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.

 

It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)

Derek Jeter’s walk off winner Thursday night will surely go down as the one of the top 10 greatest caps to a career in sports history. So what are the others?

10. Goose Gossage

Goose Gossage had 310 saves in his Hall of Fame career, but hadn’t recorded one in over a year when he entered the game on August 8, 1994. What made it great was the way he did it. This wasn’t a namby-pamby, up-by-three-in-the-ninth save. Goose worked three innings of shutout ball to earn it in the most old school way possible. Closers who work three innings died out when guys like Gossage retired, so it’s fitting he ended his career that way.

9. Michael Jordan 

Jordan had 15 points on 6-15 shooting to cap a 37-45 campaign for the Washington Wizards.

Wait – why am I including this?

It’s simple. He went out when he wanted. His final, graceful, championship winning jumper over Bryon Russell is what we wanted. That was the perfect ending. But Jordan makes this list to remind us that we don’t get to make the rules. Every athlete has to deal with the degradation of their skills and life after the game. Jordan makes the list for reminding us that the best ending is the one the athlete chooses.

8. Sam Hanks

Sam Hanks was the kind of race car driver who ran everything, everywhere. Midget cars, stock cars, Indy cars, you name it and he drove it. He won everywhere he went across the country from L.A. to Chicago, except the most important place to a driver – Indianapolis. From 1940-1956 Hanks tried 12 times to win the Greatest Spectacle in racing. (Those numbers aren’t off – he took a “break” from racing to serve in World War II.) Each time he fell short. On lap 135 of his lucky 13th try, however, Hanks took the lead and never gave it back. As he celebrated in victory lane, he announced his retirement at the pinnacle of racing.

7. Sandy Koufax

At the start of the 1966 season, Dodger team physician Robert Kerlan told Koufax he needed to quit pitching; his arm simply couldn’t take anymore. Koufax went against doctor’s orders and gave it one last try, and in doing so went 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA. He threw 323 innings on an arm that was essentially finished. Needing a win on the final day of the season to clinch the N.L. Pennant, Koufax took the mound on two days rest and threw a complete game, 6-3 victory. The only reason this isn’t higher on the list is because technically, it’s his next to last game. He lost game 2 of the World Series 6-0. (Don’t blame Sandy – the Dodgers had 6 errors that day and only 4 hits!)

6. Ray Bourque

1,826 games. That’s how many times Ray Bourque had to take the ice in order to hoist the Stanley Cup. After 19 seasons as the heart and soul of the Boston Bruins, Bourque left for a loaded Colorado Avalanche team in one last desperate attempt to win the only the thing that eluded him in his Hall of Fame career. He scored the game winning goal in game 3, and was on the ice as time ran out in game 7 with the Avalanche up 3-1. When Joe Sakic was handed the Cup to take the ceremonial first lap, as is his honor as captain, he deferred to the deserving – and patient – Bourque.

5. John Whittemore

Whittemore was a track and field athlete, competing mainly in the javelin, long jump, and discus. In his final meet, he set a world record in the javelin at 11 feet, 2 inches. That may sound unimpressive until you realize he was 104 years old. When asked about the record, Whittemore played it off. “If I don’t drop it on my foot, I set a world record.” He died about a year later, presumably while wrestling a bear named Chuck Norris on top of a mountain he climbed because that’s about the only conceivable way he could have gone.

4. Rocky Marciano

The lure to get back in there for one last moment of glory is strong in boxing, perhaps more than any other sport. Ali did it. Holyfield did it. It even ended up killing Apollo Creed. So for Rocky Marciano to end the way he did – undefeated heavyweight champion of the world – is incredible. Some people have tried to remove some of the luster on Marciano, pointing out that while he may have retired as the undefeated champion, many of the greatest fighters he faced were in the twilight of their careers. (Jersey Joe Walcott was 38, Archie Moore was 39, and Joe Louis was 37), That neglects one thing. Nobody else ever did it.

3. Roberto Clemente

Roberto Clemente’s last regular season at bat was a double off of Jon Matlack for his 3,000th career hit. Two months later, Clemente was arranging flights of emergency relief supplies for Managua, Nicaragua, after an earthquake. When he got word that corrupt officials were keeping the supplies from getting to those who needed it, he personally went on the next flight. It crashed in the ocean near Puerto Rico. Clemente’s baseball career ended as we would expect – setting milestones. His life, while ending in tragedy, also ended with him trying to help others, and that is a better eulogy for this humanitarian than any of us could ever hope to write.

2. Ted Williams

45 players have hit a home run in their final major league at bat. Excuse me for skipping over Bert Haas and Chico Walker, but I think we’ll focus on the guy who hit 521 total. Williams, who was never one for curtain calls, didn’t take one that day either. The brilliant writer John Updike explained why better than anyone when he wrote about that game. “Gods don’t answer letters,” he said.

1. John Elway

Elway is the one who has ruined it for athletes forever. Every time you see someone chasing that last shot at glory, that picture perfect, storybook ending, you may as well call it “Chasing Elway.” To win back-to-back Super Bowls – and be named MVP – at the age of 39 while playing for the same team for your entire career? It simply cannot get better. Everyday, kids all over the world play out that kind of moment in their head while playing in the backyard. Elway lived it.

 

 

 

All Things Must Pass

In 2004, when the Red Sox won their first World Series since 1918, Boston wasn’t the only one celebrating. In many ways, the entire baseball world celebrated. The end of the curse and the redemption for the poor, tortured Red Sox fans was national news and the feel good story of the year. It was one of the stories that transcended sports, where suddenly your grandmother knew who Curt Schilling was. It lasted throughout the year – “There’s Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore in a movie about it!” “There’s Johnny Damon on Queer Eye For the Straight Guy!” Sawxmania was still going so strong the next October that a lot of people were stunned when they were swept out of the playoffs in 2005 by a Chicago White Sox team on it’s way to their own drought-ending World Series win.

A funny thing happened after that. Despite ending a longer championship drought, the nation didn’t really seem to care. There were no movies. Nobody gave Ozzie Guillen a makeover on reality tv (which is a shame, because that would have probably been must see tv). It seems the only people who cared were White Sox fans. What’s more, most wouldn’t have it any other way. Speaking as a Sox fan, I can say that it is part of the equation. There is a Rodney Dangerfield, “no respect” attitude. This can probably apply to a lot of teams – no one nationally really cares about the Astros, or the Mariners, or the Brewers, or probably 2/3 of baseball if we are being honest about it. However, when you share a city with one of those teams the nation does care about it becomes magnified. So when the only people celebrating the White Sox World Series win were Sox fans, it seemed right. Let the fairweather fans and national pundits fawn on the Cubs if they ever win it all, but our bandwagon is full, thank you very much, even if it is small.

This is all a very long winded way to talk about another celebration that will be going on at U.S. Cellular Field this weekend. While the nation once again turns it’s eyes on an “important” team, and gushes uncontrollably about the spectacular career of Derek Jeter, a small corner of the baseball world will be saying their good-byes to Paul Konerko. And it will be every bit as hard, and every bit as emotional.

How do you quantify what Paul Konerko has meant to the White Sox? How do you say thank you to a guy who has represented the city of Chicago for 16 years, who turned down every opportunity to play elsewhere, sometimes for more money, to stay with the Sox, and did it all with a sense of class that is missing so often in sports today? This is the guy who stashed the ball from the final out of the 2005 World Series, not so he could keep it for himself but so he could publicly present it to team owner Jerry Reinsdorf at the team’s victory rally.

His 432 home runs as a member of the White Sox are second only to Frank Thomas. Expand that to all of Chicago and only Sammy Sosa and Ernie Banks have more. He is the team’s all-time leader in total bases. Six times he broke the 100 RBI mark, and 4 times he hit .300, which probably comes as a surprise to some who think of him strictly as a power hitter. Do those numbers quantify what he meant to Sox fans? Not even close. In fact, perhaps the only thing that can explain it is this:

That grand slam, which put the White Sox up 6-4 in game 2 of the World Series, was the moment it became real. When Paul Konerko hit that ball is the moment I said to myself, “Oh my God, we’re going to win this thing.” Forget that the game wasn’t over, and that there were two more to go. I just knew. That’s what happens when a guy is the heart and soul of a team.

None of this is meant to demean or diminish the attention Derek Jeter is receiving. He is a great player and a great ambassador of the game and deserves all the love and adoration he has received this season. He’s a locked in, first ballot Hall of Famer and even I will admit that Paul Konerko is firmly entrenched in the Hall of Very Good. It’s just that, much like the Red Sox in 2004, I don’t really care. They weren’t my team. Jeter’s not my guy. He may be the capital-C “Captain”, but he’s not my captain. At the same time,  just like 2005, it doesn’t bother me that Konerko isn’t getting a lot of attention as he says farewell. For better or for worse, this has become the White Sox fan way – insulated, familial, and fiercely proud and protective of those who we consider part of the flock. Paul Konerko was our guy. We will say goodbye this weekend. The rest of baseball can celebrate whoever or whatever they want – Sox fans are busy.

When Konerko re-signed with the White Sox in 2006, turning down offers from the Angels, Orioles, and others, his agent said this:

“Paul really did some soul-searching over the last couple of days, and he started to realize that, if all else was equal, he wanted to be a member of the Chicago White Sox. He really likes it there. And just as important, he feels people like him there. He knows he has a lot of fans, and he respects that. He even talked about the fact that some kids there would be disappointed if he wasn’t back there.”

Well, he was right. People do like him there, and they’re going to miss him.

 

 

All Apologies

In the past, I have been labeled a Big Ten apologist. It is a charge that, while not without merit, I have never truly accepted. I genuinely believe that a lot of the Big Ten bashing of the last decade has been unfair, and in a sport where public opinion literally helps decide a champion it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think that because Wisconsin and Michigan State have been top dogs recently instead of traditional powers like Ohio State and Michigan, too many people are quick to say “the conference is bad” instead of “Bucky and Sparty are good”.

See, that may sound like Big Ten Apologist talk, but it’s not. Because if I were really a Big Ten apologist I wouldn’t be comfortable saying this: in 2014, the Big Ten sucks.

What other possible conclusion can I come to? How could I say otherwise after a Saturday when it took some late Hawkeye heroics for the conference to manage a 2-2 split with the MAC, or when all that stood between McNeese State and victory at Nebraska was a 58 yard touchdown run in the final 30 seconds? How can I defend a conference where Illinois has had to come from behind to win in the 4th quarter twice – against Youngstown State and Western Kentucky? What does it say that the Big Ten had one of it’s worst days I can remember and my beloved Indiana Hoosiers, the team we usually expect these kind of results from, didn’t even play?

Things don’t look better at the top of the conference, where the Big Ten could have made their early push for dominance and prove they were the “power conference” they are supposed to be. Michigan State and Michigan were both embarrassed on national TV, and Ohio State saw the wind swiftly removed from their sails with a home loss to Virginia Tech.

It’s the worst possible year for the Big Ten to be this way, too. In the past, the Big Ten has had to struggle with BCS nonsense. Last year, for example, Michigan State was a fantastic football team. Aside from a tough early season road loss to Notre Dame, they were unbeaten, with an average margin of victory of 18 points. The problem? They weren’t ranked until week 9, and weren’t in the top 10 until December 1st – the week leading up to the Big Ten Championship game. There is no doubt that the Big Ten’s soft reputation combined with the fact that sportswriters and coaches didn’t expect them to be that good in back in August when they first guessed at their polls helped keep Michigan State out of the BCS title game.

This year? No problem! We’re settling it on the field! It may not be a great playoff (there’s a whole article for another day) but it’s a playoff. Finally, those of us who want the Big Ten to have a chance to show what they can do have the system where they can do it, and from what I’ve seen so no team in the conference should be within 1,000 feet of that playoff.

Admittedly, it’s early. There’s time for someone to put this start in the past. Maybe Wisconsin rolls and the LSU loss becomes an afterthought. Maybe Notre Dame is a top team again, and Michigan’s loss doesn’t look as bad. Maybe, somehow, Penn State runs the table. Still, the old cliche about how a sports season is a “marathon, not a sprint” doesn’t apply to college football. Even with a playoff, one loss – or even one closer-than-it-should-have-been win – is a lot to overcome. College football isn’t a marathon. It’s a sprint with hurdles, and the Big Ten has already tripped.

Do It Again

It might just be the hardest thing to do in sports. It’s only happened eight times total, and four of those were before 1980. As the NFL sees more parity, it seems to be getting harder. That’s why it will be so impressive when the Seattle Seahawks repeat this year as Super Bowl champions.

There are plenty of reasons not to pick Seattle, but they are intangible. Things like “it’s harder to stay on top” and “everyone is gunning for you”. Here’s what is tangible – the Seahawks still have a dominating defense, one of the league’s best ground games, a brilliant coaching mind in charge, and perhaps the most underrated quarterback in the NFL.

That’s not to say it will be easy – the depth in the NFC, particularly the Seahawks’ own Division, will make it a hard road. The last time I thought a team was this sure of a bet to repeat it was the Green Bay Packers, and Eli Manning quickly ruined any hopes of that. So while I feel confident in my pick of Seattle to repeat, I’m still going to hedge my bets and run down the rest of the league and how likely they are to win football’s greatest prize.

Contenders
Any of these teams have a legitimate shot at bringing home the Lombardi Trophy.

Green Bay
Aaron Rodgers is back, and looks like last season is behind him. He also looks poised to go from being the best quarterback in the NFL at leading a one dimensional offense to being the best at leading a balanced one. Eddie Lacy is the real deal, and the Packers are more dangerous because of it. The question will lie (as it has since the year after their Super Bowl win) with the defense, which should be just good enough not to be a liability. The magic number for Green Bay should be 13. If they can win 13 games, that should be good enough for home field throughout the playoffs and keep them from having to go to Seattle. If that happens, watch out.

Cincinnati
There are three times I think can win the AFC, and I’m leaning towards to Bengals for no other reason than they feel like a team who has paid their dues in the last two post-seasons and are due. Defensively, they are probably the best team in the AFC. Offensively, they seem to improve every year in no small part because Andy Dalton does. A lot will depend on Giovanni Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill taking pressure off of Dalton and not forcing him to try and make things happen. If they succeed, so will Cincinnati.

Denver
The last time we saw Peyton Manning and the Broncos, they were being outplayed by everyone in New York, including Bruno Mars. That bad taste they left in everyone’s mouth can overwhelm the fact that they are still probably the best team in the NFL on paper. Montee Ball will have to step up in year two, and it will be interesting to see how Peyton Manning fares with another year under his belt, but anything less than the AFC title game should still be a disappointment for this group.

New England
There isn’t much to say about the Patriots that hasn’t been said over and over again since the turn of the century. They find new hurdles, and Bill Belichick finds news ways to overcome them. Tom Brady remains steady even as his career heads towards the sunset, and as long as he is there, it’s insane to dismiss his team.

San Francisco
The 49ers seemed to take a step back last year, and that means this season could be the balancing point for the franchise. Colin Kaepernick was not, as some proclaimed, the greatest quarterback in NFL history last year. Far from it, in fact. He doesn’t have to be for the 49ers to win – the defense is still solid and Frank Gore is now the veteran leader of what could be a deep backfield – but he has to regain some of that magic we saw two years ago for the 49ers to have a real shot at returning to the Super Bowl.

Pretenders
These teams should be playoff locks, and may even host a game, but are missing something that will keep them from a championship.

Philadelphia
Last year Chip Kelly did the unimaginable – successfully transitioned to NFL head coach from the NCAA. This year the pressure will be on to maintain the success and return the Eagles to the Super Bowl. They may have the most dynamic player in the NFL in LeSean McCoy, and Kelly knows how to use him to the fullest extent of his talents. A lot will lie on Nick Foles, who looked like a world beater last year with 27 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions. It would seem impossible for him to repeat that kind of success, and because of that the Eagles should fall just short of their lofty expectations.

New Orleans
As long as Drew Brees is in New Orleans, the Saints should be a contender. If they get off to a hot start, don’t buy in too fully – they open the season against the Falcons, Browns, Vikings, Cowboys, Buccaneers, and Lions. That and a week division will get them in the playoffs, but there is too much depth in the NFC for them to make much noise.

Indianapolis
It’s hard to shake the thought that the Colts are not as good as their back-to-back 11-5 records indicate. At some point, beating up on the woeful AFC South won’t be good enough. Still, Andrew Luck seems due to make that jump to “elite” status this year. He has the weapons to do it with T.Y. Hilton and a healthy Reggie Wayne. As Luck improves, the Colts should too. Just maybe not as fast as some in Indianapolis might want.

Pittsburgh
1971. That’s the last time the Steelers didn’t post a winning record three seasons in a row. Back to back 8-8 seasons may not seem like the end of the world for a lot of franchises, but things are a little different for Steelers fans. The good news is, things should be turning around in the steel city. The addition of playmakes like Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown should help Ben Roethlisberger, who has been asked to do too much in recent years. The Steelers aren’t Super Bowl ready yet, but they are on their way back.

Happy to be there
Any one of these teams could make the playoffs, but don’t expect them to stick around long.

New York Giants
A lot of people say Eli Manning isn’t as bad as he looked last year. A lot of people are frankly, wrong. Last year was the third time in a ten year career he has lead the league in interceptions. He has averaged 17 a season in his career. He is this generation’s Joe Namath – a statistically average quarterback who is held higher thanks to Super Bowl success. The Giants may very well be back in the playoffs this year, but it will be mostly due to Tom Coughlin and a stout defense that was made better in the offseason with the addition of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond.

Chicago
Does anyone get the Rodney Dangerfield treatment more than Jay Cutler? Nearly everyone agrees he is not a “franchise quarterback” talent, yet he gets blasted in Chicago for not being one. It’s like yelling at a Chevy Malibu for not being a Corvette. If Cutler can stay healthy, he has perhaps more weapons around him than anyone in the NFC. Name one quarterback who wouldn’t want Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett, and Matt Forte around him? That alone may sneak the Bears into the playoffs, but it will all hinge on a defense that was terrible last year but (hopefully, in Bears fan’s minds) was rebuilt in free agency in the off season.

Kansas City
Which is the real Kansas City Chiefs? The team that started 9-0 last season, and had a dominating defense, or the team that finished 2-6, giving up 30 points or more four times down the stretch including 45 in a playoff game against the Colts despite forcing four turnovers? While the truth likely lies someewhere in the middle, the Chiefs won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year. Still, Alex Smith has become a respectable starting quarterback and Jamaal Charles is electrifying. This team should be talented enough to make the playoffs again, but it may be close than fans in K.C. would like.

Carolina
Last year was a great one for the Panthers, as they improved by five games and won the NFC South. They promptly followed it up with an offseason in which they lost their top two receivers in Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, and the majority of their offensive line. Cam Newton should have no one to throw to, no one to block for him, and DeAngelo Williams in the backfield to share the load. It makes the inevitable “what’s wrong with Cam Newton?” pontificating we are going to hear by week 6 that much more infuriating.

Baltimore

Speaking of Steve Smith, Baltimore is where he landed though that was overshadowed by Ray Rice’s domestic violence charges and subsequent (too short) suspension. Steve Smith should form a nice tandem with Torrey Smith for Joe Flacco to throw to, but Rice’s return to form will be vital if the Ravens want to get back to the postseason. He was awful last year on and off the field, but it’s easy to forget he’s only 26 and should still have plenty of tread on the tires.

Arizona
The Cardinals face the unfortunate task of being a pretty good team in a brutal division, where pretty good just isn’t enough. Andre Ellington is poised for a big year at running back, they have a great receiver tandem with Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, and their secondary is one of the best in the NFL. Still, they are looking at another year with Carson Palmer at quarterback and the loss of Karlos Dansby should loom large on defense.

Going Nowhere Slow – They aren’t the dregs of the NFL, but they aren’t reaching the post season either. The face of parity.
Buffalo
Tampa Bay
Washington
Detroit
Tennessee
Miami
Atlanta
San Diego

The Draft Party Starts Now – It’s going to be a long, long year in these cities.
Minnesota
St. Louis
Dallas
Jacksonville
Dallas
New York Jets
Oakland
Houston

Hey, at least Lebron is back.
Cleveland

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
WILD CARD ROUND
EAGLES OVER GIANTS
49ERS OVER SAINTS
COLTS OVER STEELERS
BENGALS OVER CHIEFS

DIVISIONAL ROUND
SEAHAWKS OVER 49ERS
PACKERS OVER EAGLES
BRONCOS OVER COLTS
BENGALS OVER PATRIOTS

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS
SEAHAWKS OVER PACKERS
BENGALS OVER BRONCOS

SUPER BOWL
SEAHAWKS OVER BENGALS

Leaders and Followers

One of the most common complaints regarding kids and sports today is the attitude that we are shielding self esteem and not teaching kids how to lose. The idea that little Johnny gets a trophy no matter what because he tried and he’s still a winner even if he was the worst player on a team that lost every game they played. It’s led to a decade of asking “what will happen when these kids grow up? What will happen when they find out the world isn’t fair?”

We can find out exactly what happens by looking at the NBA right now.   Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James, Dwight Howard are all guys born in the mid-80s who grew up smack dab in the middle of the “feel good about yourself” movement. Carmelo is about to look for his third team. Dwight Howard threw not one, but two fits before ending up in Houston (and if you think he’s spending the rest of his career there, you’re crazy), and Lebron – the poster child for athletes of the millennial generation – looks like he’s about to get out of South Beach before he can win all those titles he was sure were coming.

Lebron James was sure he could win in Miami, and was ready to solidify his Jordanesque legacy with title after title. The problem is everyone in Lebron’s life have been so busy fawning over his once in a lifetime talent for so long they forgot to hammer home the very important lesson that winning is hard. You aren’t promised a title just for being the best player in world when you play a team game. So you got together with your friends, a shooting guard and a power forward, and expected to win title after title? You forgot that center and point guard are the two most important positions on the floor. You forgot that Tim Duncan is one of the greatest players of all time. So are Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant.

Carmelo Anthony had the perfect situation. The hometown kid, going back to New York where he would be the biggest star in the biggest market. Except none of those things actually matter once the game starts. Now, instead of being part of the solution for the Knicks, he’s off to try and join some other team where he thinks the grass will be greener, and hoping general managers don’t look at how the Nuggets improved in the first two seasons after Anthony left for the Big Apple.

Dwight Howard was literally following in the footsteps of the best center of a generation. Start in Orlando, make the Finals, move on to L.A., and begin counting titles. Yet when the greatest player of the past 20 years had the audacity to try and lead him, it was too much. Once the Lakers – literally the most shining example of a winning organization in the NBA – hit a bump in the road, he wanted out.

Look, it’s one thing for a guy to go into free agency with the intention of becoming a winner. No one bats an eye at Kevin Garnett for leaving Minnesota for Boston, or Clyde Drexler for heading to Houston. The difference is those guys gave it a shot. No one can look back at Kevin Garnett’s time in Minnesota and say he wasn’t the most committed guy in that organization to winning. The franchise let him down time and time again, and he knew the clock was ticking on his career. For these guys, it’s different. Lebron has been to four consecutive Finals. Carmelo and the Knicks won the Division two years ago. Dwight Howard gave up on the Lakers. These guys aren’t tortured stars stuck in mediocrity – they aren’t Ernie Banks or Barry Sanders. These are guys who feel they are owed a championship, and if they aren’t winning everyone else is to blame.

No one is owed anything in sports. It’s all a great big soup of talent, timing, and luck that makes a champion. I’m starting to worry we’ve created a generation of athletes who don’t get that. A group that expects to be rewarded even if it isn’t warranted. Will we ever see another Hakeem Olajuwon, a guy who gave it all and came up short for nine seasons before finally winning two titles with the team that drafted him? Heck, even Michael Jordan failed for six seasons before he won six titles. Did he whine and try to force a trade to the Lakers or Pistons? No, he waited until the Bulls replaced guys like Dave Corzine and Brad Sellers with guys like Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant and then led those guys. That’s the thing about winners. They are usually leaders. James, Anthony, Howard, and every other NBA player out there chasing titles via free agency? Those are followers, and no matter if they find that championship ring they are looking for, that’s how they will be remembered.

 

Can I Kick It?

It happens every four years. The world’s biggest sporting event comes along, or as we call it in the United States, our quadrennial one month trial run with soccer that ends with the majority of us saying “nope, still stupid”.

It’s not that I dislike soccer.

OK, it is that I dislike soccer. But I’ve tried really, really hard not to. Honestly, I’ve given it a chance. I love the passion – I could watch soccer crowds all day. It’s just at the end of the day, I need…something on the field. It’s not a lack of offense thing, but it’s a lack of offensive chances thing. 2-1 game? Hey, that’s a pitcher’s duel. 2-1 game with 8 total shots on goal? Gaaaaah just shoot me.

So I apologize to those fans who take offense. It’s not usually foreign fans, by the way. We don’t get soccer and they don’t get our American football and both sides usually seem to have a live-and-let-live attitude about it. It seems the people who are vocally in your face about how great the sport is and how uncultured you are for just not understanding are dirty hipsters whose only other connection to sports is the Stephon Marbury jersey they are wearing ironically. These are the same people who blindly listen to whatever world music/EDM/punk-folk band that Pitchfork tells them is great. (Seriously, try listening to Grizzly Bear without wanting to put a nail through your brain.)

Still, I will watch the World Cup, like I always do. There’s a couple of reasons for this. One, as a stay-at-home dad I’ve come to appreciate any sports played on weekday afternoons. Two, I do legitimately love the pageantry that surrounds World Cup games, and can appreciate it on that level. Couple that with the fact that soccer is a sport you can pretty easily watch in the background while doing something else (when the announcer sounds like he’s waking up, look at the tv.) and I’m sold.

I’m not going into this thing like some ugly American, though. If I’m going to watch the World Cup, you better be sure I did my research. I’ve discovered the really important facts about every team in this year’s tournament, and can safely say I can present you with the most comprehensive World Cup preview of all time.

EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT EVERY TEAM IN THE 2014 FIFA WORLD CUP BUT WERE TO AMBIVALENT TO ASK:

GROUP A

Brazil – The host nation of the 2014 World Cup, some see it as something of a trial run for when they host the Olympics in two years. Some might say the time and money might be better spent preparing for that, by say, cleaning the rowing venue that is literally overflowing with sewage. But I digress.

Brazil has won five World Cups, thanks mainly to the fact that many of their players are quicker and more agile than their opponents due to having just one name – less embroidery on the jersey = better wind resistance. (This is the same reason Poland failed to qualify for the World Cup.) This year, they have a player named Hulk, who if the comics are any indication, we can expect to earn a red card fairly quickly.

Croatia – Croatia is relatively new to international soccer, but has made their presence known. They went from being ranked 125th in the world when they joined FIFA in 1993 to 3rd in 1998, the kind of movement in the polls one usually has to hire Nick Saban for.

Croatia’s fan base is known for their enthusiastic support. By enthusiastic I mean dreadfully, terribly racist. They have been chastised and penalized for racist banners against Turkey, racial slurs against English striker Emile Heskey, and in 2008 were nearly banned from the Euro when a group of fans formed a human swastika in response to Italian fans waving Communist flags. Good job, Croatia. You made the Communists the good guys.

Mexico – Mexico is traditionally the biggest soccer power in North America, which sounds impressive until you realize the region is made of mostly small Caribbean and Central American nations, a U.S. team who has to deal with being at best the fifth or sixth most popular sport in the country, and a Canadian team that only exists because they were too polite to tell anyone they simply don’t care. It’s kind of like how the Colts have dominated the AFC South for so long – you beat up on the Titans, Texans, and Jaguars every year, let’s not get too proud.

Cameroon – The Cameroon National team is nicknamed the “Indomitable Lions”, which I have to admit is a pretty badass nickname. Not to be confused with the Detroit Very, Very, Domitable Lions.

Cameroon’s national team also arrived in Brazil just yesterday, after a dispute over bonus pay. It’s not like they had four years to work that out or anything.

GROUP B

Spain – The defending World Cup champions, Spain will again be tough to beat due to the fact that when I looked at their roster I recognized the names of the English professional teams most of these guys play for.

Spain uses a style of play called Tiki-taka, which relies on short passing and ball possession and proves once and for all that Bill Walsh truly was a genius.

Netherlands – The Netherlands – also known as the Dutch, but incorrectly sometimes referred to as Holland, whose flag is red white and blue but are famous for their all-orange uniforms – exists solely to confuse people. They hold the distinction of playing in the most World Cup Finals without winning, making them the Minnesota Vikings of international soccer.

Chile – I keep looking up facts about these various national teams waiting for the one that crashed in the Andes and resorted to cannibalism. Turns out that was a Uruguayan rugby team. Who knew? Could’ve sworn it was Chile. I guess I have to re-watch that movie.

Australia – The Australian National Team has gone by the nickname “The Socceroos” since 1967, which quite frankly is long enough for them to realize they should be embarrassed. Seriously, didn’t New Zealand ever pull them aside and say “Hey, your name makes you sound like specially designed underwear for soccer-loving children.”?

GROUP C

Colombia – Colombia has a long, rich history in soccer filled with great moments, thrilling victories, and heartbreaking defeats. Despite that, they will always really be know for one thing – being the nation where a player was murdered for scoring on his own goal in the 1994 World Cup. Kind of puts people who troll athletes on Twitter into perspective. (Just kidding – people who troll athletes on Twitter are still the worst.)

Greece - Greece has a long history of, well, being terrible at soccer. Until this decade, they only qualified for one World Cup. That was 1994, when they went 0-3 and were outscored 10-0 by such powers as Nigeria and Bulgaria.

(Things are looking up for Greece. This is their second straight World Cup and they won the Euro Championship in 2004.)

Ivory Coast – The team captain for Ivory Coast is Didier Drogba, who is so beloved in his homeland that in 2006 he helped broker a cease-fire after five years of civil war just by asking. He is a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador and in 2009 donated his 3 million pound signing fee in it’s entirety to build a hospital in his hometown of Abidjan.

Seriously, I have no jokes here. I just think everyone should know Didier Drogba is an awesome human being.

Japan – The Japanese national team traditionally wears a blue and white uniform, going against the rising sun, red and white color scheme the nation is known for. This is because they wore blue and white in the 1936 Olympics and beat Sweden in their first major international match 3-2. The fact that they failed to qualify for every World Cup until 1998 somehow did not dissuade them from thinking these were their “lucky” jerseys.

Group D

Uruguay – Uruguay is the Green Bay Packers of soccer. With a population of just 3.25 million people, Uruguay has won two World Cups, and the Copa America 15 times. To put that into perspective, imagine that the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area had won the World Cup. TWICE.

Costa Rica – There is so little of interest about Costa Rica’s national team, that I’ll use this space to show you the Official Song of the World Cup. This, like the NBA Finals, proves there is no sporting event that can’t be made worse by Pitbull.

England – England is one of the first nations most people think of when it comes to soccer. They are one of the oldest international teams and their professional league, The Premier League, is one of the best in the world. Which is why it’s sort of surprising how poorly they’ve traditionally done at the World Cup. They won in 1966, but other than that they have only made the final four one other time. At least they have a good sense of humor (humour?) about it – their unofficial team anthem is “Always look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”:

Italy – Italy has won four World Cups, most recently in 2006. Their most well know player is Mario Balotelli, who has denied being crazy numerous times which is of course the best sign that someone is in fact nuts. He once set his house on fire by lighting off fireworks inside it (this happened at the same time he had been named Manchester’s “Ambassador for Firework Safety”, which apparently is a real thing no matter how made up it sounds), he threw a dart at a youth player “as a prank”, and is allergic to grass, which is not great for someone who’s livelihood depends on a field of it. Terrell Owens looks at Mario Balotelli and says “Man, that guy has issues.”

Group E

Switzerland - Switzerland’s claim to fame is being eliminated from the 2006 World Cup in the round of 16 despite not giving up a goal the entire tournament. Just go ahead and put that fact in your back pocket the next time some idiot hipster in a retro Chicago Sting  jersey tries to sell you on the “Beautiful Game”.

Ecuador – Ecuador’s past clashes with it’s present on the international pitch and DEAR GOD I’M STILL WRITING HOW MANY TEAMS ARE IN THIS STUPID TOURNAMENT?

France – One cannot talk about French soccer without mentioning the great Zinedine Zidane, and one cannot mention Zidane without mentioning this moment from the 2006 World Cup:

5-zidane-headbutt-gif

Oops.

Honduras – Honduras holds the distinction of having the most MLS players of any country except the United States. Honduras will not be winning the World Cup.

Group F

Argentina – Another of the all-time great teams, Argentina also boasts arguably the best player in the tournament in Lionel Messi, also known as “that guy on the cover of my soccer video game”. In the 2011-12 season, Messi scored 73 goals which I can only assume based on soccer’s normal offensive output would be the equivalent of someone hitting 214 home runs in a season.

Bosnia and Herzegovina – The wonder twins of international soccer, Bosnia and Herzegovina will be competing in their first World Cup in 2014. In 2007, their fans caused an hour long delay in a game against Norway by throwing numerous flares onto the field to protest corruption in the Bosnian Football Federation, which kind of sounds like David Stern’s worst nightmare.

Iran - Iran’s Ali Daei is the world’s all-time leader in international goals, with 109. That’s 32 more goals than Pele, who is actually 5th all-time but was the first name I recognized on the list.

Nigeria – There is literally not a single interesting thing about the Nigerian National Team. Moving on.

Group G

Germany – Germany has three World Cup wins, though they all came as West Germany, pre-unification. Their forward Miroslav Klose needs just two goals to become the World Cup’s all-time goal leader. In 2005, Klose refused to accept a penalty given to his opponent because the call was incorrect. Remember that PSA from a few years ago with the kid playing basketball who touched the ball going out of bounds but the ref doesn’t see it and he tells his coach and they give the ball back to their opponent because it’s the honest thing to do? I hated that PSA. “Who in their right mind would do that?”, I always thought. MIROSLAV KLOSE, that’s who.

Germany also features Lukas Podolski, who once said “Football is like chess, only without the dice.” I can only assume Podolski is far better at soccer than he is at chess.

Portugal – When it comes to soccer in Portugal, it begins and ends with Cristiano Ronaldo, also known as “that other guy from the cover of my soccer video game.” Ronaldo also wins the “strangest athlete tweet ever” award:

“Thank you all for participating in the CR7 boy’s underwear competition – it’s been a real pleasure to see all your photos”

That was a tweet he sent out last year after a contest tie-in with an underwear company he endorsed, so in actuality, harmless. Still, nice way to creep out 26 million twitter followers.

Ghana – Team captain Asamoah Gyan released a song in 2010, called “African Girls” featuring a video that has him and his background dancers doing his “goal scoring dance”:

Gyan is also a brown belt in Jiu-Jitsu who wants to compete in the UFC someday, so let me say in case he ever reads this – your song is fantastic, sir. Please don’t kick me in the face.

United States – The U.S. has tried hard to put itself on the map internationally, but is still pretty far away. Still, it says something that every one of the U.S.’s top 10 goal scorers all-time but one started their career after 1990.

The U.S. actually reached the semi-finals of the first World Cup in 1930, but by 1934 the nation as a whole realized there were at least seven or eight sports they’d rather play and they haven’t been back since.

Group H

Belgium – Belgium had one of the most uninterested fanbases in all of soccer until recently, when they hired a marketing firm, rebranded themselves the “Red Devils” and began using social media to hold fan contests and publicity stunts. They asked fans to fill their home stadium with children’s drawings of their favorite players, they created a mural of fan faces on the side of the team busses, and literally asked the country to paint itself red, leading the town of Geel (Belgian for yellow) to temporarily rename itself Rood. The campaign has been a resounding success.

Algeria – Algeria’s nickname is the Fennec Foxes, which sounds like it might be menacing until you realize that fennec foxes are about the most adorable damn creatures on earth.

fennec_fox_2

Whatever you do, don’t feed him after midnight.

Russia – Fun fact – it is every bit as enjoyable to watch Russia lose at soccer and see Vladimir Putin pout as it was in hockey.

Korean Republic – Our final nation. This would be South Korea, which has a long history of international success and has been to every World Cup since 1986. Not North Korea, who is probably staging their own World Cup right now and surely winning it.

So there you have it, 32 teams, one winner. Who takes the prize? Why are you asking me? If this post did nothing else, it should have shown you I know nothing about this sport.

Still, I’m going to watch the whole damn thing. I’m going to try to really crack this nut and become a soccer fan. And like I do every four years, I’m going to fail. See you in Russia in 2018.