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.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Horse of the Year? It's no contest

So now the controversy begins.

As far as the Eclipse Award voters are concerned, the result of Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic could not have been worse.

First there is Zenyatta, who has not won Horse of the Year despite going 19-for-20. She did almost everything asked of her throughout her career, although there were disputes in the racing community as to just how good she was. Many said she faced soft fields of fillies and mares that were far inferior, and that her greatest triumph—the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic—came on a synthetic surface.

Then there’s Blame, who Daily Racing Form is already describing as “the probable Horse of the Year” based on his head victory in yesterday’s race. It’s hard to take anything away from Blame, as he was clearly the best older male horse of the year. His only loss in five starts came in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, where Haynesfield was able to slow the pace down and come home with an easy win. Since Blame beat Zenyatta yesterday, Horse of the Year should be a lock, right?

It’s not so easy. Zenyatta did win five of six races this year, one of them on dirt, so it would be misleading to say that she could run only on synthetic surfaces. If you want to argue about track surfaces, note that three of the biggest wins of Blame’s career came at Churchill Downs.

But the criteria for Horse of the Year should go beyond statistics this year. Zenyatta did something for horse racing that hasn’t been done in a long time—she captured the imagination of the fans and had people who don’t know a furlong from a fetlock talking about racing. She became a superstar in a sport that’s needed one for decades.

I’ve never heard crowd noise at a horse race like I heard on yesterday’s telecast as Zenyatta was being led to the paddock. There were 72,739 in attendance, all betting on different horses, but they all agreed on one thing—this big mare with her unique demeanor, pawing and dancing for the crowd, is one of the greatest Thoroughbreds in history.

Zenyatta did more than win a few races. She gave new life to a sport that, depending on who you ask, has been in any one of several degrees of decline.

How can she not be rewarded with Horse of the Year?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Working both ends of the street

The recent controversy over hits in the NFL shows that the league is, to borrow a phrase from my dad, working both ends of the street.

Not that the league is much different from many other forms of entertainment in this respect. Norman Lear built his TV empire on "All in the Family," a show that condemned bigotry while making it humorous. Some people laughed with Archie Bunker, others laughed at him, but everybody watched.

So it is with the NFL's policy toward "illegal" hits. The fines of several players, including Steeler James Harrison, reflect a recent concern with the damage some hits can do to players.

I can understand why the NFL wants to tone down violence in the game, especially since evidence shows that the cumulative effect of a career full of hits can result in a variety of health problems and premature death. Retirement benefits and liability have become issues, so the NFL is not addressing this concern solely out of the goodness of its heart.

But this recent concern causes its own problem. Let's face it--much of the attraction of football is in its violence. Something in us wants to see the big hits, as long as they're within the rules of the game. "Jacked Up!" got our attention in a way "C'Mon, Man!" just can't.

The NFL knows this. Until last week, they were selling pictures of the hit on the Browns' Mohammed Massaquoi that cost Harrison $75,000. Since that one's been taken down, here's one of Harrison sacking Philip Rivers. Perfectly legal, and, as you can see from the price list, very lucrative.

It remains to be seen how far the NFL will be able to go with toning down the violence. Football is a violent game, after all, and there is the risk that fans could lose interest if the action is slowed too much. Egregious shots, such as leading with the head, should not be tolerated. The balance between the appeal of the big hit and the safety of the players will not be easy to reconcile in the next few years. The NFL may have to work both ends of the street for quite some time.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Fun with random numbers

OK, another NFL season is upon us, and I have an excuse for writing this blog again.

Let's face it--I just don't care about baseball anymore, for reasons that I've already articulated here and on Fritzburgh An'at several times. That said, I'm rooting for the Reds for old time's sake and all those games I listened to on WLW as a kid.

I have gotten so used to the Steelers being bashed by the pundits this year that I've had my Sports Illustrated NFL Preview lying on my desk for a week before I finally noticed a few choice words under the word "Preview" that brought a smile to my face. Thank you, Peter King. I think.

Last year, I made NFL predictions that couldn't have been farther off base. I picked the Steelers over the Falcons in the Super Bowl. Maybe I just saw this Sunday's game instead.

Since I didn't want to jinx the Steelers again, I decided to have a little fun instead. I decided to leave the season up to the random number generator on my calculator.

Here's how it worked: I found a prediction online (I don't even remember where it was) that included a prediction of the number of wins. Then I assigned a range to each team based on the number of predicted wins. For instance, here was the prediction for the AFC North:

Cincinnati 12-4
Pittsburgh 11-5
Baltimore 9-7
Cleveland 3-13

So 1 through 12 meant the Bungles, 13 to 23 the Steelers, 24 to 32 the Birdies and 33 to 35 the Brownies. The first number I drew finished first, the next number (not counting repeats) second, and so on. Playoff games were picked in similar fashion.

Here's what I came up with--which proves, without a doubt, that there were no re-rolls or personal bias whatsoever:

AFC East: Miami, New England, Buffalo, NY Jets.
AFC North: Cleveland [sic], Pittsburgh (wild card), Cincinnati, Baltimore.
AFC South: Tennessee, Indianapolis (wild card), Jacksonville, Houston.
AFC West: Kansas City, San Diego, Denver, Oakland.

NFC East: Washington, NY Giants (wild card), Philadelphia, Dallas.
NFC Central: Detroit (and with the best overall record!), Minnesota, Chicago, Green Bay.
NFC South: New Orleans, Carolina (wild card), Atlanta, Tampa Bay.
NFC West: San Francisco, Arizona, Seattle, St. Louis.

I came up with an algorithm for the season records, but the results were so ridiculous I'm too embarrassed to publish them.

So here are the playoffs:
AFC Wild Card: Pittsburgh over Kansas City, Indianapolis over Cleveland.
NFC Wild Card: Giants over New Orleans, Carolina over Washington.
AFC Semifinals: Miami over Indianapolis, Pittsburgh over Tennessee.
NFC Semifinals: San Francisco over NY Giants, Carolina over Detroit.
AFC Championship: Miami over Pittsburgh.
NFC Championship: Carolina over San Francisco.
And the randomly-generated winner of Super Bowl XLV is.....The Carolina Panthers.

So if there are any Panthers fans reading this, you can sleep a little better tonight knowing that a few microchips in a 10-year-old calculator owned by a cube farmer in Penn Hills, Pa., think your team will win the Super Bowl.

But I like Peter King's opinion better. HERE WE GO, STEELERS, HERE WE GO!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

LeFaust (or why a Pittsburgher feels sorry for Cleveland)

There are few people in America who don’t have an opinion on LeBron James signing with the Miami Heat. James accomplished a rare feat Thursday night—alienating NBA fans in five different cities at the same time.

The reaction of the studio audience to “The Decision” was a harbinger of the backlash to come. After James said, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach and signing with the Miami Heat,” there was the sound of one person clapping and a few muffled groans. It sounded as if a fifth-rate stand-up comic had just told an ethnic joke.

The ESPN montage has been constant since—a few happy fans in Miami interspersed with footage of people crying and torching LeBron jerseys in Cleveland.

In retrospect, James’ decision was more predictable than it appeared. The problems were apparent for a while—disappointing playoff runs over the past two seasons, followed by a team meltdown against Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Then came the opportunity to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, and the move was complete. Yeah, there was also that whole “no state income tax” thing.

My Facebook friends list was full of angry people Thursday night—not just Cavaliers fans, but also Cleveland natives. And I was disappointed, too.

I’m not a big NBA fan, in part because Pittsburgh has no NBA team, but also because I think the NBA suffers too much from the superstar syndrome and has strayed from the fundamentals of the game. I think NBA referees officially stopped calling traveling back around 1995 or so.

At the same time, the Cavs have been my default favorite NBA team for the past few years. I figured that they gave Cleveland the best chance to win a sports championship—and without beating a Pittsburgh team! I could root for a Cleveland team without being a traitor.

But I also admired LeBron James. He came across as very mature for his age when he was drafted right out of Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. While his basketball skills were obvious, he was already filling ESPN with witty, insightful quotes at 18. When asked if he was the new face of the NBA, he said, “No. Jerry West is the face of the NBA,” referring to West’s silhouette on the NBA logo.

From a pure basketball standpoint, it’s hard to argue with James’ decision. The biggest problem LeBron faced in Cleveland was the franchise’s inability to surround him with players who were close to his ability. In Miami, he will be playing for the closest thing to a Dream Team outside the Olympics. Think about this carefully. Dwyane Wade…Anderson Varejao. Chris Bosh…Jimario Moon. All questions of loyalty aside, what would you do?

I’m not going out on much of a limb by predicting that LeBron will be wearing a championship ring one year from today. But I feel for the city and its people who have been left in his wake.

I grew up in Columbus, where Ohio State football has always been the center of the sports universe. Pro sports loyalties (aside from the Blue Jackets—who first took to the ice when I was 33) are split between Cleveland and Cincinnati teams, with a slight leaning toward the Cincinnati sphere of influence.

As such, I did not realize how much pro sports mean to a city until I got to know some Cleveland natives in college. They were passionate about their city and all things connected to it (I haven’t heard so much Michael Stanley Band before or since), including the Indians and the Browns—not so much the Cavs, but remember that this was before LeBron was born. They suffered through every losing season with the familiar mantra of “wait ‘til next year.”

LeBron was a one-man, million-dollar industry in Cleveland. The giant “We Are All Witnesses” Nike ad downtown was well known, while ticket and memorabilia sales, not to mention food, drink and parking, were a bright spot for the otherwise depressed area. A franchise known for years as the “Cadavaliers” was suddenly one of the NBA’s top teams, and a city notorious for its sports losers had hope.

All that is gone now.

By any logical standards (bearing in mind that the games still have to be played), LeBron will have his title—but at what cost?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Back to back to backup

Just one year after Pittsburgh was on top of the sports world, suddenly there's nothing going on here in the wide, wide world of sports.

The Steelers didn't make the playoffs, our quarterback has been suspended for acting like an idiot, the Penguins have been eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs and the Pirates are, well, the Pirates. Right now, the biggest sports story in town is which QB is going to fill in for Ben Roethlisberger during the first four to six games of the season.

There's Dennis Dixon, who did well in one game against the Ravens last season, but is being remembered by too many for the one errant throw that cost the Steelers the game in overtime. There's Byron Leftwich, who filled in admirably for Ben in several games in 2008. Then there's Charlie Batch, the 13-year veteran and Homestead native who has been the number-two quarterback for several seasons.

The smart money is on Leftwich, as he has been working with the first team offense during the most recent spring practices. He would be a good choice, as he has had some experience with several NFL teams over the past few years and is known for being strong through adversity. Who can forget how he was carried down the field by his teammates through several series during that game at Marshall?

At the same time, it's important to give Dixon some additional experience as he enters his third NFL season, and Roethlisberger's current suspension looks like the perfect opportunity for him.

The upcoming Steelers season cannot be written off already. I've heard people saying things like "When we're 1-3 when Ben comes back..." I would not make that assumption. We have two former NFL starters in Leftwich and Batch and, in Dixon, a Heisman Trophy frontrunner before his college career-ending injury. NFL teams have been in much worse situations at QB.

Friday, April 30, 2010

A humble analysis of Kentucky Derby 136

“Space is the place.” – Sun Ra
“Pace is the race.” – R.A. Fritz

….Mine That Bird? Mine That Bird? Mine That Bird?

Oh, wait, this is 2010. That’s different. Never mind.

After I got through the five steps of accepting that the best 3-year-old of this year would not be racing in the Kentucky Derby, I watched the field take shape and couldn’t believe what was happening.

At the risk of tempting the racing gods, things were starting to look almost too easy.

A principle of pace handicappers, such as me, is that several confirmed front-runners are likely to tire each other out contending for the early lead, which sets the race up for a closer. In a race such as the Derby, though, there are often few horses that have to have the front end, so the come-from-behind wins that people love to see don’t happen too often.

This year is an exception. For some reason, there’s enough speed in this field for three Derbys, as several of the major preps were won by front-runners who were able to get an easy lead and carry it to the wire. They will not have that luxury Saturday.

Then there’s another weird phenomenon. The graded earnings requirement, which limits the field at 20, seems to have encouraged the connections of several horses to try the Derby even though most of their graded earnings have come on the turf, or as 2-year-olds who have since fallen off that early form. Just because you can enter your horse in the Derby doesn’t mean you should. (A caveat—and no, not the Belmont winner—here, though: Mine That Bird qualified for the Derby based on graded stakes earnings as a 2-year-old.)

As such, I have found it easy to eliminate two groups of horses.

The following horses either lack any foundation on a conventional dirt track, or do not have sufficient recent form to prepare them for the Derby: Stately Victor, Dean’s Kitten, Make Music For Me, Paddy O’Prado, and Homeboykris.

This group will be too busy beating each other early and figure to have nothing left for the legendary Churchill Downs stretch: Super Saver, Line Of David, American Lion, Conveyance, Discreetly Mine, and Sidney’s Candy.

The next one out is Noble’s Promise. While he’s been consistent up until the Arkansas Derby, and his running style suits the race, there’s just too much question about his condition. No horse, to my knowledge, has won the Derby three weeks after a lung infection.

I don’t see Dublin winning. I don’t care for his tendency to hang in the stretch, and his fractiousness during recent workouts is troublesome. If he thought marathon runners were too disturbing, how will he handle 100,000 drunks singing “My Old Kentucky Home” off-key?

The next horses I eliminated were Mission Impazible and Jackson Bend. I had to throw some more horses out because I don’t have the money to play them all. The speed figures on these two indicate to me they are a cut below the top group. Besides, Mission Impazible is a stupid name and I just can’t see it on a mint julep glass.

So here are the five horses that I plan to use in my Derby wagers.

5. Backtalk. My “Are You Kidding?” selection. Nobody but me likes this horse, which may be a bad sign right there. But if you draw a line through his Illinois Derby—a race where they always get in a straight line and walk to the wire—there are a few things to like. He’s the only horse in the race to have won twice at Churchill Downs and twice on off tracks (some are predicting an apocalyptic flood Saturday). Plus, he’s by Smarty Jones, who won the 2004 Derby in a swamp.

4. Awesome Act. He has a big shot here if he runs back to his Gotham Stakes. Trainer Jeremy Noseda said he lost a shoe in the Wood Memorial, and he does appear to not be going well in the race video, so that start can be thrown out. The distance should suit him too, if his late run in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf is an indication.

3. Lookin At Lucky. He’s been the most consistent of this bunch, as he was beaten only a head in seven starts prior to his awful trip in the Santa Anita Derby (not that he’d have beaten Sidney’s Candy that day anyhow). The problem here is his post. A stalker like him is likely to run into a lot of trouble from post 1, as 19 horses will be trying to get into his lane. Can’t leave him out of the gimmicks, but a win looks unlikely.

2. Devil May Care. If you like my top selection, you have to like Devil May Care, too, since she won the Bonnie Miss on the same day—in the same time—as my top pick’s last race. There’s also some racing karma at work here. Trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velasquez lost their chance with Eskendereya. It would be a perfect chance for the racing gods to repay them.

(Also—and I’m not making this up—the other night I had a dream about the Derby card where the 11 won and “Duke” was in the horse’s name. The dream was about an earlier race on the card, so bear that in mind. I looked at the entries and didn’t see a horse with “Duke” in its name on the whole card, so I figured I just ate too much Fresh Fish Basil from The Green Mango—great place if you’re in the Pittsburgh area, BTW. As I write this, it dawned on me that Devil May Care is number 11, and Duke’s nickname is the Blue Devils. And this dream was before the post draw. Read into it what you will.)

And the Oscar goes to:

1. Ice Box. It’s been years since I’ve seen a pace scenario set up as perfectly for a horse. There are six horses here who figure to be on or near the lead, and Ice Box is the only stone closer. He came from last at the top of the stretch to win the Florida Derby, and the blazing fractions—and maybe a deep, tiring track—set up a similar scenario Saturday. Expect Ice Box to come in from Terre Haute in the stretch to give Nick Zito his third Derby victory.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Here's what would be a miracle.

It's been 30 years, as we are constantly reminded, since the "miracle on ice", the US hockey team's defeat of the Soviet team in the semi-final round of the 1980 Olympics. There has been endless, exhaustive analysis of the game and for good reason-it was extraordinary that a rag tag bunch of amateur hockey players from colleges and backyard rinks across the US would ever manage to beat the well-oiled Soviet hockey machine. It happened. We all know. Lots of us even watched the movie, which was good, and those of us who live in Pittsburgh, "Hockeytahn" as we like to call it, home of Craig Patrick and sometime home of Herb Brooks, the coach of the winning team, get it even more often.

Here's the thing, though. Men's Olympic Hockey is a completely different game than it was in 1980. Professional players from top teams in the NHL primarily but also other leagues around the world are now allowed to play. The USSR no longer exists, and the Russian team, while formidable, has finished no better than silver and was out of the medals in 2006. Olympic hockey has a much more level playing field as a result. Sweden has won gold twice since 1994 and Finland has the most medals with two bronze and one silver. Canada is a perennial contender, but has only managed one gold since 1952, despite having the likes of Mario Lemeiux, Wayne Gretzky, and Sid Crosby play for the national team. (To be fair, this is pretty much Sid's first Olympics as an adult, so who knows what can happen. So far this year, he's saved Canada from the inglorious fate of being beaten by Switzerland.)

IIHF hockey is wonderful to watch. There are less fights and more scoring. The lines on the rink and the dimensions are subtly different. There are some rule differences that make the game move faster and to me at least make the game more interesting and more fair, like no-touch icing and automatic misconduct penalties for hits to the head, and no restrictions on where the goalie can play the puck. If only the IIHF had any power over the NHL.

It's a good thing to remember the glorious day that the US men's hockey team pulled off their miracle, but honestly, we're not going to learn anything from further analysis. The sport is too different. The Games are too different. Enjoy the now of seeing the Stanley Cup champions playing for three different teams, seeing Jagr back on the ice in this hemisphere, and seeing hockey in its second-purest form once every four years.

Purest form? That would be women's international hockey. Enjoy the games!

And yeah, Johnny Weir got robbed. He did.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Images of gold

Once again, we are in the midst of Olympic fever.

The Winter Olympics have a more limited audience than their summer counterpart, but they still have one of the biggest audiences of any sporting event. Few events define sports like the Olympics in either season.

Start with “Bugler’s Dream,” the song that has been used in Olympic telecasts since I can remember. Few songs are more recognizable, and none are more associated with a single event.

Then there are the events themselves. They are so varied that it’s hard to imagine there isn’t one that somebody isn’t interested in. Ever wanted to watch curling or skeleton? Here’s your chance.

And then there are the Olympic nations. While TV coverage is slanted toward the U.S. and the other countries that regularly face them, the Olympics are a great geography lesson.

The first Olympics I remember were the summer games in Munich in 1972, when I was six. My first knowledge of the Olympics came one Saturday morning in August when I was told that my cartoons weren’t on TV that day. In their place were, in the words of my mom, “all the runners and jumpers and throwers.”

But the first athlete I remember seeing that day was a swimmer who always seemed to win. His name would become immortal before the next week passed—Mark Spitz.

Over the next few days, there were not only runners, jumpers, throwers, and swimmers, but also gymnasts, boxers, wrestlers, divers, basketball players—and terrorists.

The politics of the games hadn’t quite sunk in to me yet. I had a vague idea that the U.S. was a “free” country and the Soviet Union was a communist country, but I wasn’t really sure what those things meant yet. But I was convinced that the Americans were the good guys, of course. And I had little knowledge of the situation in the Middle East that provided the backdrop for the deaths of the Israeli athletes at the Munich games. But I remember the reports on TV and I knew that some people had been killed. And I was left with a powerful image. To this day, my image of what a terrorist looks like is the picture of the ski-masked gunman standing on the Olympic village balcony.

Images are what each Olympic Games leave with us, and the Winter Olympics are no exception. The first winter games I remember were the Innsbruck games in 1976, which I associate with Franz Klammer gliding down a mountain en route to a gold medal.

The most indelible image has to be the U.S. men’s hockey team beating the Soviets in 1980. By then, I knew a lot more about the Cold War and the “us vs. them” mentality that came with every event in which the teams faced each other. I also knew that the Soviets had a huge advantage in many Olympic sports because professional athletes were not allowed in the Olympics back then. When the U.S. won that game, I knew that I was watching one of the greatest sports upsets in history.

World politics—and Olympic politics—are different now. The days of “us vs. them” are gone. When my favorite NHL team won the Stanley Cup, a Russian was named MVP—which would have been unimaginable just three decades ago.

While many things about the Olympics have changed, the images will remain, and this year’s Winter Olympics are sure to add more to our collective memories.

P.S. Jamie said that Johnny Weir got robbed.

Friday, February 5, 2010

This used to be my playground

While aimlessly Googling last week, I stumbled across a website which tells part of my life story.

It’s officially called the Daily Racing Form Historical Online Archive. It includes PDF files of all copies of Daily Racing Form since the 1890s—at least all of them that have been entered online so far.

It’s an ambitious undertaking, and I’m not surprised that most days are unaccounted for. Issues from May and June—Triple Crown season—are the first to be preserved for posterity in most years, which is not surprising, because those are the issues that historians and fans care about the most.

It’s fun to go back to Secretariat’s Belmont and relive the anticipation of the real prospect of the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. It’s eye-opening to read articles about the big races after the fact to see just how wrong the experts can be. The 1971 Derby edition shows that shocker Canonero II, while not completely dismissed, received baffled mentions as the mystery horse from Venezuela. The past performance lines from that renewal are good for a laugh, as I scoured the lines and the accompanying articles for any indication that horses such as Fourulla and Royal Leverage deserved to be in the race.

But it isn’t the famous races that I find the most fascinating. Having misspent much of my youth at Beulah Park, I’m attracted to the lines on $2,000 claimers at tracks that may or may not exist today—Narragansett Park! Lincoln Fields! Havana!—the grist of racing back when it was king.

Beulah isn’t in the current archives much because its race meets back in the day usually took place in the spring and fall (its spring meet still ends on Derby weekend), so many of my reminiscences must be experienced through other Ohio tracks (although I did find several cards from the ‘80s when Beulah was being mismanaged under the name Darby Downs).

It all comes back to me...those Sundays in the chilly air, maybe some rain, as they played the National Anthem and track announcer Jim Dolan gave the changes for the day, and I wrote down every last one of them with more zeal than I ever gave to any classes in school. I would hand two bucks to my dad to bet for me, and he would make no comment one way or the other, even if he thought my choice was ridiculous.

Then I would rush off to the paddock and study the horses intensely as if it were the Kentucky Derby. Then off to either the rail or the grandstand to see the race. I usually lost because my handicapping methods were pretty unsophisticated (“Hey, this week I’ll just go down the program until I find a horse that’s dropping in class!”). But it was my own, action-packed little world for one day a week.

And through it all was the Form. I would read it cover to cover the night before while listening to "Saturday Night Cruisin’", an oldies show on WBNS radio. Even before I set foot in a racetrack for the first time, I was familiar with the Form. There was just something about the mass of statistics that approached art.

While handicapping is far more sophisticated than this, there was something that showed me the general difference between a good horse and a bad horse at first glance. The better horses’ lines appeared cleaner, loaded with small numbers, 1s and 2s. Slow horses’ lines appeared cluttered, full of 11s, 12s, and, in later years, negative comment lines. How simple, and beautiful.

It may sound weird to discover such splendor in race horse statistics, but it’s no stranger than finding beauty in, say, Campbell’s soup cans.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Secondary is primary

A Deadhead would say “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

The Steelers’ season is over, and while many are disappointed that they didn’t get the help they needed to get into the playoffs, everybody—even the Steelers themselves—agrees that it should not have come down to needing that help.

Things started out so well, as the Steelers went 6-2 and beat Denver and Minnesota.

Then came a bad slide in the middle, with losses to Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland.

Maybe the Steelers were listening a few weeks ago when I called them the worst NFL team at that moment. After that, they won their last three games, including a stellar 500-yard performance by Ben Roethlisberger against the Packers. But it was too late, as there was just too much to overcome to make the playoffs.

Mike Tomlin has started to clean house quickly. He's fired the offensive line and special teams coaches, which were two of the weakest links on the team this season. But the most crucial area is the defensive secondary.

The secondary's weakness was exposed when Troy Polamalu was injured. We know that Polamalu is a world-class player who can put himself anywhere he needs to be on the field, but I figured that the rest of the secondary was strong enough to fill in.

The Troy-less pass defense was the weakest part of the team. In some of the most egregious losses, the Chiefs and Raiders were able to pass on the Steelers all day. One of the most embarrassing stats is the number of interceptions by cornerbacks during the season--one, by Deshea Townsend (who was not a starter) in the final game against the Dolphins.

Tomlin is already working to improve the Steelers for next year, but special emphasis should be placed on the secondary. While just about every position except quarterback (and maybe the receivers) could use some work, cornerback would be the perfect first-round draft pick.