The Fritz Blitz

Friday, May 4, 2012

For my old Kentucky home, far away

Here I am on the eve of another Kentucky Derby.

There is anticipation and angst. There is the knowledge that tradition will be renewed and history will be made tomorrow. There is the thrill of the "Greatest Two Minutes in Sports" and a little voice in me wondering why I care so much anymore.

This race is, in a large way, the story of my family, even though none of us are from Kentucky and only an aunt of mine lives there. But my brothers and I know the legends of the race--who won in 1973, who lost in 1953, who didn't start in 1920. Each of us remember where we were for the Derbys of our lifetimes and who we bet on.

The first Derby I remember seeing on TV was the 1972 Derby, won by Riva Ridge (although I recall seeing the Racing Form for the Derby the year before). Then Secretariat won the Triple Crown and I was hooked.

Racing was a big part of my life when I was growing up. I learned as much as I could about the sport and its history, and it was often talked about in my house. My family thoroughly analyzed the lead-up and aftermath of every major race (as well as the fifth at Beulah Park), and I assumed that every other household did the same.

It came as a bit of culture shock when I went to college and found that I was the only person there who knew or cared about racing. (What--you mean everybody doesn't know what a trifecta is?) My college did have an equine science program, but it didn't seem to have much to do with racing. It was frustrating trying to watch major races on TV and try to be engaged in an interview with a jockey in an upcoming race while loud conversations took place in the room, most of which centered around the inability to get laid.

It was at that time, though, that I went to the Derby in person three times. I will never forget my first look at Churchill Downs' Twin Spires as I approached it from the clubhouse parking lot. Television does not do justice to the size of the grandstand, which emerges as you approach it--horse racing's greatest monument. Even though I didn't see a horse all day, there was nothing like the experience of being part of racing history.

I had the opportunity to work for Daily Racing Form for several years, and it was a grand ride. Canterbury Park, Hoosier Park, Delta Downs...it was full of exciting racing and some great memories.

Economic realities set in, and my job at the Racing Form is long gone. Tomorrow is one of two days of the year (the other being the Breeders' Cup) that I visit the OTB each year. But racing will never leave me.

I will know where each member of my family will be at 6 p.m. tomorrow. We will all be somewhere--an OTB, a race book, or in front of a TV--hearing the University of Louisville Marching Band play "My Old Kentucky Home" and renewing one of the grandest traditions in sports.

In the words of horse racing commentator Harvey Pack, may the horse be with you.
 

Monday, April 16, 2012

We've got to get right back to where we started from

It's been a while since I last posted to The Fritz Blitz. Another winter has come and gone, and it seems as if the Pittsburgh Penguins' season is about to end as well.

As I write this, the Penguins are down 3-0 to the hated Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Pens ended their regular season with their strongest play in quite some time, punctuated by the return of the best active player in the NHL, Sidney Crosby.

After going up 3-0 in the first period of the first playoff game, the Penguins' play has been embarrassing. The series has been marked by bad turnovers, a Swiss-cheese defense, a nonexistent power play and a general lack of discipline.

In the penultimate regular season matchup between these bitter rivals, there was an altercation between Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette and Pens assistant coach Tony Granato in which Laviolette accused the Pens of sending goons in toward the end of the game. It was a ridiculous charge because the fourth-line players on the ice at that time were all legitimate scoring threats.

It appeared in Sunday's third game that the Penguins were trying to prove Laviolette right.

There was Aaron Asham's cross-check and punch of Brayden Schenn in the first period, resulting in a game misconduct. There was Craig Adams' penalty and automatic suspension for instigating a fight in the final five minutes of the game. And there was the general atmosphere of a game that resembled a scene from Slap Shot.

The pundits, never big fans of the Penguins, seem to have abandoned them. This morning's recap on the NHL Network emphasized a fight between Crosby and the Flyers' Claude Giroux, coupled with an absurd quote from Laviolette, who thinks that two of the best players in hockey beating each other's heads in is somehow good for the game. The Flyers, long known as the NHL's bad boys, are coming off as the good guys to everybody outside Western Pennsylvania.

Wednesday night is the Penguins' last stand. It's hard to come back from an 0-3 deficit, but it has been done before. The Pens can do this, but it will take the best hockey they've played all season. If not, I can forget about La Coupe Stanley and go back to handicapping the Kentucky Derby.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

College football--a tarnished institution

I’m reviving The Fritz Blitz this week. I had planned on reviving my general news blog, Fritzburgh An’at, but the most important story of the past week is also a sports story.

So much has been said about the child sexual abuse scandal* at Penn State that it seems that there’s nothing new to add—at least until more victims come forward. Pedophiles aren’t known for stopping in the single digits.

The scandal is not just sports news—it’s world news. Everybody seems to have an opinion on it—even people who could care less about football.

The reactions will be predictable. Colleges will tighten their regulations about reporting sexual abuse, as they should. But the scandal has everybody asking—how did this happen? How was Jerry Sandusky able to rape children for years while losing nothing but the keys to a locker room?

Sometimes it’s hard to remember, with all the prestige that comes with their positions, that college football coaches are, or are supposed to be, teachers. They are considered professors in their respective physical education departments, and many of them teach classes.

Suppose a professor of English or biology—or even a coach of a less popular sport than football—had been caught raping a child in a classroom at Penn State. Would it have gone unreported to the police for nine years? I doubt it.

What makes the difference? The stakes are much higher in the world of college football than they are elsewhere on campus.

At the elite schools, college football is a multi-million dollar industry and the people involved in it have an enormous amount to lose if things go wrong. Many head coaches make seven-figure salaries and rank among the most powerful people on campus. When Penn State is mentioned, many people—before the scandal, and, no doubt, for many years to come—will think of Joe Paterno. And as such, the Penn State scandal has given a black eye to the university as a whole, even though only a small percentage of its students are directly connected to the football program. To many people, Penn State has become “that college where…” For comparison, when I was growing up in Ohio in the ‘70s, “that college where…” was Kent State.

So you have a powerful organization whose goal is to win on and off the field—where a few individuals are revered and even considered infallible as long as they keep winning—and where nobody wants to rock the boat, lest they lose their jobs or kill the cash cow. It adds up to the perfect place for someone to commit one of the most heinous crimes and fly under the radar for years.

I wonder what other scandals are going on at other big-name football programs. We know about the recruiting violations, unscrupulous boosters, and players who trade their jerseys for tattoos that come to light from time to time—but those are mere violations of NCAA rules, not disgusting crimes that shock the conscience.

How many other Jerry Sanduskys are out there hiding behind the power and prestige of an elite college football program because nobody wants to speak out and tarnish the program’s reputation?

Maybe it’s time that college football took a good look at itself. Has it become too big and too dependent on winning and making money for its own good?

*And please, let's stop calling this a "sex scandal." Bill Clinton was a sex scandal. Herman Cain is a sex scandal. What happened at Penn State was the rape of children--one of the most horrible crimes imaginable.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Playing with Passion

(Published in Western Pennsylvania Mensa Phoenix, April 2011)

You know about one champion professional football team in Pittsburgh, but you might not know that there’s another one—which has a Mensan in its ranks. Michele George plays linebacker for the Pittsburgh Passion, a women’s football team that has played since 2003.

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The Passion, who won their league championship while going undefeated in 2007, will play in the Women’s Football Alliance as they begin their season this month. They play their home games in George K. Cupples Stadium on the South Side and practice at The Club Sport and Health in Monroeville. Owned by Head Coach Teresa Conn and Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer Franco Harris, the Passion has been in the forefront of women’s football throughout their existence. In addition to their national title and two divisional championships, the Passion have set league attendance records and become the first women’s football team to broadcast games on a major television network (Fox Sports Net).

Michele, a native of East Brady, tried out for the team last year even though she had not played any sports in almost 10 years. She had lettered in volleyball and track at Butler High School and competed in the long jump, triple jump and pole vault at Clarion University. “I knew zero about football,” she said. “Never paid attention to it, never played the game.”

“When I moved to Pittsburgh, I wanted to do all the things I always wanted to and couldn’t,” she said. “I just wanted to try out to see if it was something I could do.”

The financial analyst at PNC Bank could say the same for joining Mensa. While she initially took the test to add to her resume, she has found other benefits to her Mensa membership. She said that going to Mensa activities such as Lemongrowers in different parts of the Pittsburgh area has forced her to learn the city.

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Michele started out as a wide receiver with the Passion. “I thought I was doing good at that,” she said, “but at wide receiver, you’re pretty defenseless as far as taking hits.” After sustaining a concussion in practice, she decided to try a new position. “I asked the coaches, ‘Where’s a good place not to get blindsided?’” she said.

In an intra-squad flag football league, she found out she was good at defense, so the coaches suggested she try linebacker. “I really liked it,” she said. “Your head’s up the whole time. You can see who’s coming at you.”

Michele has found that football has some things in common with activities that some might associate more with Mensans. “Football is like chess,” she said. “You run the offense where you think the defense is not going, and on defense, you think, ‘This piece is in this position.’”

The Passion’s roster includes players from all over western Pennsylvania, and even a player from the Cleveland area, even though there is a Cleveland team in the league. They will play eight games during the regular season, with the first three on the road. The opening game will be against Pittsburgh’s other women’s football team, the Force, at the Ambridge High School stadium Apr. 2 at 7 p.m. The Passion will host the Columbus Comets in their home opener Apr. 30 at 7 p.m.

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The Passion will be looking to improve on last year’s 4-4 record, and Michele thinks the team’s extensive preparation should give them an edge.

“The coaches said we’ve been together longer than any of the other teams in the division,” she said. “We know what we need to do and when we’re going to do it. I just don’t know what our opponents are going to do.”

2011 PITTSBURGH PASSION REGULAR SEASON SCHEDULE

April 2, Pittsburgh Force, Away
April 9, Erie Illusion, Away
April 16, Cleveland Fusion, Away
April 30, Columbus Comets, Home
May 14, Pittsburgh Force, Home
May 21, Columbus Comets, Away
June 11, Cleveland Fusion, Home
June 18, Erie Illusion, Home
All games at 7 p.m.
2011 Pittsburgh Passion Home Game Ticket Sales
Individual Tickets:
Adult: $14.00
Senior / Military: $10.00
Children (5-17): $7.00
Students with ID: $7.00
Season Passes
Adult: $46.00
Senior / Military: $32.00
Children (5-17): $22.00
Students with ID: $22.00
Tickets are available at www.pittsburghpassion.com. Individual game tickets are also available for purchase on home game days at the gate.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

I think you're gonna finally understand

The problem with a blog like The Fritz Blitz is that there is just so much sports news out there that is available from much better sources. By the time Jamie and I get wind of something we’d like to write about, hundreds of people have beaten us to it, and they have access to much greater information on the topic than we do. By the time we gain insight on Troy Polamalu’s Achilles tendon or Ben Roethlisberger’s choice in karaoke songs, those stories have been across cyberspace and back again.

That’s why we often need to go beyond statistics or the results of any one game and get into what sports mean to us. So while other sports outlets are dissecting the many matchups in Super Bowl XLV—Roethlisberger vs. Aaron Rodgers, Polamalu vs. Clay Matthews, The Black Eyed Peas vs. music—I’m going to make this Super Bowl column more personal.

This is about how I became a Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

When I was young, I was interested in the NFL in general, but I never had an allegiance to any one team. (The first pro football game I remember seeing on TV was an AFL game! Yeah, I’m old.) I think this was because I grew up in the middle of Buckeye country—where the most professional football team wears scarlet and gray. I remember wearing a Kansas City Chiefs windbreaker when I was a kid—not because I really cared about the Chiefs, but because I liked the colors.

NFL fandom in Columbus is split between the Browns and the Bengals, with a considerable number of Steelers fans. I went to a Bengals game with my brother when I was in college, and I thought it was cool that they made a couple of Super Bowls, but watching the NFL was mainly something I did when I had nothing else to do on Sunday.

This changed when I met Jamie.

When I visited her house before I moved to Pittsburgh, one of the things we did was watch the Steelers. We turned the TV volume down and listened to Myron Cope on the radio. I knew right then that I was watching much more than a football game. From Cope’s expressions like “yoi” and “um-hah” to the many years of lore behind the team, it was easy to be caught up in the Steelers phenomenon.

It’s no accident that I remember the day I moved to Pittsburgh—Nov. 10, 2002—as the day that the Steelers tied the Falcons, 34-34. Jamie and I saw our first game in person the next year. Not only was the game against the Chargers meaningless to the playoffs, the weather was quite cold (although Wikipedia says it was 38 degrees)—but you wouldn’t have known that judging from the crowd.

A Steelers game is something to see. It appears as if the whole town turns out for it—all devoted to their team and cheering on their favorites. And when there’s something important on the line—as there was in the 2005 playoff game we saw against the Jets—the upper deck of Heinz Field shakes. I have never seen such devotion to a team anywhere (and, yes, that includes the Buckeyes).

It has been fun watching the team build over the years, as each year brought with it new prospects that have become the team that’s playing in the Super Bowl now. There will be more than a team playing in the game tomorrow—there will be an entire city, and a great, big Steeler Nation, playing for a seventh Super Bowl ring.

GO STEELERS!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Sportspocalypse!

Today's a big day for sports in Pittsburgh. The Penguins play the Bruins at 1 PM. The Steelers battle the Hated Ravens at 4:30. And apparently, there's also a Pitt basketball game tonight. I only know because several people have mentioned offers of free tickets, which they declined. Poor Pitt. Don't worry. By the time March Madness rolls around, you'll only have to compete with the Penguins.

I haven't blogged here in a while because I am lazy, and I haven't had much to say. But I didn't feel it was right to let this momentous occasion pass without leaving a little positive mojo out there for my Steelers. I hope the game goes just like this one did.



Go Pens, Go Steelers, Go Pittsburgh!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Not so little sisters

The scenario is a common one. A college football team gains some respectability, but has not quite broken into the sport’s top echelon. They go through their season undefeated, although critics maintain that their schedule is weak. Despite their record, they are not invited to the championship game.

Sound like Boise State? TCU? Try Colgate in 1932.

Not only did the Red Raiders go undefeated that year, they did not allow a point—which no Division I team has done since 1939, and would be inconceivable in today’s college football world. Nevertheless, they were not invited to the Rose Bowl (the de facto college championship at that time), which instead chose twice-tied Pitt, which was blown out by USC.

To use one of writing’s worst (if often appropriate) clich├ęs, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

For all the talk about the BCS system, it hasn’t changed anything. Every year, questions and controversy surround the champion.

Now comes E. Gordon Gee, president of The Ohio State University, and his remark that teams such as Boise State and TCU don’t deserve to play in the BCS Championship Game, implying that they play “Little Sisters of the Poor.”

While Boise State and TCU play in conferences that are, generally, a step below the Big Ten/11/12 or whatever you want to call it now or the SEC, I would be hard-pressed to call any of their opponents “Little Sisters of the Poor.” One reason for their weaker schedules is that the big boys don’t want to play these schools.

Why? Ask Virginia Tech, beaten by Boise State earlier this year at FedEx Field—neutral, but much closer to Blacksburg than to the Broncos’ blue (do not adjust your set) turf.

Ask Oklahoma, beaten by Boise State in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.

And, while I am an OSU fan who will be cheering them on as they destroy Michigan Saturday, let’s talk about the Buckeyes’ “Little Sisters” for a minute.

The scheduling of non-conference mid-majors early in the season amounts to an Ohio State tradition. Note that the following teams have been on the Buckeyes’ recent past and future schedules:

2008: Youngstown State, Ohio U., and Troy.
2009: New Mexico State
2010: Marshall, Ohio U., Eastern Michigan
2011: Akron, Toledo
2012: Miami (Ohio), Alabama-Birmingham

None of these schools are literally “Little Sisters of the Poor,” but they are mid-major programs similar to those played by Boise State and TCU. The Buckeyes have the additional advantage of playing all of them in Ohio Stadium (except Toledo, which will be played in Cleveland). Not sure why, but I imagine it has to do with logistics—the opponents’ stadiums would have trouble handling the size of a crowd that the Buckeyes would attract.

Gee is certainly smart enough to know who’s paying him to make statements such as this—but “Little Sisters of the Poor”? Even a Buckeye fan like me has to give him 15 yards for piling on.