Monday, December 29, 2008

The year's worst

Well, it’s that time of year, the time when all the sports pundits sit around and endlessly analyze what went right and what went wrong with football teams around the US. Who am I to be the exception? Nobody, that’s who. I’m going to divide this up into two parts, what went wrong, and what went right. Today’s column is a salute to the wrong side of the NFL.

What do these things have in common?

the New York Jets, and
Notre Dame.

All have had high expectations from coaching changes. None of those expectations have been met. All the coaches came out of New England’s system under Bill “the cheatin’ hoodie” Belichick.
Not so easy to run up a winning record when you don’t have tape of the opposition’s signals, is it Charlie? Brett Favre couldn’t bail you out, Mangini? And Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo? You’re a nice guy, but you’re a lousy coach, dude. So far, the Beliclones are not doing so well. Getting that tradition of skullduggery started in a new city must be tough. My only wish is that someone would pay me the kind of money those guys are getting for doing a piss-poor job. I would rest comfortably on my laurels, and you wouldn’t hear from me any more. Retirement, here I come! Charlie Weis in particular should be ashamed of the money he's taking away from the Catholic Church. They could be doing a lot of good with that seven million, restoring a fresco or two, buying the pope a new hat, or funding some orphanages. Touchdown Jesus is weeping somewhere.

A few more things that have some common ground.

Detroit, and

What do they have in common? Bad ownership, that’s what.

In Oakland, Al Davis is just a scary, scary man. Nothing will truly change there until he’s either died or metamorphosed. Your guess is as good as mine as to which will happen.

Detroit is just inept. They’re like the opposite of King Midas; everything they touch turns to shit. I think they need to do like the Arena League and take a year off to regroup. And draft something other than a damn wide receiver for a change.

Then there’s Dallas. Ah, Dallas. Despite being shoved down our throats every year as “America's team”, they aren’t and never will be. This group is pitiful. The players are so busy throwing each other and the coaching staff under the bus, it’s a wonder they have time to get endorsement contracts. Underachievement is their constant watchword. And in Wade Phillips, son of O.A (Old Asshole) “Bud” Phillips, Jerry Jones has the perfect head coach. Someone who will never, ever interfere in what Jerry Jones wants. A billion dollar stadium. All the plastic surgery money can buy.
A team made of drama queens to keep Jerry in the spotlight. What more could an egomaniac want? A super bowl trophy? Don’t be silly. This team doesn’t need a dumb Lombardi to prove what they are. All they need is a statue of TO, because he exemplifies everything they’re about. Let the Dallas press clamor all they want for Phillips’ head, it will never happen so long as he lets Jerry Jones run the real show.

Jacksonville, and

Three teams that could have gone either way this year, the biggest disappointment has to be Jacksonville. They were poised to make a good run deep into the playoffs, and they just… imploded. I can’t explain it. I didn’t see enough of their games to know for sure but I think they relied too much on the big quarterback being a tough guy and had a lack of offensive balance. It’s a disappointment, but it doesn’t change the fact that whether he’s 11-5 like last year or 5-11 like this year, Jack DelRio is still the best-dressed coach in football.
Seattle’s year reminded me of a less competent Steelers team in Bill Cowher’s final year as coach but with more apathy and less skill. And Buffalo just makes me sad. I am sure they’d be delighted to see a Super Bowl loss, or any sort of playoff hope, but this year went the way of so many before, into mediocrity and an early end to their season.

Kansas City, St. Louis, and Cincinnati? Just a simple case of more of the same. It’s a good thing those cities have baseball teams, it gives them something to look forward to. Football is certainly not going to improve there any time soon. St. Louis probably has the most talented team of the three and has the best chance at a rebound in the next several years, and they have a real star in Steven Jackson, if they can keep him. Kansas City continues a new tradition of football ineptitude. I remember not so long ago we used to worry about getting them in the playoffs. No longer. And Cinci is now nothing but a punch line in a long series of jokes, most of them starting with either Chad Ocho Cinco or an arrest.

Until next time, when I’ll have happier times in the NFL with some big turnarounds, playoff hopes, and for real predictions.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

New favorite thing

Penguins visit Children's Hospital, bring presents.

Shout-out to the PittsburghPens community on Livejournal for this. Bring your kleenex. It looks like they really took a lot of time and spent time playing games, visiting, etc. What a great group of guys.

Monday, December 15, 2008

These are a few of my favorite things

Video of last week's game-winning interception.

My favorite thing is Mike Tomlin's sweet flying chest bump with Big Ben at 0:37. I'm pretty sure that's Tomlin going WOO! WOO! WOO! in the background too. I love that guy. Seriously.

Yinz Love Da Stillers.

Consistent brilliance. The NFL decided he wasn't allowed to use video clips under fair use and made him pull some of his previous videos, so he started using plastic figurines to represent the plays. WIN. He also does a Yinz Love Da Pens series worth checking out.

Sidney Crosby's hat trick-the first goal is a thing of amazing beauty and skill, and the third is a hell of a lot of fun.

Bob Errey. Oh Bob. That's an oldie but a goodie.

This week's Errey-Otica includes
"The god of thunder has stricken!" Steigy on Eric Goddard's goal, and "People are aroused by that!", Errey referring to the exciting fast play in the Pens/Devils game.

Gene Collier, the PG's best sports writer, has a good column about Sunday's victory against the Ravens and Ben's drive.

Bob and I are speculating on how far the phrase "double chinstrap football" can get into the running for the 2008 Trite Trophy. The talking threads on ESPN used that phrase at least 20 times in the run-up to the game on Sunday and it got old, fast.

The Penguins are having a mini-slump, but it'll pass. Once the defensive injuries are healed up, hopefully things will improve on the power play and also the penalty kill. We got killed by the Flyers' power play on Saturday, mostly because our defense is barely out of Wilkes-Barre, but also because it was our third game in three and a half days. I'm not worried, I keep telling myself. It's early.

It's interesting to speculate on what a different sport hockey would be if there were only 16 games played a year, like football. I like that we play practically 16 games a month, it's more entertainment and less melodrama.

Speaking of melodrama, how about that T.O.?

Oh, and this just in... Terrell Owens is a 12 year old.

Another good piece of speculation-T.O. and Plaxico Burress both end up in Oakland, under the kindly tutelage of Al Davis. AAAAAHHHHH!

Until next time, Sports Fans.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The impact of one play

If Deshea Townsend starred in It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence would show him the Dallas Cowboys winning Super Bowl XLIII, the Pittsburgh Steelers not making the playoffs, and a Halliburton CEO winning $1 million from ESPN.

As the NFL regular season winds down to the playoffs, it’s clear that one play by Townsend will affect the destinies of several teams—and it’s changed the life of one UPS worker in Miami.

Steelers fans know what happened—Townsend picked off a pass by Tony Romo with 1:40 left to give the Steelers a 20-13 comeback win over the Dallas Cowboys—but the ramifications of that play have been felt far beyond the top row of Heinz Field.

That play kept the Steelers in line for a first-round bye in the playoffs and hurt the Cowboys’ chances of making the playoffs at all. It has also kicked off a meltdown in Dallas.

The pass was intended for Jason Witten, which has led Terrell Owens to make public statements that Romo favors Witten over him. As he did at San Francisco and Philadelphia, T.O. is being a destructive influence in the locker room—which is just fine for fans of any team other than the much-hated Cowboys.

As yet another soap opera unfolds in Dallas (Who shot down T.O.?), several other teams suddenly have a better chance at the NFC wild card spot to which the Cowboys are clinging by their spurs as I write this. Just judging from the remaining schedules, don’t count out Philly.

The win also kept the Steelers one game in front of the even more-hated (at least in Pittsburgh and Cleveland) Baltimore Ravens and brought them even closer to clinching a playoff spot.

As the NFL millionaires fight over the chance to make even more money, Townsend’s play has made Samuel Louis-Charles a millionaire, too. Louis-Charles, or Bigsam1122 as he’s known at, predicted the winners of 25 straight sports events correctly to win $1 million in ESPN’s “Streak for the Cash” game. Louis-Charles, who had stopped watching the game and gone to work when the Steelers were behind 13-3, has said he will send gifts to Townsend and Romo. I’m sure Romo will be just thrilled to get his.

Other Steelers have had more impact on the season, and there are more likely Pro Bowl candidates.

But when the 2008 season goes in the books, it will be hard to think of a play that’s had the impact of Townsend’s interception.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

How I fell in and out of love with a sport

Change has been the theme of this election year. We all know about the change that happened in the White House and the change that didn’t happen in California.

There was also a referendum that gained little publicity outside the state where it was held, but it could eventually have repercussions in sports, or at least in the gaming industry, nationwide.

Last month, the voters of Massachusetts decided to ban dog racing. The state’s two greyhound tracks, Wonderland and Raynham-Taunton Park, will have to cease operations by Jan. 1, 2010, barring any last-minute legal challenges.

This may seem minor to anyone unfamiliar with dog racing, but it’s a major blow to the sport. Of the 16 states where dog racing is legal, only in Florida has it been entrenched more firmly. When Sports Illustrated ran an article on dog racing in the early ‘90s, Wonderland, one of the most popular dog tracks in the U.S., was featured because it regularly outdrew the Boston area’s Thoroughbred race track, Suffolk Downs. SI used this example to infer that dog racing was a major threat to horse racing. (Which is sort of like comparing Ohio State football to the Cincinnati Bengals and inferring that college football is superior to the NFL.)

That threat never materialized, mainly due to increased competition from casinos and other forms of gaming, but also because many people became aware of dog racing’s dirty secrets.

They were enough to turn me off the sport in a hurry.

It wasn’t always that way. I became a dog racing fan in the mid-1990s when I covered Delta Downs, a Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse track in Vinton, La., for Daily Racing Form. When I found out there was a dog track, Gulf Greyhound Park, just two and a half hours to the west near Houston, I had to check it out.

I immediately became fascinated by the constant action (a race goes off every nine or 10 minutes, compared to 18 to 20 minutes for horses), the program statistics, the ease of handicapping (two words: early speed), the letter-grade system of ranking dogs that assured a competitive race—and, of course, the dogs themselves.

The greyhound is the opposite of most people’s idea of a pretty dog—so thin, with a coat that appears matted (but is thicker than it looks) and bulging, cartoonish eyes, it appears from the front as if half of it is missing, but it possesses a unique, regal beauty. I must have looked like the biggest idiot at the track when I would watch the post parade from the rail and gush over the field. “Aww…look at them little guys…aww, big babies, they’re looking so sad…aww, that one’s got racing stripes!” As Bob Seger once said, I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.

I even gave the breed a nickname. I once covered high school sports for a team called the Greyhounds, who had a mascot named Scuffy. Scuffy inspired me to dub greyhounds in general “scuppy dogs.”

Soon, I was going to Gulf whenever I got the chance. I would stay in a motel overnight on long weekends to catch racing action for two straight days. I even developed a good-luck ritual when I approached the place on I-45—I would always sing the theme from “Scooby-Doo.” (Yeah, I know, Scooby’s a Great Dane. Sue me.) If time permitted, I would either come or leave via a back way in order to take the Galveston Ferry, get out of my car and enjoy the Gulf breeze. It was pure degenerate gambling bliss.

At the time, I wondered why dog racing existed in gaming’s ghetto. It seemed like a secret world, an acquired taste. Even non-racing fans can name several champion Thoroughbreds, but the only racing dog most people can name is Santa’s Little Helper.

I would not learn the reason until a few years later.

I started reading online about the cruelty of the sport. I read about overbreeding and how the puppies that don’t make the cut are killed. I read about the practice of training dogs with “live lure”—teaching them to hunt using live rabbits, cats and other animals. I read about how, despite the industry’s burgeoning adoption program, many dogs are killed when their racing days are through—and the canine “killing fields” that have been discovered to prove it. The dog racing industry has done little to refute this evidence, aside from making increasingly desperate pleas to adopt a retired racer.

I haven’t set foot in a dog track since I learned the truth about the sport, but I always kept a tiny glimmer of hope that the industry might somehow find a way to clean up its act.

I know in my heart that the voters of Massachusetts have done the right thing—but why does the vote leave me feeling a little bit sad?


For information on Going Home Greyhounds, an organization that places retired racing greyhounds in homes in the Pittsburgh area, go to

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Monday Semi-Roundup

It's been a good weekend for Pittsburgh sports fans. The Steelers kicked major Pawts ass in their home stadium. Maybe it will shut the pundits up for five minutes. I was ready to throw a shoe through the TV during ESPN's pre-game hoo-raw on Sunday morning because they were pretty much saying the Steelers were going to lose and weren't all that good. Let's have a look at that, shall we?

Patriots were one for 19 on third down conversions.
Patriots had three fumbles and two interceptions.
23 unanswered points for the Steelers.
The Steelers scored on four of five New England turnovers.
The defense was stifling and Dick LeBeau (love that guy!) made the needed adjustments, again, going into the second half. 267 yards allowed.

The fluidity and adaptability of the Steelers defense is, in my opinion, their most dangerous quality. I feel pretty good about the rest of the season now, what with the offensive line finally gelling. The titans are the biggest hurdle, but they're beatable. There isn't much in the NFC that can challenge today's team other than the Giants, and they're also eminently beatable, particularly with Plaxico Burress out of the lineup. Oh, Plax. Never change, ok? I love you just the way you are.

Moving on.

Pitt wins the backyard brawl against West Virginia. A moral victory and probably enough to keep Dave Waanstedt on board for another year. I think he's been a consistent underachiever and scouts poorly but what do I know. It never ceases to amaze me, though, that so many coaches think life is going to be easier as college coaches. College is harder-these kids aren't sure if football is going to be their life. College has a revolving door-you can't keep a player around much after five years unless you put him on staff. And as Charlie Weis can tell you, in college football, you don't get the other team's defensive signals taped for you. Oh, sorry, did I type that out loud? My bad.

Pitt Women's hoops is 4-1. I'll be glad when they start showing some games on TV. That probably won't happen until tournament time, unfortunately, because everything from poker to MMA to bass fishing has precedence over one of the most exciting team sports out there. Repeat after me, sports fans. Everyone suffers under the patriarchy.

The Pens are doing well, winning two out of three this past long weekend. Sid is on a roll, capped by his belly-flop hat trick on Saturday. (quote by my work daughter Liz, "he slid on his belly like a real penguin!! awwww he's soooo adorable.")

Finally, this edition of Errey-Otica might be one of the last. We took delivery of a new home theater (thanks,!) this weekend and now we can listen to Mike Lange's radio coverage while we watch on TV.

Friday, from Steigerwald...
"He's going to be whackin' and hackin' all night long!"
Several times, Steigy referred to Sabres' forward Daniel Paille as "Paiella". Yeah, the fish casserole that cross-checks you back!
The best one Friday was Errey's.
"He shed him like a bronking bull!"
I don't even know what that means.

Saturday, Steigy invited us to "behold the wonders of Sidney Crosby" during an intermission. It was mid-home theater installation so I didn't see it, but I think some of it must involve what he called "sid-o-rama". Hilarious.

Errey has been talking about people playing unconscious a lot lately. Now, I could be wrong, but I think being unconscious while playing hockey might be a bad thing. Errey obviously thinks it's a good thing. Who am I to contradict?

Errey-Otica is contagious! During the radio broadcast of the Steelers game, Craig Wolfley made repeated references to a player being sidelined with "a hitch in his git-a-long." Bob suggested he be flagged for talking like a grizzled 1890s prospector. Much amusement was had as we discussed the best way to signal that. I'll leave it to your imaginations, though.

Until next time-GO PENS, GO STEELERS, and GO SHOPPING if you need to.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving from the Fritz Blitz

I thought I'd start the day off with some things that make me thankful.

The Penguins' ability to play a crappy game for two of three periods and still win. I'm thankful for the Pens in general, but especially for this.

Sid and Geno. And the years of hockey ahead of them. Here. In Pittsburgh.

The Steelers. Despite playing with a battered and bruised offense, a secondary that has more ups and downs than a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos, whatever punter they can grab from the stands, and an o-line that sometimes puts me in mind of the Seton LaSalle Girls JV Auxiliary flag football team, they're in position to get a first round bye in the playoffs and are coming on even stronger late in the year.

The Pirates. Yes, you heard me. The Pirates. Even when they don't win (and when do they win?) they're entertaining. Even when they're not playing, (maybe especially when they're not playing) they're entertaining. This week, the Buccos signed two prospects found in a global talent search in India. India? Seriously? Why not, I say. These guys have a background in cricket. From the minimum I know about cricket (it seems to have similar rules to 43-man squamish) there is an awful lot of pitching involved, some hitting things with sticks, and games can last up to five days. Five days! Even the worst rout at PNC with every pitcher in the bullpen getting a turn doesn't go five days. It may SEEM like it, but it doesn't. So why not?

Pitt Basketball. I have a bias for the Women's program, and this year's team is looking to continue where they left off last year. I've found the Men's program to be consistently over hyped and prone to choking. Unreasonable expectations, poor conditioning, coaching weaknesses, who knows, but the Pitt men never seem to live up to their hoop dreams. We'll see how this season shakes out but I'm hopeful the women's program will go even further this year.

Joe Paterno. He plans to come back next year. Not sure how the PSU brass will take that but good on him.

Chad Ocho Cinco.

I love this guy precisely because he does NOT take himself seriously. You'll never find him crying after the game lamenting his perceived lack of respect, his touches, or the media treatment of his quarterback. (Okay, once, he did cry after a game, but I'm convinced he was doing it as a joke.) Chad is hilarious, like a parody of TO and all those other over-rated, under-talented, loud-mouthed Cowboys receivers for the past 20 years. Hey TO? Michael Irvin called. He wants his schtick back. But I love me some Chad Ocho Cinco. Pure comedy gold.

YouTube, for all the great sports clips, for Yinz Love Da Guins, and for the fact that YouTube is blocked at work because if it weren't, I probably would not have a job any more.

The Empty Netters blog on the Post Gazette website, and to Seth for linking the Fritz Blitz on his sidebar. Now, maybe we'll get more than three readers a week! Seriously, though, the EN blog is a gold mine of video clips, links, hockey information, humor, and scary pictures of Brooks Orpik. You should definitely check it out if you haven't already.

And finally, I'm most thankful for my co-blogger here, Bob, my hubby, who shares my passion for and love of sports and who keeps me sane and moving in the right direction on a day to day basis. Thanks, honey!


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Quite a compliment

A story about the Cleveland Browns would not be an early candidate for this blog--save for one great quote at the end.
It's not every day you hear a compliment from your fiercest rival, but here it is:
“The Steelers from the 1930s to the 70s, maybe there wasn’t much of an identity. But coach and group of players show up, memorable plays are made and a myth is born, a legend is born and an identity is born. The Rooneys were able to parlay that into another administration under Bill Cowher and kept it together for (37 years) with two coaches. I’m very envious of that.”

Thank you, Mr. Lerner. And good luck with that identity thing.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Famous or infamous?

I was surprised to find out that Sunday’s game between the Steelers and the Chargers was the first 11-10 game in NFL history. I’m amazed that there wasn’t at least one other 11-10 game back in the low-scoring days of leather helmets and Bronko Nagurski.

The score gave the game a lot of attention, even outside the sports world. National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” ran a segment on the game, and NPR is as well-known for its sports reporting as modern-day MTV is known for music.

I hope the game isn’t known for less positive reasons before the season’s over.

The part about the game that stuck out for me wasn’t the score, but how it got there.

The story of the game was the officiating. We have heard all about Troy Polamalu’s fumble recovery on the final play that should have resulted in a touchdown, but Pittsburgh was also penalized 13 times for 115 yards, while San Diego was docked twice for five yards. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this blog is not the most objective place on the Internet, but few games are this lopsided in the flag department.

It’s not just the number of penalties against the Steelers, but the overall result that’s suspicious. The penalties, and the blown call on the final play, had the effect of assuring that the Steelers would not cover the 4 ½-point spread.

Most blatant was the pass interference call on Ike Taylor that set up the Chargers’ first-quarter touchdown. Whether Taylor interfered with the receiver should not have been an issue because Philip Rivers’ pass was thrown to a hot dog vendor in the 10th row.

Then there was the holding penalty on Sean McHugh that nullified Willie Parker’s touchdown. McHugh did put the “habeas grabbus” on (thank you, Tunch Ilkin), but I see much worse holding go uncalled in most NFL games. And that touchdown, with the extra point, would have made the score 15-10, covering the spread. Hmm….

Am I paranoid? I think not. Although the NFL would like you to think otherwise, people—including players—have been betting on pro football games as long as there’s been pro football. Paul Hornung and Alex Karras were suspended in 1963 for betting on NFL games. Former Colts QB Art Schlichter may have the most destructive gambling problem of any athlete in modern times.

But most players aren’t going to risk a multi-million dollar career to win thousands on a bet. So, if someone wants to fix a game, what do they do? As the recent NBA scandal has shown, they go to the officials.

Far be it from me to say that Sunday’s game was fixed. I have no access to information that would prove such a thing. But for the good of the sport, the NFL should take a good, serious look at that game’s officiating.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

JoePa: a life

“Hi, I’m Joe Paterno. I’m a football coach. Not very good.”

Such was my introduction to the legend that is Joe Paterno. I interviewed him in the early ‘90s when he and two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin appeared at a benefit for Buckeye Boys Ranch (now The Buckeye Ranch), a home for troubled youth in Grove City, Ohio. For not being a very good coach, he sure has built quite a name for himself. Only 23 bowl wins from 34 bowl appearances, and being named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 1986 (the first college football coach to win that title), among many other honors.

I had met many prominent people from the sports world during my career as a sports reporter, but it was special to interview Paterno. Why did he come into the middle of Buckeye territory to speak at this awards banquet? Ultimately, to make a difference in people's lives.

"You never know what sticks in somebody's head," he said. "A lot of these kids will say 'Who's this guy with the funny suit and the big nose and the funny glasses?'"

This was 1991--a time where major challenges lay ahead for Penn State, as it had recently been included in the Big Ten.

"I've always felt that one thing I wouldn't get the chance to do is coach in the Rose Bowl--and that still might happen," he said. It happened in 1994 (Penn State won 38-20) and it will happen again this year.

But he didn't want to talk about himself--he wanted to talk about young people.

"I can't imagine where it would be more fun to be young than it is today," he said. "There's no Iron Curtains and no Berlin Walls...We cannot afford to lose another generation of young people. If we blow this thing now, we're never going to have the opportunity again."

For many college football fans, Joe Paterno is the only head coach Penn State has ever had. That’s literally true for me, since he became head coach in 1966—the year I was born.

Imagine working the same job for 42 years. Most people couldn’t imagine this, even if they liked the job. But while many other coaches have come and gone, JoePa has been synonymous with Penn State. His presence is as old-school as the Nittany Lions’ white uniforms, and his dedication to his players and to education has few rivals in college football.

It is hard to picture Penn State football without Paterno, but that will happen soon. We have seen him continue to coach the team from the press box, through several injuries, but how long will it last?

This season would have been a perfect ending to his career. Penn State seemed destined for a perfect season and a national championship, but it all ended with a one-point loss to Iowa last week. (Yet another case for the playoff that JoePa has long favored.) He will probably retire with two college football championships, which is two more than most coaches have.

There’s still an outside chance at the BCS title, but a lot would have to happen. A Rose Bowl win seems more likely. Still, JoePa will be retired soon, and he will take with him a piece of anybody who follows college football.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cardiac Kids?

Holy Cow, Pens.

I love you guys, you know that. And I love the exciting games. But for the love of all that is holy (and for the love of my fantasy team), could you please stop giving up massive numbers of goals? Thanks.

The Penguins are doing well these days. They continued a win streak into five games, being generous enough to allow the Flyers to have a point as they went into a shootout tied at 4-4 after leading 3-0 in the second period. Why isn't hockey the world's most popular sport? You do not get this kind of excitement from anything else.

The sleeping giant appeared to have awoken on Tuesday in Detroit, as Jordan Staal scored a hat trick and an assist to win the game in OT. He was shut out tonight, though. Sweet Dreams, Jordan. Kris Letang remains pointless this season and remains right up there with Staal as prime trade bait. Coach Therrien gave him a chance tonight to get one in the shootout and his attempt was weak and very unlike him. Fortunately for both these guys, it's still early in the season and there's time for them to pull something out of their hats.

All in all, I'm most impressed with the team play of the Penguins. The defense could be tighter, sure. They depend on Marc-Andre Fleury to do most of their work on them, as evidenced in how differently they play with Dany Sabourin in net. I'm sure that will be addressed in the locker room and in practice ongoing. These guys need to be reminded that even the best goaltender needs help now and then.

The biggest improvement from last year continues to be faceoff wins. Mike Zigomanis, I can't say enough about this guy. He's a great addition to the team, both for winning tons of faceoffs, and for having an awesome name. Zigomanis! That is a beautiful, beautiful hockey name.

Offense in general continues to improve, with passes tightening up, puck control coming along, and finally, finally, some shooting. I don't find myself impotently screaming "SHOOT! SHOOT YOU LOUSY BUMS! SHOOOOT!" at the television nearly as much this season.

A five-game win streak is pretty good, even if some of them were scary wins that were nearly losses. And I can't say enough about that outstanding win in Detroit on Tuesday.


Let me just get this out of the way. Inspired by Steigy talking about how everyone was out there on the ice, whacking. I couldn't find the clip I wanted, so this one will have to do.

Errey-Otica has been spotty the last couple of weeks, due to the west coast road trip, a game on Versus, and my pre-holiday knitting taking more of my attention during games than I like. Bob has been kind enough to take some notes for me, though. These were from last week.

"Sidney Crosby, when he plays with the right guys, he's gonna explode!"

"You can't discount the fact that Souray's got a big rifle back there."

"That's the advantage you have when you have that big gun in the backside."

Tonight brought us Errey between the benches again. While one of the Flyers was prepping his stick for the shootout, Errey made some priceless comments. I'll leave them to your imagination. They're probably not suitable for mixed company.

Until next time-GO PENS!

(No, I'm not sick of this commercial yet. Shut up.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The thin black and gold line

In spite of Sunday’s 24-20 loss to the Colts, the Steelers are still on most people’s short list of NFL playoff contenders. The loss caused them to drop only one spot in ESPN’s weekly power rankings—from #3 to #4.

Much of this respect is due to the Steelers’ defense, which leads the league in total defense (240.3 yards allowed per game) and passing defense (171.1 yards), and is second to the Baltimore Birdies (thanks, Myron) in rushing defense (69.2 yards).

The weakest link, as it has been over the past few seasons, is the offensive line, which could be the biggest thing standing between the Steelers and another Super Bowl.

Consider that Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 28 times so far this season, behind only J.T. O’Sullivan (32) and Matt Cassel (29). Not good company for someone with a Super Bowl ring to be keeping. The sacks are beginning to take their physical toll on Ben, and some pundits are wondering if he isn’t destined for a short career.

The Steelers can’t say they weren’t warned.

Even when the Steelers have been at their best, the biggest mistakes—the sacks, the rushed passes that turn into interceptions, the failed conversions on fourth-and-goal—can be traced directly to the weak offensive line. Things have gotten worse since Alan Faneca left for the big money and bigger expenses of New York City.

The biggest puzzle on draft day was why the Steelers did not address their offensive line needs. I shook my head as they took Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed in the first two rounds, despite the 2008 draft being the most lineman-rich draft in recent memory. The only lineman chosen was Tony Hills in the fourth round. He will take some time to develop, as he ended his college career at Texas with a broken fibula. Hook this ‘Horn for later.

The only new free agent acquisition on the line is center Justin Hartwig, who at least makes fewer high snaps than Sean Mahan.

I’m reminded of the old Isotoner Gloves ad that showed Dan Marino giving his offensive line gloves for Christmas (in Miami?). The slogan: “Take care of the hands that take care of you.”

The Steelers’ first priority for the off-season is finding some hands to take better care of Ben.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

One for the other hand?

My wife has done such a good job blogging about the Penguins that it may appear that we have forgotten about that other team in town. We have not. That’s why there’s a stack of Terrible Towels sitting by the living room chair, and somewhere in this house there’s a novelty football that says “Here we go, Steelers, here we go!” and plays a rather annoying, generic fight song.

While much has been made of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ loss to the New York Giants, the Steelers still have a legitimate shot to win it all this year. If they don’t, they should get a special award for leading the AFC North at this juncture without the benefit of an offensive line.

Almost all the pieces of a championship team are in place. We have Ben Roethlisberger, perhaps the best quarterback in the game. He manages to keep his head and connect with receivers despite being on track to being sacked 75 times this season. I wonder how long he can take that kind of punishment.

Mewelde Moore has been the most pleasant surprise this year, as he has kept the running game going even though the backfield has been devastated by injuries. Signed mainly for special teams duty, Moore has managed to make some big runs in each game since Willie Parker was injured.

Then there is the defense. The Steelers defense has been a sack-fest of a good kind, as LaMarr Woodley has come to the forefront to join James Harrison and James Farrior as one of the NFL’s best defenses at stopping the run. Add to that the great Troy Polamalu, who can get to any spot on the field in an instant, and certainly has the league’s coolest hairdo.

The season isn’t easier from here, although it doesn’t look as hard as many pundits thought back in September. Tomorrow night’s opponents are the Washington Redskins, whom many people are picking as the NFC champion (although they did lose to the St. Louis Rams). Add to that the Colts, Chargers, Patriots and Cowboys, and you have a homestretch that doesn’t look like it’ll break the Steelers, but isn’t chopped liver, either. Who would have thought at the season’s beginning that the most formidable opponent on the schedule would be the Tennessee Titans?

Right now, the spotlight is on the Titans and the Giants, but a Steelers Super Bowl is not out of the question. Remember that, at this point in the 2005 season, the Steelers were also 5-2.

The more things change.

Well, it's been a pretty glum week in Pittsburgh sports here. The Pens stunk up the road trip, redeeming themselves last night against the lowly St Louis Blues. I guess you could say they played pretty FLAT against the Sharks and the Coyotes, but TUNED UP THEIR GAME when they arrived in St. Louis, and left them singing the ... oh, never mind. Too easy.

The Steelers tried pretty hard to beat the Giants last Sunday but ended up losing narrowly after the emotional tide turned when James Harrison snapped a ball over punter Berger's head.
Speaking of that, what with Berger and Reed, who else thinks they need to get someone named Green to be the long snapper? They could be that law firm of Berger, Reed and Green, the one that runs those silly ads with the randomly exploding trucks and crash-test crashes in the background.
I have grave concerns about the Steelers hopes moving forward. There are too many injuries, and the offensive line is starting to look like the Detroit Lions Swinging Door Offensive Line that Charlie Batch still has nightmares about.

Moving on.

Penn State appears to be staying in the #3 slot because if there's a team from Texas in the running for the BCS, they have to be ranked higher because of TV ratings or some obscure Mason-Dixon Reparations Law or something. I think Penn State has a good chance at the national title this year, which would be great for Joe Paterno. I've always loved Joe Pa, I don't know why. I think because he reminds me of my family. Plus, he's old. I like to see good things happen to old people. More so as I get older.

Pitt is doing surprisingly not-bad. They managed to squeak out a win against Charlie Weis's Notre Dame team yesterday, in OT. I have nothing against Charlie Weis personally but I have an axe to grind with anyone who has been with Bill Belichick within the past ten years or so. In fact, I kinda laughed at Charlie's first season with Notre Dame, wondering if it was difficult for him without having the other team's signals. Anyway, Dave Wannstedt managed to avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory yesterday and good for him. I can't help but feel it won't last.

In other Pitt news, Agnus Berenato got herself a well-deserved new contract from Pitt. Perhaps women's basketball will experience a renaissance here in the Burgh, and we'll get a WNBA team when we get the new arena, and daisies will bloom in February, and there will be ponies for everyone, and then I'll wake up. Oh, darn.

(Speaking of axes to grind, eh?)

The clocks have been turned back an hour and there's not much to do outside right now, the Giants beat up on the Cowboys and Treehouse of Horror is about to start, so to close, here's the top ten Mike Lange goal calls as posted on YouTube by the terrific hockey clip-aggregator DayWalk3r.

In other local YouTube goodness, be sure to check out Deck of Jack's "Yinz Love the Guins" and "Yinz Love the Stillers".

Definitely worth subscribing to. The one where they take Mike Tomlin out for ice cream is pure comedy gold.

Until next time, whenever that is...

Friday, October 24, 2008

Lovin' the 'Guins

It's been a good week for hockey. The Penguins are playing strong, with good improvement after a shaky beginning. Faceoff wins are the main thing I see as improved. I can't find a stat on it right off the bat, but it sure seems to me like this year's Penguins are winning a lot more. I credit Michel Therrien with that for the most part, but it sure looks like Mike Zigomanis has been a big help in that department. He's been a solid player overall, and along with Matt Cooke, Bissonnette, Goddard, Satan and Fedotenko, has helped ease the pain of the off-season losses. I still miss Georges Laraque. And Ryan Malone. (wipes a tear)

Kudos especially to Dany Sabourin for showing he can be a strong backup to Marc-Andre Fleury. I'm sure Ty Conklin's success last year was a bit disconcerting to Sabourin but he kept calm and stepped up when needed. Hockey players tend to be like that, I find, more so than other big pro athletes. Maybe it's the ice.

This week's Errey-Otica include a couple of real classics from Steigerwald.

"Tonight is Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Night!" Why is hockey fighting cancer awareness? Nice tie, by the way.

"They're looking for ways to make the game more offensive!" Bob suggested they have someone come out and poop on the ice. That would be offensive. I think I mentioned naked skating. That would be dangerous AND offensive.

From Errey-

"On two occasions, Crosby has gone through the legs to find the stick."

"Beautiful play by Ference, horizontal on the ice, stick out!"

And from last night's game, talking with Steigerwald about the physical appearance of Paul Bissonnette...
"Bissonnette, he reminds me of Rick Tocchet, with those dark eyebrows and those dark eyes."

OK, Bob.

For the record, Bissonnette doesn't seem like much of a gambler to me, so I doubt he's much like Tocchet.

Until next time.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


Hopefully, a semi-regular feature here as we get into Hockey Season, Errey-Otica will be a compendium of the most mind-boggling statements uttered by Pens TV broadcaster, Bob Errey. (and Steigerwald or anyone else too, if deserved.)

Bob Errey is like the anti-Mike Lange. Mike Lange makes mind-bogglingly surreal comments when a goal happens, but he's an astute observer of the game and a heck of an intelligent guy. Bob Errey, maybe one too many cross-checks from the likes of Marty McSorley.


Last night’s top three highlights as Errey called color on the game from between the benches.

“I feel pretty special here between Ovetchkin and Staal!”
I’ll bet you do, Bob. I’ll bet you do.

“He’s like a heat-seeking missile out there!”

At some point, in the aftermath of a vicious check;
“Mass times velocity equals force, if you remember your chemistry class!” I think I actually yelled at the screen “WHY?? WHYYYYY????” at that point.

We can all be thankful that he didn’t refer to Jordan Staal as a “pterodacTILE” or a “human tripod” at any point during the game.

Much like the Pens, I believe Bob Errey is just getting warmed up for the season ahead, and it won't be long before he's talking about running into Sid Crosby's dad in the bathroom again, or musing on the ability of the power play to penetrate the opposing goalie. We can only hope.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What she said

I haven't been blogging much lately because I've been pretty busy--buying a new car, keeping a house in order, helping the local chapter of a dysfunctional social organization, and looking for a job that doesn't suck the life out of me. Not that there haven't been any sports to talk about. We've been treated to the Best. Olympics. Ever, the Steelers are 2-0, the Penguins will be starting their season again soon, and the Pirates still suck.

I was inspired by my wife's latest blog entry, in which she nailed a major problem--the recent tendency of politics to resemble professional sports.

One could also argue that sports sometimes resembles politics. The business of sports can be political, with its megamillion business deals. And sports can definitely cross paths with the law. The sports page in my old hometown has its own subheading titled "Legal File," printed alongside "Baseball," "Football" and the rest. "Legal File" features two-paragraph stories about athletes who made really bad plays off the field.

I am reminded of the words of my college religion professor, Dr. Paul Redditt. (Yes, I took religion in college--it was required.) He was a true anomaly--a liberal Southern Baptist. He was very interested when he found out I was the sports editor of the college paper. He talked about one of his favorite sports writers, Dick Fenlon of the Columbus Dispatch. I'll never forget his reason why he liked Fenlon.

"He knows that there's nothing really important that happens in a ball game."

What a powerful statement.

And it's true. Unless you are employed in the sports industry in some capacity, there's nothing really important that happens in any sports event.

Wars, the economy, global warming, civil liberties--these are important. No sports event is important. Not even the Super Bowl.

That's what make sports so great. We root for our favorite teams, we cheer, we boo, we lose ourselves in the moment. When we're watching our favorite athletes, nothing else matters--and yet, it really doesn't matter at all. If our team wins, we go on with our lives feeling better for a while. If our team loses, we go on with our lives. We feel like we've played the game vicariously, and we can share in the victory without worrying about torn ACLs. We have all the drama of any national news story without millions of people being adversely affected by that drama.

How ironic that the irrelevance of sports is precisely the thing that makes them meaningful to millions.

Sports matter because they don't matter.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

A whiter shade of green

Of all the teams I thought Brett Favre would be playing for this year, the New York Jets were not in the top five.

Favre’s trade to the Jets was a dramatic left turn to the saga that has dominated the NFL pre-season. It seems incongruous—a good ol’ boy from southern Mississippi moving to the big city—but I suppose no more so that the same person playing on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field for 16 years.

The big money to be made in New York was obviously a factor in Favre’s decision, as it was in Alan Faneca’s decision to jump ship from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Which is just fine, as long as you don’t check out the cost of living in New York City too closely.

The precedent for a top NFL quarterback moving to another team late in his career is not good. As ESPN’s John Clayton has pointed out, Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath and Warren Moon did not fare well moving to other teams in the twilight of their careers. Only Joe Montana has made the transition without tarnishing his legacy.

It remains to be seen if Favre has one more year in him. I have been fooled before. I thought he was through after the Packers went 4-12 in 2006, but he keeps coming back, sort of like The Terminator did at the end of the first movie.

If he wanted to play one more season, good for him. I started rooting for the old guys in sports years ago. But you have to question the way he went about this comeback.

He started to tell the media weeks ago that he wanted to come back to the Packers. By that time, the Packers had already begun building their offense around Aaron Rodgers. Did he expect them to drop everything and change plans just to bring him back?

He waffled on reinstatement until last week and built a mystique around the question of whether he would play, to the point where ESPN began adding updates labeled “FAVRE” on a crawl at the bottom of the screen. MLB…NFL…NBA…FAVRE. He really was in a league of his own.

The trade did not end the media circus, as Favre has moved to the country’s biggest media center. Through the miracle of web radio, I caught a bit of the morning show on WFAN the other day. The topic--will Favre be the greatest QB ever to take a snap in a Jets jersey? Probably, as his only real competition for that title is Namath. (OK, who’s the wise guy who voted for Kellen Clemens?) The question would make for great sports-bar debate—but let’s let Favre take that snap first.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

I may feel like crap, but at least I'm not the Pirates

After a long hiatus here, I've been inspired to come back to the world of husband-wife sports blogging by a conversation Bob and I had in the car on the way home from Damon's tonight. (Or as we have come to call it, Damo's. But that's another story for another blog.)

It's worth noting right off the bat (the BAT, get it? Har har) that I am no major fan of major league baseball. Oh sure, I'll follow the World Series and whatever big star is acting like a six year old child and the latest scandal but I get a little tired of it. It's a long season, and frankly, it's difficult to get worked up about major league baseball when you live in Pittsburgh, AKA the Farm Team for the Rest of Baseball.

After coming frighteningly close to reaching .500 this year, the Pirates have engineered a series of brilliant trades, guaranteed to ensure their continued lack of playoff appearances. I'm starting to wonder if the Bucco's head offices have a non-compete deal signed with the Rooneys or something to avoid conflicting schedules once NFL season is in full swing. Not that there's much competition between the Pirates and the Steelers here in da 'burgh, anyway. The Steelers rule, and everyone knows it. Shame that it is, because there's certainly enough love to go around, anyone who followed the Penguins' march to the Stanley Cup finals this year knows that.

At any rate, the Pirates sit proudly in last place in their division, the unremarkable 51-59 record pretty much guaranteed to not improve. Last Saturday, the Pirates traded Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte to the Yankees, AKA the Best Team Money Can Buy, for prospects. In the middle of a game. Seriously. Nady led the team with a .330 batting average, and Marte was the Bucs only real threat as a closer. We got pitching prospects for them. I can't say it any better than Bob Smizik does here, so I won't try. But wait, that's not all. For years, the Pirates management has traded away stars the moment they start showing talent, and we still had one hanging in there. Jason Bay, who claimed over and over to NOT want to be traded, was traded on Friday in a three way deal with Manny Ramirez and some prospects. Guess who got Manny Ramirez? Here's a hint kids. It wasn't the Pirates. But I can't say it any better than Gene Collier does here, so I won't try.

So another season goes down the toilet. This one wasn't too far out of it anyway, but there was that slim, slim hope of reaching .500, of maybe having a not-unreasonable "magic number" for the first time in 25 years, the glimmer of a playoff spot standing shining in the distance, waving in the breeze like a pennant, like Jack Wilson's hair, like the legions of fans who wanted so much to believe that "WE WILL", as the Pirate slogan was so inelegantly and cryptically stated last year. (We Will what? We will play 162 Games? We Will have fireworks? We Will lose a lot of them? We Will sell off all our best players to the real grownup teams in Baseball?) It's all too much for someone who used to be a fan, who might have once wanted to be a fan.

There's still hope, though. We still have the Pirate Parrot, and the guy who runs around the bases dressed as a giant pierogie. NOBODY's getting them. Although I've heard we can be talked out of Lanny Frattere , both LaRoche brothers, and Tom Gorzelanny for a bowl of really good homemade guacamole, a bag of those awesome lime tortilla chips, and tickets to see the next Monster Truck Rally at the Arena.

Friday, July 4, 2008

The most important thing you will ever read

From legendary Yankee Stadium…to the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field…to the treacherous greens of Pebble Beach…to the heartbreaking homestretch of Churchill Downs…

It’s a triumph of the human spirit! Two sides locked in the ultimate struggle! A performance never seen before in the history of mankind! The most important thing you will ever see! Forget the JFK assassination, the moon landing—even Verne Troyer’s sex tape! This is an event like no other!

This is not just a game….this is SPORTS HYPERBOLE!

It’s great, it’s magnificent, it’s a war! It’s a record that will never be broken! It smashed a world record by one point! It’s the greatest game that’s ever been played this week! You need to drop everything you’re doing and watch this spectacular!

You will never see anything like this again.

What sport is it? Who cares!


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Horse names that rock

One complaint that people who name race horses have is that all the good names are taken.

To some degree, this is true. Names of famous horses are officially retired by The Jockey Club, so there will never be another Man O’War or Secretariat. Horse names also cannot be reused until 15 years after the previous horse’s death. There are other rules—no “vulgar, obscene or suggestive” names, and no names of “commercial significance” (although Big Brown apparently slid by).

With an increasing number of common names being taken, one recent gimmick is to string a phrase together as one word (to fit the 18-letter space limit), such as Atswhatimtalkinbout. Occasionally, this works (e.g., current harness phenom Somebeachsomewhere), but it usually results in cumbersome, unmemorable names.

U.S. Trotting Association writer Dean Hoffman has suggested naming horses after classic literature, such as Absalom Absalom, Catcher In The Rye, A Farewell To Arms—you get the idea. This is imaginative, although I would stop short of naming a horse The Idiot.

This got me thinking—why not name horses after classic rock albums?

I’m not the first one to have this idea. There were horses at Beulah Park when I was young named Physical Graffiti and Stardust Ziggy (not sure why they flip-flopped the words). Plus, there was a champion Quarter Horse a few years back named Sgt. Pepper Feature.

But there are many album titles that would not only be short enough, but would sound really cool coming from an announcer’s mouth. (And for all I know, some of these may be in use.) Consider:

Abbey Road
Sticky Fingers
Rocket to Russia
Let It Be
My Aim Is True
King of America
Electric Ladyland
Axis Bold As Love
London Calling
American Beauty
Nashville Skyline
Purple Rain
Wish You Were Here

I could go on. But there were two names that leaped out at me as being especially appropriate.

Who’s Next. That sounds like a champion. Just think of what the headline writers would do if this horse got on a win streak.

Then there’s the perfect rock horse name: Born to Run. That wouldn’t work for a harness horse, though, because “run” is a synonym for breaking stride.

This list makes me grateful for the limit on the number of letters. Otherwise some horse might have been stuck with When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing Fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You'll Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won't Matter, Cuz You Know That You're Right.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Myths about the Belmont

I will say this for this year’s Triple Crown—it got people talking.

From the tragic breakdown of Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby to Big Brown’s stunning loss in the Belmont, there’s been plenty of fodder for TV pundits and online message boards—80 percent of which comes from people who can’t tell one end of a horse from the other.

In the aftermath of Big Brown’s loss, two myths have been thrown around the electronic media that need to be addressed.

Myth #1: There is nothing wrong with Big Brown. This was the first thing that came out of the mouths of most of ESPN’s on-air personalities after the race. Even on-air vet Larry Bramlage assured viewers that nothing was wrong with the horse.

Perhaps this collective denial is an attempt to keep PETA at bay, but it’s belied by the running of the race itself. Big Brown was trying to bear out throughout the race, to the point where I thought he might blow the first turn. I’ve seen many horses run the same way, and it’s usually due to some sort of pain in a left leg. Big Brown’s quarter crack was in the left front.

Maybe the quarter crack wasn’t healed as well as trainer Rick Dutrow claimed. Maybe the cause was more mundane—he may have been overheated or have bled. In any case, there was something wrong with the horse. Which brings me to….

Myth #2: The Belmont was fixed. I’m amazed at the number of people online who are making this claim. People actually think that there was a conspiracy to stiff a potential Triple Crown winner in order to cash a big bet.

This was not a $5,000 claiming race. This was one of the biggest races of the year with a $5 million bonus on the line. Are we supposed to believe that Kent Desormeaux would throw that away—not to mention a place in racing history—in order to hit the trifecta?

Desormeaux eased Big Brown because, again, there was something wrong with him. He was doing what he thought was best for the horse, and I applaud him for that.

The problem with Big Brown will eventually be revealed, and I will not be surprised if he never races again.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

All over--or just begun?

The Cup has changed possession once again, but this time is different.

While this year’s Stanley Cup Finals saw the Detroit Red Wings beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2, that stat doesn’t begin to tell the story.

Those who watched saw more than just a series of hockey games. They saw the future of the sport being transformed.

Maybe I’m not seeing the whole picture because I live in Pittsburgh. After all, a poll taken last weekend by ESPN showed that many outside the traditional hockey strongholds found Kimbo Slice beating the crap out of some bum to be more compelling.

But it would be hard for any true sports fan to dispute that the NHL was where it was happening the last few weeks.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs had everything you could want in a championship (well, except the Penguins winning it all). It had established teams who go a long way back with the Cup. It had upstarts in their breakthrough season. It had a number-one seed being knocked off in the second round. It had bitter rivals contending for the Eastern Conference title.

And—at least in the early rounds—it gave you a chill up your spine as packed arenas joined in singing the most euphonious national anthem, “O Canada.”

The reason people who aren’t Canadian, or from a U.S. state that borders Canada, cite for not liking hockey is that it’s boring. That’s why it’s rarely on network TV. That’s why it’s on a cable network that fills the remainder of its time with cage fighting and hunting. Whenever the major networks have tried to take on hockey, they’ve felt obligated to add some gimmick to make it more exciting. Remember Fox’s headache-inducing glowing puck?

Nobody who saw the last two Stanley Cup games could say that hockey’s boring. Game 5 gave us a tying goal from Max Talbot with 34 seconds left, then 50 additional minutes of hockey before a goal from Petr Sykora broke the tie and sent the series back to Detroit. The same scenario almost repeated itself in Game 6, when the Penguins staged a last-minute rally, only to see the puck slide across the crease—just in front of the crossbar—at the last second.

Compare that to the NBA, where the last two minutes of a game often take 20 minutes, or steroid-ridden Major League Baseball, where 26 teams are farm teams for the other four.

If games such as those seen during the Stanley Cup Playoffs are any indication, hockey should assume its rightful place in the sports pantheon in years to come.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Well, that sucked!

OK, so the Penguins stumbled--literally--in the first game. So what? Coach Michel Therrien is bringing in his secret weapon Monday night.

"WWGRD?"--What Would Gary Roberts Do?--has become a catch phrase in da 'Burgh over the last few weeks. Now we'll see what Gary Roberts can do.

This may be what the Penguins need to give them more experience, as they're going against the extremely experienced Detroit Red Wings. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin's combined ages are younger than Chris Chelios.

It would almost be like a movie if the "old man" (who is the same age as me) Gary Roberts could turn the Coupe Stanley playoffs around and be the hero.

He should be mad as hell after having to watch the first game from the nosebleed seats in Joe Louis Arena.

And if that doesn't work, there's always HOSSA! HOSSA! HOSSA!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The old...uh...ball game?

There's this ad for Baby Ruth candy bars on the radio that starts out: “This year is an important anniversary in baseball.” The first time I heard it, I thought, “The 50th anniversary of anabolic steroids?” Actually, it’s the 100th anniversary of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” So this morning the ad came on, and I put two and two together….

Shoot me up with some steroids
Shoot me up with some ‘roids
Buy me some Ripped Fuel and power drink
I don’t care if my testicles shrink
‘Cause I got a call from the Yankees
If they don’t sign, it’s a shame
‘Cause it’s one, two, three million bucks
In the old ball game


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Dead Horse in the Derby

Thoroughbred racing has reached a crisis.

This year’s Kentucky Derby gave us a serious Triple Crown threat in Big Brown, but few people are talking about him because the Derby gave us something else—a dead horse.

Horses have broken down in major stakes races before, but the death of Eight Belles is different because the Derby is different from other races. For many people who don’t know a furlong from a fetlock, it’s the only horse race they watch all year. There has been an idea among many racing fans that the Derby is somehow charmed—that there is some sort of Derby god who wards off tragedy and makes sure that the race is won by the people with the most heartwarming story.

History has borne this out. While Barbaro’s death affected many people, he sustained his fatal injury in the Preakness. Too many horses have died during the Breeders’ Cup championships. But you have to go back to 1974 for the last breakdown in the Derby. Flip Sal’s injury was relatively minor and he survived to stand stud.

Tragedy just doesn’t happen in the Derby—until now.

Eight Belles’ death horrified racing fans, scared off a lot of newbies, brought PETA out of the woodwork to compare horse racing to dog fighting, and left everyone concerned asking why.

Given the sport’s recent trends, the real question is why it took so long.

Since that awful day in 1990 when Go for Wand broke her leg in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, it seems as if a year doesn’t go by without a career- or life-ending injury in a major Thoroughbred stakes. The names mean little to anyone who’s not a racing fan, but they would have made for a pretty impressive feature event if they had all been entered in the same race. Holy Bull. Charismatic. Prairie Bayou. George Washington. Pine Island. Union City. Fanfair.

Then there was Barbaro. For two weeks, he captured the nation’s imagination with his impressive Derby win—and then, in an instant, his racing career was over and a nation awaited his recovery in vain.

In the aftermath of last week’s tragedy, a lot of revisionist history is being posted on message boards. Some people maintain that horse racing has always had a high casualty rate. They're calling it a cruel anachronism, not suitable for a more humane, politically correct era. At the same time, many horse racing supporters on these boards insist that nothing’s wrong, and that carting a dead horse off the track after every other televised race is somehow normal.

As a racing fan for over 35 years, I can tell you that the sport has changed. The horses that ran in the 2008 Kentucky Derby are not my grandfather's Thoroughbreds.

I grew up in the 1970s, a golden age for racing. The decade was highlighted by three Triple Crown winners and several near misses. Nobody had to give the competitors’ safety a second thought. Shooting a horse with a broken leg was a joke in my house because it happened so seldom. The only high-profile breakdown during the entire decade was Ruffian-and that occurred in an ill-conceived match race.

For about the last 20 years, it has been clear that the Thoroughbred is more fragile than it used to be. This is not nostalgia—this is fact. Seabiscuit raced 35 times as a 2-year-old alone. I will be surprised if any starter in this year’s Derby races 35 times in its career.

Racing needs to get its head out of its butt and do something. Synthetic tracks may reduce catastrophic injuries, but they are only a short-term solution. What needs to start now is a hard look at the breeding of the horses themselves. Are they being bred for the long-term good of the breed, or for short-term profit? Perhaps the industry has also become too dependent on drugs such as Bute and Lasix, which have allowed infirm horses to have successful racing careers and eventually enter the gene pool.

This is not about animal rights. This is about the survival of racing. The sport gained no new fans Saturday, and the old fans will not be able to close their eyes and think of Secretariat for much longer.

I will be rooting for Big Brown in the Preakness and Belmont—not to win the Triple Crown, but to make it around the track. And that’s not how racing was meant to be.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Damnedest Thing I've Ever Seen?

This is the week when I officially go crazy.

This is the week when I spend hours analyzing a handful of horse races, watch the replays of those races repeatedly, and scour horse racing websites for any clue that might help me make a bet on a two-minute race.

This is the week that I dig books and old Racing Forms out of the basement, not only to find patterns in races from past years, but to relive a lot of great memories as well.

This is the week that climaxes with me in a crowded OTB, getting misty-eyed at the playing of the official song of a state where I’ve never lived.

This is the week that I actually like Dan Fogelberg.

This is Kentucky Derby Week.

It means little to most sports fans, and probably less to most racing fans than it does to me. But it was an obsession in my house when I was growing up.

The first Derby I remember watching was 1972, when I was six. I remember my brothers studying the Racing Form and talking about the race, with the name of one horse standing out—Riva Ridge. It just sounded like a winner to me. He was not the best Derby winner ever, though—or even the best from his own stable. That would happen the next year.

The ‘70s were a golden age for the Derby, with three Triple Crown winners and several near misses. The major prep races were telecast on ABC, and I spent all spring waiting for the buildup to the big day—as did everybody else in my house.

Then I got the chance to see three Derbies in person in the 1980s. The Kentucky Derby should be on anybody’s “Bucket List.” I will never forget my first glimpse of Churchill Downs. I’d seen it on TV many times, but that does not do it justice, if only due to the size of the grandstand. My idea of a racetrack was Beulah Park. I was not prepared to see the Twin Spires.

Through the years, through my career in horse racing, as well as my present incarnation outside the sport, everything has stopped for the Derby. My family is scattered across the country, but at around 6 p.m. this Saturday, I will know exactly what they’re doing.

The Derby is not only the peak of the Thoroughbred racing season, but the ultimate handicapping challenge because it is unlike any other race. No other race in North America has a field of up to 20 horses—all separate betting interests for bigger payoffs. No race features 3-year-olds racing farther than they have before. No race is run with a crowd of over 100,000—many of them partying in the infield.

I write this, I have given Saturday’s Derby past performances a quick look. This edition’s field has more question marks than a Spanish phrasebook. It looks like the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.

But I say that every year.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Pittsburgh Penguins: A Complete Team

The Pittsburgh Penguins will win the 2008 Stanley Cup.

This will probably sound to most of you like the empty brag of a townie. And it’s always asking for trouble to make guarantees. But, with everyone on the team healthy as the playoffs begin, it’s hard to hold out against that judgment.

Injuries subdued the team at certain points in the season, which is the main reason why the Pens are the #2 seed in the East instead of #1. You don’t have your team captain and your starting goalie out for any length of time and win the Presidents' Trophy.

Judging from Wednesday night’s 4-0 drubbing of Ottawa in the first playoff game, the team is now at full strength and should be unstoppable.

Much has been said over the past three seasons about Sidney Crosby, who has already amassed an amazing number of NHL records for someone who can’t buy beer yet. But the high ankle sprains (a phrase that is fast becoming hockey’s equivalent to “walk-off home run”) to him and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury proved to be blessings in disguise, as this season has seen the Penguins evolve into a complete team.

First, there is Evgeni Malkin. Malkin was the second pick in the 2004 NHL Draft, but until this season, he was more famous for the controversy surrounding his signing with the Penguins than anything he’d done on the ice. His play showed flashes of brilliance (he did score a goal in each of his first six NHL games), but could be inconsistent. With Crosby sidelined for several weeks, Malkin emerged as a team leader.

Fleury’s injury created a void at starting goalie. When Dany Sabourin couldn’t show consistency, the Penguins recalled Ty Conklin from Scranton-Wilkes-Barre. Conklin’s career before that point defined “journeyman,” as he has played for four NHL teams and countless minor and German professional league teams. No one was ready for his contribution. He won his first nine starts and ended the regular season with the second-best save percentage in the NHL. Not bad for a backup.

To complete a team, trades are often necessary, and this was the case with the Penguins, too. The season’s blockbuster trade with the Atlanta Thrashers brought Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis to Pittsburgh in exchange for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito and a draft pick. This trade gave the Pens the scoring power they needed on the front line in addition to Crosby and Malkin. The trade was criticized because Armstrong and Christensen had made their share of contributions to the team, while Esposito, a first-round pick, was seen by some as a future franchise player. Time will tell if the Pens gave up too much for a serious Stanley Cup run, especially if they aren’t able to re-sign Hossa for next year.

For now, all the important spots are being filled, and the Penguins have emerged as the NHL’s most complete team.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

March Madness

This is the weekend in which people who can’t tell a zone defense from a pick and roll suddenly become interested in college basketball.

Selections have been made for the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, also known (and even officially trademarked) as “March Madness.”

While college basketball has its share of fans during its regular season, it’s not until this weekend that nearly everybody in the country starts to care about it. There will be office pools, betting (legal or not), TV remotes hard-wired to CBS, and thousands of heads looking up at the screen whenever the distinctive, eight-note March Madness jingle is played, in order to check the score of a game in which most people couldn’t name one player.

Why do people who can’t locate Gonzaga on a map suddenly start rooting for them?

Because March Madness is one of the most democratic sporting events—up to a point.

The tournament is one of the few sporting events where David has a realistic chance of beating Goliath. Basketball’s nature makes it more amenable to upsets than other sports. A college football team needs to recruit scores of players and spend thousands on equipment. A college basketball team needs five good players and a ball. Some of this year’s first-round matchups would be inconceivable in college football, except as an early-season, 59-3 blowout. Kansas vs. Portland State? Tennessee vs. American? Washington State vs. Winthrop? Winthrop? Wasn’t that Ron Howard's character in The Music Man?

Another factor contributing to the unpredictability is the ungodly amount of money to be made in the NBA. A truly superior player won’t stick around for four years of college when he can make millions. This has served to level the playing field—or should I say the court?—in the college game.

So, on this weekend, the unlikely is likely to happen. There are always a few upsets in the opening round. While no #16 seed has ever beaten a #1, four #15 seeds have beaten #2. The #9 has actually beaten #8 54 percent of the time.

Eventually, reality sets in for most of the underdogs. The tournament’s length tends to ensure that favorites will be there at the finish. For a Belmont or Cal State Fullerton to pull off one upset would be quite a feat. To do the same thing six times in a row? Well…you can never say never.

Still, that’s why we watch—to celebrate the underdog in all of us.

Just don’t bet the rent on Coppin State.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Myron Cope 1929-2008

A piece of Pittsburgh died this week.

As I write this, people are gathering in downtown Pittsburgh to pay tribute to Myron Cope with a ceremonial wave of the Terrible Towel he invented. Newspapers, TV stations, and blogs are loaded with tributes to Cope, who died Wednesday from respiratory failure at 79.

These tributes are the most I’ve ever seen for a sportscaster. Nobody mourned Howard Cosell this way.

In the relatively brief time that I’ve lived in Pittsburgh, I can see that the tributes are justified.

Soon after I moved here in 2002, it became apparent to me that Cope was more than a sportscaster. One of the first things Jamie did to introduce me to the area was play a Steelers radio broadcast. I had never heard an announcer quite like him. His nasal voice, with a heavy Pittsburgh accent, came across like Cosell without the pretentiousness. His catch phrases, such as “um-hah,” “yoi,” and “okle-dokle,” became part of the local vocabulary, as did his nicknames for opposing teams—the “Cleve Brownies,” the “Cincinnati Bungles,” and the “Baltimore Birdies.” He made Steelermania instantly accessible to me. For the uninitiated, this site has a good collection of Myron’s sound bites.

Two of his most recent games stand out in my mind. One was the last game of the 2004 season. The Steelers had clinched a playoff berth and started many second-stringers against the Buffalo Bills, but beat them anyway. Myron marveled at the performance of the “Steelers Scrubs” and riffed on it throughout the game. He even joked that he would have T-shirts made reading “Steelers Scrubs.”

Another game, that same year, was a fairly decisive win against the arch-rival Cincinnati Bengals, in which he came up with the line, “We’re putting the lox on those Cincinnati Bagels!”

His legacy goes beyond the broadcast booth. He once joked that his epitaph would read, “Creator of Towel Dead,” and many people know him best as the creator of the Terrible Towel. The Towel, invented prior to a 1975 playoff game, has set the standard for sports team symbols. Cope was also an excellent print journalist. He and George Plimpton are the only two writers ever given the title of Special Correspondent for Sports Illustrated.

Until Myron's retirement, it was a tradition in our house to watch the Steelers game with the TV sound turned down and the radio playing in the background. I will never forget that moment before each game when the stadium music boomed in the background as the Steelers ran onto the field. Myron would sputter, raise his voice higher than usual, and generally break every rule of sportscasting, but, at that moment, he said everything you needed to know. It’s telling that, with all due respect to Tunch and Bill, we now listen to the radio broadcast only when the TV announcers really suck.

Thank you, Myron, for welcoming me to Pittsburgh.

Bye now!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

We can all stop searching now

In my intro to this site, I said that I’d blog on chess if I thought anybody was interested.

I never thought I’d get the opportunity so soon.

Bobby Fischer passed away last month in Reykjavik, Iceland, the town where his legend reached its peak. It may sound strange to call him a sports legend, or to even call chess a sport, nowadays—but for a brief period in the 1970s, both were true.

It goes without saying that Fischer was to chess what Babe Ruth was to baseball, or Michael Jordan to basketball—but he may have been even more important, as chess was made and broken by his place in the spotlight. Interest in baseball did not plummet the day the Babe retired, but when Fischer was stripped of his chess title in 1975 in a dispute over issues that wouldn’t have made Terrell Owens blink, people, at least in the U.S., stopped trumpeting chess as “the sport of the mind,” and it returned to what it was before Fischer won the title—a pastime for high school nerds.

It was the chess world’s misfortune that its destiny laid in the hands of a stark, raving loon. This was borne out by the obituary story done by ESPN on "SportsCenter." While the story did show a montage of Fischer’s extraordinary rise to the top, the most lasting images were a sound bite from a Filipino radio station in which Fischer praised the 9/11 attacks, and an anti-Semitic rant at a news conference in which Fischer vehemently denied his own Jewish lineage.

Not that Fischer was the first chess champion to suffer from mental illness. Paul Morphy, the first American chess champion, stopped playing in his twenties and became a recluse who passed his time arranging women’s shoes on the floor and dancing around them. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first official world champion, once challenged God to a game—and offered him a pawn. Steinitz eventually died in a mental hospital.

Does the intense concentration and need to anticipate an opponent’s moves at such a high level lead to mental illness, or does the game’s nature attract the unstable? A lot of bandwidth could be eaten making chicken-or-egg arguments about that question.

Fischer’s My 60 Memorable Games opens with an epigram from champion Dr. Emanuel Lasker that speaks to the game’s enduring appeal:

“On the chess board lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite."

Other games have some element of chance, such as dice or cards. Even in Scrabble™, you have to draw the letters before you can play them. But not chess. In chess, it’s just you and your ability. That’s why many have considered it an ultimate test of intellect, if there is such a thing.
But what happens when the intellect fails—when a player reaches an opponent or position that just can’t be beaten? What does that say about a player? Maybe it wasn’t mere hyperbole when Pravda published news reports after the Fischer-Spassky match saying that Boris Spassky “would never recover” from losing the match, as if he had contracted some terminal illness. (Although Spassky has not only continued to play topflight chess for many years, but has now outlived Fischer.)

Maybe that’s why so many chess grandmasters fall apart.

Or, at the very least, maybe that’s why I don’t play chess much anymore.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Foofaraw in Phoenix

I heard a rumor there’s some football game going on this weekend. Is this true?

All eyes will be on the New England Patriots as they pursue the greatest season ever against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.

If you root for the Patriots (assuming you aren’t from New England), you probably also root for Microsoft, Rupert Murdoch and Darth Vader. As much as we all love to see a well-played game, it’s hard to like a juggernaut.

And it’s not hard to find a reason to not like the Patriots. It started with Spygate at the beginning of the season, when the team was caught cheating, paid a hefty fine and lost a draft pick (but somehow still get the seventh pick in this year’s draft!). Add to that a quarterback who appears to have never heard of Trojans (and not USC, either), a brilliant receiver with a history of playing when he feels like it, and a head coach who has unapologetically run up the score all season, and you wind up with a team that has replaced the Oakland Raiders as the league’s embodiment of evil.

As easy as it is to hate the Patriots, it’s hard to bet against them (straight up, anyway). Why? Because they’re just that good.

Tom Brady has always had a knack for short-passing opponents to death. With the addition of long-range target Randy Moss (who they got for a fourth-round draft pick, making the Pats the beneficiaries of the most one-sided trade since Peter Minuit), he can now beat you short or long. I could analyze each position, but suffice to say there isn’t a weak link on the team.

The Giants have momentum on their side, which can count for quite a bit under the right circumstances. Jamie posted an excellent blog entry on Eli Manning below. Since that post, the Giants’ win over the Packers has shown that the little brother has come of age. As the youngest of five kids, I can relate. They may not be as deep at every position as the Patriots, but they have already shown they can overcome adversity. Many pundits wrote them off after an 0-2 start, and didn’t give them much chance as the fifth playoff seed in the weaker of the two conferences. They are already the first team in NFL history to win 10 road games in a season, so what’s one more?

An upset is not out of the question. It would be big. Not Appalachian State or Buster Douglas big, but certainly comparable to the Jets in Super Bowl III.

Just don’t make any guarantees, Eli. It’s been done.

I asked the trusty random number generator on my calculator to make a Super Bowl prediction. First, I had it select a random number, 1 or 2—1 for Patriots, 2 for Giants. Then I selected two random numbers between 0 and 50. The higher is the winner’s score, the lower is the loser’s (or, as Ned Flanders would say, the team that does not win). So, here’s the wisdom of a few random microchips from our friends at Texas Instruments:

Patriots 41, Giants 28.

Read into it what you will. In the words of the great Myron Cope, if you bet the wrong way, then you made your own bed.