interest in building a ballpark. Schmidt has done wonders with Warner Park, but Warner Park will never really meet the standard of a quality minor league ballpark. In a perfect world, a ballpark would be built close to the UW campus so the UW baseball team and the AAA team could share it, but there is no UW varsity baseball anymore. With Madison’s reputation as the City That Won’t where business is concerned, it would almost make more sense for one of Madison’s suburbs to host the team, though that is probably a nine-digit financial commitment.

The other hurdle is ownership of the team. The Brewers’ AAA affiliate is the Nashville Sounds. It’s not that Milwaukee has a historic commitment to Nashville; the Brewers are the Sounds’ sixth parent organization. But to get a team in Madison, you have to put together an ownership group. Since it’s always fun to speculate with other people’s money, some of the names being circulated as potential Milwaukee Bucks minority owners come to mind — Brewers owner Mark Attanasio, who is reportedly interested in having a part of the Bradley Center replacement, and Nashville Predators owner Craig Leipold, a Racine native. Beyond them, though, well, it’s nice to have rich people in your state, and Wisconsin has very few of them.

Some may see the distance between Madison and Milwaukee as a hurdle. Others see the failure of previous minor league teams as a sign that Madison isn’t a baseball town, or that the UW overwhelms everything else sports-wise. The former may more be a commentary on Muskies ownership (the Hatters were never intended to be in Madison more than one season) than on whether Madison would support a higher-level baseball team stocked with players who next year might be playing at Miller Park. The latter ignores the fact that baseball and UW football, basketball and hockey don’t overlap.

The key number is 700,000. That’s 10,000 spectators times 70 home games. In an area of slightly more than a half-million people, could a baseball franchise get that many ticket sales?

Categories: Madison, Sports | Leave a comment

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