The Yankee Flipper

It’s been said that one of the easiest ways to tell you are getting old is when your childhood heroes start retiring. It’s true. I saw U2 last month in concert, and while Bono and company put on a great show, I couldn’t shake the fact that they are as old today as the Rolling Stones were when I was in high school. Earlier this year, MTV News anchor Kurt Loder turned 70. Didn’t he just break the news to me that Kurt Cobain was dead like, ten years ago? Last summer, Frank Thomas entered the Hall of Fame. How? How did this happen?

I was swept up in my own obsolescence again this week, when I realized that it was the 20th anniversary of an event that lives right in that fuzzy nostalgia, feels-like-yesterday part of the brain. It involves perhaps my favorite baseball player from my youth, Jack McDowell.

Gesture_raised_fist_with_middle_finger_lifted

I’ll give you this many guesses what it is.

Yes, 20 years ago today Jack McDowell became the Yankee Flipper. After getting shelled by his former team to the tune of 9 runs on 13 hits in just 4 2/3 innings, McDowell left the mound to a chorus of boos. He fired back a single finger salute that told everyone exactly how he felt about their concerns. It was the perfect way to sum up what was a rocky year in the Bronx for the 1993 Cy Young Award winner. It was also every thing I loved about Jack McDowell, at least as a sixteen year old kid from suburban Indiana who wouldn’t know how to be rebellious even if I tried.

I had a series of favorite players growing up, starting with Floyd Bannister of all people. He waved to a six year old me at one of my first games and it stuck. Carlton Fisk held the place for a while, and Harold Baines was always near the top of my list. To prove I wasn’t completely a homer, I can also say an aging Johnny Bench was one of my first heroes. I think it’s because he kind of looked like my Dad.

But Jack McDowell came along at just the right time. I was 13 when he first won 20 games in 1992. Being thirteen means trying to figure out who you’re going to be as you grow up. For me, it meant discovering Pearl Jam and Nirvana and girls. It meant finding friends who were weird but in the same why I was; friends I could talk to, mostly about Pearl Jam and Nirvana and why said girls weren’t interested in us. (Note to 13 year old self: It was probably all the flannel.)

At the same time, I simply wasn’t wired to be a rebel. I may have wanted to rock and roll all night and party every day, but I certainly couldn’t work up the nerve.  It was never in the cards for me, as I kept paying attention in class and listening to my parents and watching baseball like the Opie Taylor kid I was.

Then suddenly, into that conflict, stepped Black Jack. He played baseball, like any All-American boy should, but this was not my parent’s baseball star. He likes R.E.M.? I like R.E.M.! He plays in a rock band and has a cool grunge goatee? I…well…I want to do those things someday! Going from a favorite player of Carlton Fisk to Jack McDowell felt exactly the same as when I stopped listening to whatever music my parents listened to and bought Nevermind.

Of course you grow up and realize that’s all nonsense, but when you’re a teenager and you’re looking for something – anything – to latch on to, it’s the most real thing in the world. For me, Jack McDowell was more than just a player. He was a guy who seemed to be a lot like me at an age when you often feel like no one is. And he was better than anybody at what he did. That’s a powerful message for a kid to get at that age.

Then suddenly, three years later, he was gone. Traded to the Yankees for Lyle Mouton and Keith Heberling, names that would only be familiar to collector’s of Topp’s common cards from the mid-90s. It hurt, like it always does when a favorite player leaves town, but it was again the perfect time. By the time he started his season in Yankee pinstripes, I was 16. Still a long way from being “grown up”, but old enough to have a foothold into who I was. The White Sox didn’t need Jack McDowell any more, and neither did I.

Still, on the 20th anniversary of his most infamous moment, it’s nice to remember him for what he – and I – both were. I was a timid teenager too sheltered to give the world the middle finger. He was the guy who did it for me.

True Colors

Next month, Caitlyn Jenner will be presented with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. This, combined with her appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair, has created a fair amount of hand wringing and controversy across social media and sports radio. I personally can’t believe the reaction this has caused, not just because of the socio-political overtones, but because of the event. To paraphrase Allen Iverson:

“We’re talkin’ about the ESPY’s. Not a game! Not a game! Not a game! We’re talkin’ about The ESPY’s!”

Seriously, this is an event that ESPN invented in the 90s when they realized the day before the All-Star weekend was literally the deadest day in all of sports. Someone had the good sense to realize people would rather watch anything other than tape delayed NHRA Drag Racing and thus the stupidest event of the year was invented.

Still, the Arthur Ashe Award is the one bright spot in the whole travesty. It gave us Jim Valvano’s speech. It’s gone to people like Muhammad Ali, Pat Tillman, and Nelson Mandela. If it means having a useless award ceremony around it, then so be it. After all it’s a nice thought – take a few minutes and honor someone for transcending sports.

I’m not going to argue the merits of ESPN giving the Arthur Ashe Award to Caitlyn Jenner over Lauren Hill, Noah Galloway, or any other person social media has brought up in the last two days. There are many people who act bravely in a given year and it seems repulsive to me to rank them. I will say this though – never ONCE in the 20 some years of this award have I seen people openly debate the merits of it’s recipient. Who has that kind of temerity, to look at the winner of an award for courage and say “Not brave enough!”?

This reaction is all the proof we need that Caitlyn Jenner is brave. There is a sizable portion of the population that is at best repulsed and at worst angered by Jenner’s change. She will have to live with that every day for the rest of her life. When she comes on tv to accept this reward, how many people at home will be cracking jokes? How many will be turning it off entirely? (By the way, this is what makes the “ESPN did this for the ratings” point laughable. Yeah, ESPN picked a post-op, trans-gendered Kardashian because they know THAT is what their demographic wants.)

As for the other people who have been mentioned as “better candidates”, I’m calling bull. This isn’t about lifting them up, it’s about tearing Jenner down. Ask yourself this – if Lauren Hill had won, would anyone be saying “Noah Galloway deserves it more!”, or vice versa? Of course not. I’m sure many of the people who have been campaigning for these people on social media are doing it from a good place, but make no mistake, these ideas get planted. And the people who started this conversation absolutely did it to smear Caitlyn Jenner, not to rise up Hill or Galloway. They are flat out using a cancer victim and a wounded American veteran to promote their agenda, which is an action that makes me wish ESPN had an award for cowardice.

Caitlyn Jenner may not fit some people’s ideal definition of courage. Caitlyn Jenner may not fit some people’s ideals on a lot of things. The fact that she has opted to break free and be who she is anyway – critics be damned – is courageous. I think part of the reason she has faced such a backlash is because for the last decade, anyone with a short memory or who is under 40 knew her as a bumbling, father-knows-least to a family of the worst kind of attention seekers. If that’s your opinion, ask someone who was around in the mid-seventies how big of a star Caitlyn Jenner was. Remember how much bigger the Olympics were to the general public. If anything, Jenner was the prototype of the athlete/spokesman that Michael Jordan perfected and today is the norm. She did all that while living a lie because society wouldn’t let her be successful and true to herself.

Society has changed, albeit only slightly. She can be true to herself, and many will applaud her. Others will go on about their day and not care at all. Then there are the others who will still attack. Those who will shout from the rooftops that she is an abomination, a slight against God, a freak. It takes courage to stand up to those people. When someone famous does it, it often creates courage in others who may be afraid to speak up themselves. If seeing Caitlyn Jenner on stage at the ESPY’s helps just one of those people who is living in fear to stand up and say “this is who I am, and I’m not afraid to admit it”, than we should have no doubt The Arthur Ashe Courage Award was given to the right woman.

Reelin’ In the Years

This is technically a blog, and I hate to say it, but I have come up woefully short in 2014. The fact is, any successful blog should have at least three clickbait-y lists a week. I only had like, two all year.

So to make up for my inability to keep up with Buzzfeed, here’s all the lists to fill my yearly quota. The main list, – the top moments in sports in 2014, shall be interspersed with my other various lists. Enjoy, and don’t forget to like, comment, retweet, instagram, share, and whatever the hell I’m supposed to tell you to do in order to make me look like a big star who matters.

The Ten Biggest Stories in Sports in 2014.

10. Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward

Perhaps the most tragic event of 2014 saw the NASCAR champion accidentally hit and kill a young driver on a dirt track in New York. The terrible event was a reminder of the dangerous nature of motorsports. It was also a reminder to let the experts weigh in before everyone else – many in the non-racing media were quick to condemn Stewart and label him a murderer, clouding the issue and making it that much harder for all involved to find closure.

9. Sochi, Sochi, Sochi!
The Olympics get a spot on these kind of lists by default, even in a year like this when there wasn’t a ton of excitement around them. Still, it was kind of fun watching Vladamir Putin squirm as Russian hockey went belly-up and where else can you see a 55 year old Half-German, Half-Mexican prince ski while dressed up as one of the Three Amigos?

Hubertuspic

8. Seahawks win the Super Bowl
Peyton Manning, foiled again! Pete Carroll, finally redeemed in the NFL! All these exclamation points, being used in a pathetic attempt to make you forget that it was one of the least exciting Super Bowls in history!

TIMEOUT

Best Movies of 2014: (WRITER’S NOTE: As the father of a tiny human who depends on me to keep him alive, my film-going has been primarily all about watching things as they come out on Netflix or iTunes, and doing so after my son has gone to bed, dreaming happily about the same damn episode of Yo Gabba Gabba that we have watched forty times. So I retain the right to change this list if and when necessary, such as when I finally get around to seeing Boyhood, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash, Interstellar, and any other movie that I can say with some certainty will be better than The Lego Movie.

1. Guardians of the Galaxy – The closest I’ve ever come as an adult to feeling the way I felt when I was a kid seeing Star Wars for the first time.

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson’s most Wes Anderson-y film yet, and that’s a good thing.

3. Gone Girl – Creepy and bizarre; it keeps you guessing until the end.

4. Captain America – The Winter Soldier – A little bit superhero, a little bit Jason Bourne.

5. The Lego Movie. (See, I wasn’t kidding. Furthermore, I’m not even embarassed. This was just a good movie. Everything is Awesome!)

BACK TO THE LIST

7. Lebron goes home
His explanation in Sports Illustrated was either a perfect explanation of the decisions that brought him to this point or a perfectly played piece of public relations, depending on whether you love or hate him. Either way, there is no doubt that his return to Cleveland flipped the NBA on it’s head and should make things very interesting this season, at least until the Finals and the inevitable Western Conference victory.

6. Derek Jeter retires
A lot of people got tired of hearing about this. A lot of people talked about how much attention he got because he played in New York, and he played for the Yankees. Bull. He got the attention because:
A. He was one of the greatest shortstops of all time.
B. He was one of the genuinely good guys in baseball in an era marked by cheating and scandal.
C. He spent his entire career with one team when that just doesn’t happen very often anymore.
There are plenty of good examples of east coast bias in sports coverage, and plenty of examples of Yankee-bias in baseball coverage. Just don’t for a second believe that Derek Jeter’s farewell was one of them.

5. The U.S. National Team gives the country a reason to embrace soccer

I’m not going to sit here and say that America has changed forever, and that we are now a soccer nation. It’s never going to happen no matter how much the soccer fans in this country want it to. Don’t let that change the fact that for a few weeks this summer, the USMNT had the entire country hooked. It’s hard to not still get goosebumps when I see this:

Do we love soccer? No. But we love a spectacle, which the World Cup provided. We also love being a nation of winners, and for a brief moment in Brazil, we were.

TIME OUT

Best Albums of 2014
1. The War On Drugs – Lost in the Dream
2. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else
3. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
4. Augustines – Self Titled
5. Weezer – Everything Will be Alright in the End
Honorable Mentions: Tweedy – Sukierae, Alvvays – Self Titled, Chromeo – White Women

BACK TO THE LIST

4. Michael Sam
There are some who will say this should be higher, as one of the most significant civil rights stories in sports history. There will be others who say it shouldn’t be here at all – he didn’t play a down in the NFL. The fact is, while his inability to make a roster dampens the impact slightly, it is impossible to ignore the door that Sam has blown open. Sam may never play a down in the NFL, but his bravery will be a big part of why we will eventually see the first gay player to make a roster, the first gay starter, the first gay all-pro, and the first gay hall of famer.

3. The Royal Resurgence and Bumgarnerball

The Royals run to the World Series helped electrify a fanbase that had been dormant for 20 years. They did it in such a different way, scratching and clawing and playing Ned-ball, that you couldn’t help but be entertained. Add to that Madison Bumgarner providing one of the single most dominating postseason performances in my lifetime, and you had the most entertaining post season of any sport in 2014.

2. College football adds a playoff – and still screws it up.

It may seem hard to believe that despite all the hype surrounding football finally having a playoff that they still had controversy and debate leading up to the selection. Did they get the right four? Maybe. I personally think Ohio State should have been out and Baylor in, but that’s just my opinion. The problem is, the entire system is opinion. In every other college sport, winning your conference matters. Not so here, and it’s not changing anytime soon because the elite programs don’t want to share the pie with the MACs and Mountain Wests of the world. They won’t be satisfied until one of the five power conferences folds and there is a nice, even four. The rest of college football? Form your own division or go the way of UAB. By taking one step forward, college football has taken two steps back.

TIME OUT

Worst Cultural Trends of 2014

1. Clickbait. – You won’t believe what he writes next! Three more things he hated about 2014 – Number 3 will blow your mind! After reading this take this quiz to see which character from the mostly forgotten 80’s fantasy movie “Krull” you are!

Stop. Just stop it.

2. Bae. – One of the single dumbest pieces of slang ever. And this is coming from someone in a generation that used the word “phat” without irony.

3. Songs about asses. – Booty. Anaconda. All About the Bass. Wiggle It. 2014 was “The Year of the big ass” in pop music. Not great, but a definite improvement over 2013 – “The Year of Robin Thicke trying to touch you inappropriately”.

4. Corporate use of social media – If I see one more commercial where hip young people are tweeting about their food from KFC or the great deal they got at TJ Maxx I’m going to scream. I am admittedly no longer young, and was never hip, but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t happen. If you are young, hip, and tweeting with Mountain Dew’s prescreened hash tags, put your phone down and get outside before you accidentally lobotomize yourself.

THE TOP SPORTS STORY OF 2014….

1. The NFL’s image problem

This isn’t supposed to happen to the Shield. The NFL has become the teflon juggernaut of sports. Labor issues? We keep watching. Safety concerns? We keep watching. Steroid concerns? Swept under the rug of public consciousness. Then we all watched the Ray Rice video. Then we all saw the photos of Adrian Peterson’s son. And while we didn’t stop watching, a lot of people certainly began asking the question Vince Lombardi immortalized – “What the hell’s going on out here?”

It wasn’t the behavior that was most concerning – we have seen abhorrent actions from pro athletes for years, almost to the point of being numb to it – it was the complete lack of action by the teams, the league, and the NFLPA. The fact that the Ravens, Vikings, and the NFL were so slow to rush to judgement, putting the concerns on the field ahead of simple humanity, proved that in the league’s mind, they are bulletproof. A lot of fans didn’t help dissuade that thought by rushing to defend their fallen idols. The whole, terrible mess has held up a mirror on the NFL, as they must come to grips with just how important the bottom line is in the face of tragedy. It’s also held up a mirror to us as fans – how far will we let a sports league go before saying “enough is enough”?

Standing Outside the Fire

This isn’t going to be about my thoughts on Ferguson, Missouri.

I have strong feelings on the topic, like pretty much everyone else in the country, but I don’t feel like spending the next three hours explaining how I feel. It’s a complicated, multi-faceted dilemma with wrong and right on both sides. For an issue predominantly about black and white, I think the majority of this is a rather ugly shade of gray.

That being said, I have no problem with anyone who chooses to let their opinions be known. That includes the seemingly 95% of all people on Facebook who have shared some type of meme about it, every talking head and political figure on the news, everyone who has chosen to protest on both sides (the peaceful ones, not the people who are burning buildings or driving at people through blockades), and yes, even the St. Louis Rams.

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Jared Cook, Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey, Chris Givens, and Tavon Austin are the players in question. Five members of the St. Louis Rams who raised their hands as a way of supporting the protesters in nearby Ferguson. Five players who instantly found themselves hated by half of America. Even if you didn’t specifically hear someone say it, you know the response. “You’re paid to play the game! No one cares about your political views!”

There are some problems with that argument, though, starting with the fact that they probably don’t care if you care about their political views. I rarely post anything political to Facebook or Twitter; it’s just not my style. That being said, when I do it’s not to change your mind – it’s to ease my own. It’s when that feeling hits you that something in this world is so screwed up that you have to shout something from the heavens , just to get it off your chest. You might agree with me, you might not. I don’t really care. I just needed to vent.

Those five member of the Rams weren’t trying to force a political view down your throat. They were just letting their opinion be known. If you’ve ever posted a political post on Facebook, you’re guilty of the same thing. Do they have a bigger platform? Sure. That’s one of the perks of being a professional athlete.

The second problem is that in the long run we love athletes who take a stand on the issues. Would Muhammad Ali be as admired today if he wasn’t so outspoken about everything from race to religion to the Vietnam War? Would we even know who Tommie Smith and John Carlos are today if not for their black power salute at the 1968 Olympics? Who remembers anything about Rick Monday’s baseball career outside of rescuing an American flag from being burned in the outfield at Dodger Stadium? You know what Bill Bradley, Tom Osborne, Jim Bunning, Steve Largent, and Jack Kemp have in common, besides being world-class professional athletes? We elected them all to Congress!

The key missing ingredients when it comes to the Rams player’s protests are hindsight and time. It’s easy to look back at Muhammad Ali today with respect and admiration, but go back and look at how things played out at the time. The fact is, Ali was one of the most divisive figures on the planet. Today Smith and Carlos raising their fists in defiance of a society they felt made them second class citizens is one of the most iconic images in all of sports. At the time, there were people who thought they were nothing short of treasonous.

There are also plenty of athletes who we judge harshly in retrospect over their public stances and opinions. The moment John Rocker opened his mouth, he was a pariah. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf took a stand by sitting during the Star Spangled Banner, and he paid for it. Lots of ballplayers opposed Jackie Robinson when he broke the color barrier; their legacies are tarnished for it today.

We tend to love athletes with a social conscience after the fact, but at the time it can be one of the most harshly judged things they do. Like the stand they take or hate it, it takes guts to put your entire public image on the line. That’s why in the long run we tend to respect those who do it.

We can’t say for sure how history will judge the events in Missouri over the last few months, so it stands to reason that we can’t judge how we will look back at these five members of the Rams and their moment of championing a cause. What I will say is that it is wrong to judge them just because they took a stance. If you want to hate what they said, go ahead. If you do hate what they said, it’s probably because you have a strong opinion on the topic. Obviously, so do they. And in a world of sports where far too many athletes care only about the world as it affects them, or only choose to say things that will not ruffle the feathers of endorsers, I can’t look at what went down Sunday and call it a bad thing.

 

Who Says You Can’t Go Home?

There will be a familiar face on the sidelines at Assembly Hall tonight, and it will be interesting to see how the crowd reacts. Mike Davis will make his return to Bloomington, now as head coach of the Texas Southern Tigers.

How will he be met? Will he be greeted as one of the three men to take Indiana to a Final Four, or as the man who oversaw Indiana’s first losing season in 34 years? Will he be seen as the man who helped keep the Indiana program together after the scarring, public divorce from Bob Knight, or a divisive figure who tried to push away all that was good about Indiana under Knight and whose very presence on the sidelines divided the fanbase? In this, the start of the eighth season since he left Bloomington, will fans say good-bye or good riddance?

If you weren’t there at the time, you wouldn’t understand. Why is this a big deal? The way coaches move around they play their former teams all the time, why is this any different? The answer is simple. Mike Davis represents the beginning of a post-Bob Knight Indiana University, for better and for worse, and the Hoosiers still haven’t managed to really figure out that transition in any relevant way 15 years later.

Mike Davis’ tenure began in 2000, being named interim head coach when Bob Knight was fired. For a large chunk of the Indiana fan base, that was strike one, and the single biggest hurdle to his success. Think about the difficulties in replacing a living legend as head coach. Now imagine that the coach in question was forced out, and you were given literally days to prepare to replace him. The coach in question has publicly called you out for taking the job in some perverse take on loyalty. Throw in, just for fun, the elephant in the room that is race.
This is what Mike Davis had to deal with, and he managed to win 21 games and make the NCAA tournament, losing in the first round. That loss, a 4 point upset at the hands of 13th seed Kent State, had half the Indiana fanbase calling for him to be fired. In hindsight, maybe that would have been best. Indiana could have cast a wide net on a national coaching search and hired a name that would go well with the Indiana tradition. That very offseason, Louisville hired Rick Pitino. Davis could have rode off into the sunset as a footnote, but remembered as the guy who kept Indiana together in it’s darkest hour. He surely would have had his choice of jobs.

Instead Indiana chose loyalty, and for one brief, shining year, it looked brilliant. Mike Davis followed up his first year with a Big Ten Title and a tournament run to the National Championship game. It was an incredible couple of weeks that included a one point win over Duke that sent students into the streets to celebrate. That was followed up by revenge for the year before with a blowout win over Kent State, and a win over Oklahoma where ironically Mike Davis thoroughly outcoached the man who would replace him at Indiana, Kelvin Sampson.
Even still, Mike Davis could not unite the fanbase. They called it a fluke. He won with Knight’s players. Most disturbing were the complaints that he just wasn’t “Indiana” enough, that he was changing the program’s traditions and didn’t care about the school’s past. Those arguments came across at best as sour grapes over the Knight decision. At their worst, it came across as overtly racist, with the most misguided segment of the fanbase angry about cornrows, baggier shorts, and an NBA (read: black) style of play. When they missed the tournament the next two seasons, the voices of dissent grew louder, and by the time he entered his final season there was only one possible outcome. On January 10, 2006, Indiana was ranked 9th in the country. Still, fans called for him to be gone. The Hoosiers went 3-5 in their next 8 games, and the criticism grew deafening despite remaining in the top 25. Mike Davis missed the next game against Iowa, a game at which many fans wore all black to protest Mike Davis still being in charge. Five days later, Davis announced he would resign at the end of the season. Davis’ Indiana career ended a month later, after losing to Gonzaga in the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament. It was the third time in his six years Indiana made it past the first round. Tom Crean has done it twice in his first six years. Kelvin Sampson managed it just once. Even the legend himself, Bob Knight, only did it twice in his final six seasons

This isn’t to say Mike Davis was completely without blame in the situation. There were times he looked over his head coaching in the Big Ten, and missing the tournament two years in a row was inexcusable. He did a terrible job of recruiting inside the state of Indiana, where the high school talent has always been the Hoosiers’ natural advantage. Most importantly for his situation though, as someone who needed to win his fanbase over, he couldn’t stop himself from putting his own foot in his mouth. He openly talked about a desire to coach in the NBA He told fans “help is on the way” following a loss to Kentucky, seemingly throwing his current players under the bus. That was the same year he went to the Final Four. He lamented Indiana not making the NCAA tournament at 15-14 because they were the 5th seed in the Big Ten Tournament, as if that was a guarantee for the postseason. Time and again, Davis showed he was just awful at trying to spin things his way. It grated on even his most ardent supporters.

I count myself as one of those supporters. I wanted Mike Davis to succeed, was happy for him when he did, and upset when he didn’t. I wasn’t stupid; by the end I wanted him to leave simply because it was obvious the situation had grown too toxic to ever work, but I wasn’t happy to see him go as so many were. I’ve always attributed that to the fact that I was a student at IU when they made their Final Four run. Those fans cheering in the streets after the Duke win? I was one of them. I still remember walking down the street and seeing a group of fellow students running through traffic after coming out of Kilroy’s Sports Bar, coming over to celebrate with me and my friends. They were complete strangers, and one of them, a coed who couldn’t have been more than 5’2″ and 100 pounds, ran towards me to leap in my arms to celebrate. In her drunken state she misjudged and, with a running start, wound up jumping up at me and punching me square in the eye. And you know what? I married that girl.

OK, no I didn’t. I married the girl who was standing next to me, and couldn’t stop laughing as I tumbled like Apollo Creed taking one final shot from Drago. I couldn’t stop laughing either, or cheering, or just flat-out savoring what might have been the best night of my college life. It was a campus-wide moment of pure euphoria. It’s the feeling Indiana students must have had in 1976, or ’81, or ’87. It’s the feeling current students must have had after Christian Watford drained that shot to beat Kentucky. After a night like that? A tournament run like that? Mike Davis was going to have to do a whole helluva lot wrong for me to not be on his side.

For all the drama and all the tribulations, the numbers don’t lie. Mike Davis is still the winningest coach at Indiana in the 21st century. He has won exactly as many Big Ten titles as his successors combined. He never suffered any NCAA violations, which is more than can be said of the Kelvin Sampson era, and his players stayed out of the police blotter, which is more than can be said about the current team. What kind of reaction will he get tonight? I can’t speak for what it will be at Assembly Hall, but in my living room, it will be a warm one.

 

Jump Into the Fire

Depending on if you were with the football department or the accounting department, Saturday was a very good or very bad day for the University of Tennessee-Martin. Bad, because of the 45-16 thrashing you took at the hands of the top ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs, good because of the inevitable payday that came out of it.

These games aren’t great for college football, but they’ve become a part of it and they aren’t going anywhere. When the NCAA approved a 12 game schedule in 2006, these games became a necessity to fill things out and the fact that they help keep smaller football programs afloat financially is enough of a positive for me to look past the competitive mismatches. Besides, it’s not like it really affects the college football landscape or the National Championship picture. I mean, just about every FBS team in the country puts a lower division patsy on their schedule so it all comes out even, right?

Wrong. Remember again what week it is. Now look at who Mississippi State (and Mississippi) played this week. In November. It turns out, these games against lower division teams are just one more hurdle to a fair and even-handed outcome at the end of the college football season.

In college football, more than any other sport except maybe auto racing, your starting position matters. Pretty much every other sport, everyone starts tied for first. This has never been the case for college football, where the polls decide the eventual champion, or at the very least who will play for the championship. This year, Florida State started very much in first place. This makes it incredibly difficult for a school like TCU, who is 8-1 but started the year unranked, to make much headway. For a school like Marshall, who is undefeated but started the year unranked and plays in a non-power conference, it makes it nearly impossible. The fact of the matter is the entire season is set up in the first few weeks. If you are number one and lose, all you have to do is keep winning after that; if the teams that moved ahead of you lose, you will rotate right back into the National Title picture. If you start the year ranked 20th and lose, your title hopes are done.
This is where the scheduling comes in. As I mentioned before, nearly all FBS schools schedule a lower division opponent. However, only one conference has consistently figured out how to do it to their advantage. This season, 46 FBS vs. FCS games happened in week 1. Last year, 31. On average, over the last three years, 94 of these types of games have been played in the first four weeks of the season. Yet Mississippi and Mississippi State just both played their patsies in their 10th game. Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Auburn all still have it to look forward to – on November 22!

This isn’t a coinicidence, and it’s not a new thing. Since 2009, Alabama has played a lower division team every year for their 11th game. Auburn has scheduled it for game 10 or 11 every year but one. Same thing for Florida. In fact, just check out this chart to see how the SEC as a whole schedules their non-FBS opponents:

SEC CHART

Obviously some schools have been more aggressive with this scheduling than others (ahem…Alabama, Auburn, Florida…), but the SEC on a whole is trending in this direction while every other conference in America continues to do things the same as always, with these types of games early in the year. The SEC is putting these game on the schedule at the time it helps them the most. For one, it provides a nice break in the middle of a grueling conference schedule. More importantly, though, it might actually help with the polls. No team is going to move up in the polls early in the year when they play one of these games. Some voters might even penalize teams for it. Is anybody going to hold the fact that Mississippi and Mississippi State played glorified scrimmages this week against them? No. We’ve already made up our minds about them. Their reputation is set. The SEC is taking the weakest part of their schedule and tucking it away where voters won’t care, and it’s brilliant.

This isn’t meant to diminish the SEC and their success in the last decade. If anything, it highlights how good they are as a conference – they even know how to play the perception game better than everyone else. I would expect that more and more teams will schedule this way in the future. The thing is, it’s probably not good for college football and it’s fans. At a time of year when we should be gearing up for the playoffs, we should be watching conference games and rivalries that will decide who will and won’t be there in January. The college football season doesn’t need a November break for games that should have been tune-ups played in late August. There are a lot of problems in college football, and most of them are way too complicated for a quick fix. This isn’t one of them. A simple rule stating that games against non-FBS school must be played in the first four weeks of the season would do it, and the NCAA should make it happen.

She’s still preoccupied with 1985

If I had to describe my feelings for the Kansas City Royals for the first 18 years of my life, the best word would be apathy. I grew up appreciating George Brett, and have vague memories of watching the 1985 World Series, but mainly they were just another team the White Sox battled with in the A.L. West. By the time I graduated high school, Brett was just a memory and Bob Hamelin wasn’t the answer; the long journey towards being a 29 year punchline was well underway.

In 1997, however, my thoughts (or lack thereof) about the Royals changed due to the four words that are the cause of 97% of all changes men ever go through – I met a girl.

She was originally from Missouri, not too far from Kansas City, and her father raised her with the Royals. When she broke her arm in the 4th grade, she got her cast signed by Frank White at a local bank. She told me about one of her favorite memories growing up – running around Kauffman Stadium with her sister picking up those plastic collector cups with pictures of guys like Brett, Quisenberry, and Saberhagen. Driving home from games in her Dad’s station wagon she’d fall asleep, crashing after too much cotton candy and baseball, listening to the sound of forty or fifty of those cups clanking around in the back.

So eventually I became if not a Royals fan, at least a Royals supporter by marriage. In a house where the MLB Extra Innings package is a must, the Royals have always been a regular go-to game to watch. And while she has always been one to prefer going to games rather than watching on tv, she’d keep an eye on Joe Randa and Runelvys Hernandez, get nostalgic about the good old days, and wonder what happened. That kind of nostalgia was all the Royals really offered. She rooted for Mike Sweeney, and cursed out the franchise as they let guys like Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon, and Carlos Beltran go, but the team made it really, really hard to keep fans passionate. As managers turned like leaves, from Muser to Pena to Bell to Hillman, she watched fewer and fewer games. She’s never given up completely, but the fire was gone.

Which is what has made the last few months, culminating in this week, so incredible for me to watch. America has been watching the rebirth of a fan base on tv, but I’ve been lucky enough to watch it in my living room. I’ve watched her eschew sleep, staying up until the early morning to watch her Royals steal, bunt, scratch and claw their way to four straight wins. She may have to work the next morning, (real work, not like sporadically updating a blog and watching Yo Gabba Gabba while coaxing a 1 year old to eat his peas) but she doesn’t care. This is the kind of sleeplessness that leads to euphoria, where adrenaline kicks in and even if the game ends at midnight you can’t fall asleep until one.

That kind of feeling is good to see. It’s been missing for Royals fans for 29 years, and having it back is good for baseball. When a dormant fanbase wakes up, the game becomes stronger.

When we were still dating, my wife and I went to a White Sox/Cubs interleague game. She had never been to one, and I was telling her on the way how much fun those kind of rivalry interleague games are. (This was when it was still relatively new). “I know,” she said,  “I remember how much fun it was when I was a kid and we went to a Royals-Cardinals game.” It took me a moment to realize there was no interleague when we were kids – she was talking about the 1985 World Series. She had no idea.

That may be the greatest evidence ever as to why you don’t take a six year old to the World Series, but it’s also the reason I’m pulling for the Royals throughout October. I want my wife to experience a World Series she actually remembers. I want to hear that conversation after they win when she calls her dad and they share their exuberance. Most of all, I want to see that look on her face, the look she got to see on mine when the White Sox won in 2005. She celebrated with me that night like she had been a Sox fan her whole life. I hope I get to do the same for the Royals.