That Just Happened

NFL: St. Louis Rams at Seattle Seahawks

The Seattle Seahawks are Super Bowl champions for the first time in franchise history.

But first, a note about Richard Sherman, anger, and the city of Seattle.

Richard Sherman stared at the camera and unleashed the rant heard ‘round the world.

It was performance art that launched a thousand “think pieces” and debates about race, thugs, class (in more ways than one), Compton, Stanford and Erin Andrews.

But what stood out to me was how angry Sherman appeared, even though the Seahawks had just won the NFC Championship Game. His anger was directed at Michael Crabtree but it meant so much more to me. I embraced his anger, his competiveness, his determination to show that he is the best. The vast majority of Seattle fans embraced Sherman as well, because our anger is just as intense and goes back decades.

***

Author’s note: It should be noted that the WNBA’s Storm have won two titles. It should also be noted that the MLS Seattle Sounders (who have not won a title) are very popular. The length of this paragraph should indicate how much I care.

There are three major professional sports leagues that most sports fans in America care about: the NFL, MLB and the NBA. That’s the focus here. There’s a fourth called the NHL if you’re from Chicago and recently became a fan because it’s cool and Patrick Sharp is so dreamy. There’s a fifth called the English Premier League if you’re the type of person who hates America.

In 1967, the NBA arrived in Seattle. The Seattle SuperSonics became the first major professional sports franchise to call Seattle home. They would enjoy pretty consistent success and popularity through the years, even winning a NBA title in 1979. The Sonics were the most stable sports franchise in Seattle, a consistent winner. They produced legendary players known around the country by their nicknames: Downtown, Slick, Mr. Sonic, The Glove, The Reign Man, Big Smooth and Aaron Morse’s Hero (Steve Scheffler).

In 2008, the NBA left Seattle and has yet to return. The cliff notes version of this sordid tale is as follows: local coffee baron betrays the people of Seattle by selling the Sonics to a shady businessman from Oklahoma City, a Triple-A town, who promises not to relocate the team, then does. Seattle politicians make no effort to prevent the move and the NBA’s commissioner helps facilitate the destruction of more than 40 years of basketball history because Key Arena is somewhat small and he’s a grade-A asshole. It’s enough material for a movie. The Seattle SuperSonics became the Oklahoma City Th$$$$$. They have yet to win a NBA title in their new city.

In 1969, MLB arrived in Seattle. The Seattle Pilots competed in the American League’s West Division.

In 1970, MLB left Seattle. A used car salesman by the name of Allan Huber “Bud” Selig stole the Pilots and moved them to Milwaukee, a city that is most known for lousy beer. The Milwaukee Brewers debuted in 1970 and have yet to win a World Series. Selig went on to become the Commissioner of Baseball and played a major role in attempting to destroy the game’s popularity in 1994.

The Pilots did achieve immortality though thanks to “Ball Four”, a book that cheerfully outlines how the major power brokers in sports don’t give a fuck about the fans or the players.

Not one, but two of the sitting league commissioners actively helped steal major professional sports franchises from the city of Seattle.

Angry yet?

Let’s talk about the Mariners. In 1977, MLB returned to Seattle under the threat of a lawsuit. The Mariners played in the Kingdome, a multi-purpose facility that stretched the boundaries of the word “ugly.” The M’s didn’t have a winning season until 1991. Of course, by the time they finally had a winning season, their owner, a reprehensible man by the name of Jeff Smulyan, was threatening to move the team to Tampa Bay, a city that is most known for absolutely nothing.

Luckily, in the short term, unluckily in the long term, the Mariners were sold to a group led by the late Hiroshi Yamauchi of Nintendo. While the new group kept the Mariners in Seattle and had a run of success from 1993-2003, the last decade has been an embarrassment of historic proportions. The 2008 Seattle Mariners managed to become the first team in MLB history to have a payroll of one-hundred million dollars and lose 100 games. Even during their run of success, the Mariners embarrassed themselves by setting the AL record for most wins in a season (116 in 2001) and then failing to get past the ALCS as they lost to the Yankees in five.

The Mariners and the Washington Nationals are the only two current MLB teams that have never participated in the World Series. It should be noted that the Mariners had Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Ichiro and an allegedly roided up Bret Boone in their primes…and never made it past the ALCS during their run of relative success. Damn Indians. Damn Yankees. Damn Orioles (oh, yes, I remember 1997).

At least the Mariners play in a beautiful ballpark that the public voted against, you guys. Also, Robinson Cano.

***

This brings us to the Seahawks and Richard Sherman.

In 1976, the NFL arrived in Seattle. The original Seahawks were terrible but they had the wildly entertaining Jim Zorn and future Hall-of-Famer Steve Largent, so they are remembered fondly. They were lovable losers, like the Cubs, but with some talent.

During the Chuck Knox era, the Seahawks made their presence felt, especially in 1983 and 1984 as they made the AFC Championship Game for the first time in ’83 and went 12-4 in 1984, beating their hated rival the Raiders in the playoffs before falling to the Dolphins.

The win over the Raiders would be their last playoff win until 21 years later.

The Seahawks have their own ugly history, nearly moving to Los Angeles in 1996. Ken Behring, the team’s owner, claimed a fear of earthquakes made him want to move the team from Seattle to LA, a city most known for, well, really big earthquakes. I wish I was making this up. He even managed to move the team’s operations to Anaheim before he was stopped at the last minute and Paul Allen bought the team, saving football in Seattle.

In 2005, 21 years after the ’84 season, the Seahawks finally made the Super Bowl.

Then this happened.

And for anyone who thinks the Seahawks and their fans have no right to complain, there’s this.

Seattle fans have suffered a lot through the years on the field. But off the field, the lack of respect nationally has been very noticeable. Seattle is isolated, up in the great northwest, so out-of-towners love to stereotype Seattleites as mild mannered coffee drinkers who live in a city that has lots of rain. Being on the west coast means all of Seattle’s home games in baseball start late, too late for the east coast to care.

The mild mannered stereotype is what the 12th Man and the Legion of Boom have worked so hard to dispel. Obviously, Sherman is not from Seattle, as we all know, he hails from Compton. It just seems like all-too-often, outsiders think they can push Seattle around. Starting with Bud Selig, continuing on to David Stern and Clay Bennett, to David Justice (two homers off Arthur Rhodes in 2000 ALCS) and Roger Clemens (brushed back pretty boy A-Rod in 2000) and Hines Ward (dirtiest player of all-time), these villains have waltzed in and made a mockery of what we Seattle sports fans love most dearly.

Well fuck them. That time is over. As embodied by Richard Sherman’s rant, a new era has risen in Seattle sports. We are no longer your punching bag. We’re the ones doing the punching. We’ll fight to the death to get our NBA team back. We’re taking the Yankees’ star player, not vice versa. We are the Super Bowl champions.

I repeat, WE are the Super Bowl champions. The 12th Man is real, it’s not because of acoustics. Just ask Peyton Manning. No one could hear him calling out the signals on the snap that went over his head for the safety in the Super Bowl, at a supposedly neutral stadium across the country. The 12th man travels. It’s because of the passion, the hidden anger that has built up in fans through years of injustices perpetrated by cold hearted capitalists and evil connivers who think they can come into our house and push us around. Don’t you ever disrespect us again. You know what you’re going to get.

LOB.

***

I decided to fly to Seattle to watch the Super Bowl with my friends. This game meant that much to me. My flight was slightly delayed. It was only a few minutes, really. But I found it very interesting that I landed in Seattle at exactly 12:12. Also, baggage claim for my flight was at carousel 12.

12’s were everywhere, on buildings, in ice cream shops, on tree stumps by Green Lake. An airplane even traced a giant 12 above the state of Washington. Laughably, some (49ers fans and other ignoramuses) have accused Seahawks’ fans of being bandwagon fans. Remember that part about people having no clue what goes on in Seattle? I give you: exhibit A. Seahawks fans have been creating the 12th man atmosphere at home games for years, but it took a second Super Bowl appearance for anyone to notice.

Very few people outside of the Pacific Northwest wanted the Seahawks to win on Sunday. The Seahawks were the villains. Marshawn Lynch didn’t talk enough. Richard Sherman talked too much. Russell Wilson wasn’t Peyton Manning. Pete Carroll is an evil robber baron. It rains. (Less than New York City, but…narrative!) Macklemore didn’t deserve those Grammys.

Whatever the case may be, it was very fun for me to root for the “bad” guys. For once, it was a team from Seattle that people around the country were actively rooting against. This is a big step up from “not caring.”

And then the Seahawks dominated the Broncos from start to finish. I almost felt bad for Peyton Manning until I remembered that when he was looking for a new team he refused to talk to the Seahawks. Another slight. Another little jab at Seattle sports.

I don’t really blame Manning for that, for years big-time players haven’t had any desire to play in Seattle because of the fact it’s isolated in the northwest. But now, thanks to the Legion of Boom and the first Super Bowl victory in franchise history, that is changing. Who wouldn’t want to play with this level of talent and swagger?

Before Sunday, our only prior major professional sports title was literally stolen from the 206, along with a franchise. None of my friends and I were alive to witness that title. We were alive to witness the hijacking. The younger generation had no idea what it’s like to celebrate a championship.

They do now.

After the game I was just in a state of elation. I really didn’t have a desire to take to the streets and celebrate politely or not-so-politely. That anger that had been accumulating for years was gone, swept away by the championship. I just wanted to sit down and soak it all in. There is still work to be done. The NBA must return. The Mariners must win a World Series. But the first step has been taken towards healing years of frustration, and it’s a big one.

I brought my friend to Seattle for her birthday. She has no connection to the city, had never been here before. But she too got caught up in the passion of the 12th man. She is a Bears fan so she is passionate about football but she had never witnessed anything like this. We took a redeye back to Chicago that night after the game. We sat down in our respective seats, exhausted. I looked up at the overhead bin and noticed what row we’d been assigned.

It was row 12.

Why Pat Fitzgerald will never leave Northwestern for another school

Image

I am tired.

One of the favorite pastimes of reporters and fans is speculating every fall when Northwestern has success that their young head coach Pat Fitzgerald will one day leave Northwestern for a bigger program. First it was Notre Dame until everyone realized that Fitz hates Notre Dame. Then it was Michigan until we learned that Fitz actually rejected Michigan’s attempt to interview him. Thankfully, Iowa was never mentioned by anyone.

Now, it’s Texas and USC. In a seemingly perfectly timed column (Texas and USC both suffered embarrassing losses last Saturday), Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune argues that these two programs are the most likely destinations for Fitz to head to if Texas blows him away with a big salary offer or if he decides to head west to hang with his buddy Pat Haden at USC.

I have been very snarky about this on Twitter all day, which earned me a couple of pointed direct messages and an unfollow from Greenstein.

Okay, fine. Maybe I deserved that. I don’t report on Northwestern anymore and my current job is a credit repair salesman. There is no reason for Greenstein to follow me anymore.

But I did report on Northwestern. For five years, I covered Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats for WNUR Sports (radio) and NNN Sports (TV) when I was a student at NU. I went to every practice that was open to the media and every Monday press conference. For five years, I watched Fitzgerald and the Wildcats grow and set the groundwork for what we see now. I even reported for the Pat Fitzgerald Show during its first season. Fitz and I didn’t see eye-to-eye a lot, but we had a productive working relationship.

I often feel a special connection to that time because my freshman year was 2006, the same year Fitz became NU’s head coach. People know that I am a HUGE Northwestern fan and can be quite emotional about the ‘Cats, which is correct. But when I was a student reporter I took pride in separating my fandom from my reporting. Now, I no longer report so I am free to be an irrational, crazy fan, which is really fun.

But let’s put the reporting hat back on for a second.

Fitzgerald is a fascinating person. College football is filled with a lot of people who talk the talk about academics and loyalty, but don’t walk the walk. I am not here to make moral judgments. I am rather dispassionate about the “right way to win” or whatever you want to call it. College sports is a circus. But as an observer, I can tell you that Pat Fitzgerald practices what he preaches, to a sometimes extreme level. 

Greenstein has a theory that Texas and USC are the most likely destinations for Fitz to head to and his primary source is “an associate of Fitzgerald’s” who agrees with him on those two points. But Texas and USC are REALLY random choices and it’s quite a coincidence that the associate agreed on those exact destinations. My theory (I am allowed to have theories too) is that Teddy asked the associate “would Texas and USC make sense as a destination for Fitzgerald?” and the associate said “yes.” Because, of course, on the surface, those programs are amazing. However I suspect if Teddy had asked about Alabama and Stanford he would have gotten the exact same answer. I respect Teddy and his reporting but this is a rather strange article.

The argument for Texas centers around recruiting and money. There is no doubt that Texas is probably the best school in the country to recruit from and they have tons of money (Longhorn Network). That’s not really an argument for Pat Fitzgerald to coach at Texas. That’s an argument for ANY coach to coach at Texas. Sure, NU recruits in Texas a lot, but what major program doesn’t? They could throw cash at any coach in America and I wouldn’t blame that coach for taking the offer.

Except Pat Fitzgerald would not take that offer.

That sounds insane. What coach would turn down a potential salary of more than six million dollars and the chance to get most of your recruits from the most talent rich state in the nation? 

I’ll tell you who. Fitzgerald is, as his father is quoted as saying in the Greenstein article, definitely his own man. In fact, he’s one of the most unique people I have ever met. 

He once refused to speak to a student reporter because the reporter was wearing a Syracuse hat (Syracuse was not on the schedule that year). He once did a mic check on the Pat Fitzgerald Show by listing off all the schools he hated (Notre Dame, Stanford, etc). He even mixed in a seemingly random high school. I asked him why he hated that school and he said “we could never beat them when I played in high school.” Do you guys really think he would coach at USC, the school that beat NU in the 1996 Rose Bowl?! Not a chance.

Fitzgerald holds grudges like no one else in America (a fact that I find endlessly amusing and fun by the way, nothing beats a good grudge). He probably still doesn’t like me because a freshman running back said on camera that Fitz hated Iowa (he broke his leg against them in 1995, among, many, many other very justifiable reasons) and I immediately posted it to the NNN website. That’s okay Fitz, I like you. Can we be Facebook friends again? 

The reason why he holds these grudges is I think very calculated and smart. He treats this job at Northwestern as NU vs. the rest of the FBS (and whatever FCS schools are on the schedule, sorry, Maine). If you’re not with the NU Football Family, you are against it.

When you’re the underdog, that’s the only way to go about it. Bill Simmons always talks about the “nobody believes in us theory!” of sports. This is a theory Fitz lives by. His quest to get Northwestern respect will not cease, not even when Northwestern wins the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1949. He’s not some mercenary head coach like Nick Saban (who is great at what he does, but not loyal, which is fine). Fitzgerald’s blood might literally be purple. He always talks about being a zero star recruit. His whole LIFE has been as someone who is motivated by disrespect.

That makes Northwestern the perfect fit for him and vice versa. Because Northwestern NEVER gets any respect. Heck, they were in the top 25 this week but were not featured on SportsCenter despite dominating another BCS team in Syracuse. No highlights were shown that night. None. During College Football Final, they showed maybe two highlights and both analysts literally said nothing (Lou Holtz apparently also holds grudges, sorry ’bout it). Any time they do get coverage, it’s some stupid “Revenge of the Nerds” article we see trotted out every year as often as the job rumors. 

Fitz is fiercely loyal to his players and expects the same in return. As people who follow the program know, he will never drop a scholarship offer because of injury, he will drop a scholarship offer if you have verbally committed to NU and visit another school. 

Northwestern is Pat Fitzgerald. Pat Fitzgerald is Northwestern. He was born and raised in Chicagoland. He has raised his family here. Back in high school, yeah, he wanted to go to Notre Dame, but they didn’t show him enough respect, so he chose Northwestern and has never looked back. 

There is one scenario where Pat Fitzgerald could leave. That’s if NU hires a new president and athletic director who decide that athletics are a waste of time. That’s not happening. Morty and Jim Phillips are also going to be here for awhile. Their replacements won’t be dumb enough to alienate thousands of NU alumni by ignoring athletics. Cash is king afterall, as Greenstein points out in his article. The 1970′s and ’80s are over.

Pat Fitzgerald was here as a player when the miracle 1995 turnaround happened. He took over the program under tragic circumstances after Randy Walker died. Fitz was here for the beginning of a new era in NU football, he’s going to be there to see it to its logical conclusion: a national title. (For people who think this is ridiculous, Fitz will gladly remind you that the 1995 team was ranked #3 in the nation). He’s not Gary Barnett, who for all the good he did, was always looking for greener pastures. He is Pat Fitzgerald, the most unique, determined, loyal person I have ever met. Fitzgerald is a true believer in the Wildcat Way.

And he’ll be a Wildcat for life. So please, everyone, let’s not bring this up ever again. I am so, very, very, tired.

Good night and Go ‘Cats.

 

A win for every generation of Northwestern football fans

Basking in the victory. (I'm on the right.)

Basking in the victory. (I’m on the right.)

I wandered around Jacksonville’s EverBank Field after Northwestern’s spectacular 34-20 victory over the Mississippi State Bulldogs on New Year’s Day 2013.

I was waiting to meet my student media friends who were inside getting postgame quotes but I was also thinking about what this Gator Bowl win means to Northwestern fans.

It’s easy to say: “Northwestern earned their first bowl victory since 1949!” That’s great. It’s very good that the media won’t talk about that year anymore. It’s also pretty cool that NU won their first bowl game in 64 years on the same date they won their previous one.

But that sentence doesn’t even begin to capture the feelings of fans that have lived and died with every play of every game for the decades of frustration that have occurred since the 1949 Rose Bowl win.

A middle aged man sat in front of me at the game. He was freaking out about the play clock, the play calling, everything. I’m passionate but I don’t go crazy over really small plays in a 60-minute game.

At first I thought he was being irrational. But he wasn’t. Unprompted he turned around to me in the third quarter and said “I’ve been following this shit since 1970. I can’t take any more of this.”

I’ve been following this team for seven years. He’s been following this team for 43 years.

43 years. 0 bowl wins. Until now.

43 years. It started out well. The first two seasons (1970 and 1971) were winning campaigns!

Then they didn’t have another one until the miracle 1995 Rose Bowl year.

43 years. He witnessed the longest losing streak in D1 football history. He witnessed Northwestern winning a total of three games from 1976-1981. He witnessed some of the most inept football at the major college level one can imagine.

Bowl losses are frustrating. The Alamo Bowl was awful. The Outback Bowl was spectacularly awful. The Ticket City Bowl and the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas were both miserable.

But not even having a prayer of a bowl is much worse. It’s a feeling of hopelessness I can’t even imagine. I’m too young. This guy has been following Northwestern for 18 more years than I’ve been alive. It takes a hell of a fan to stick with that many years of futility.

Hell, I’ve lost almost all patience with the Mariners and it’s only been a decade of misery. This guy had gone through so much more.

For non-sports fans, imagine your greatest passion. Perhaps it’s reading. What if you read nothing but lousy books for 43 years? No matter what book you picked up, every time it ended up ranging from lousy to terrible. Even worse, the books were thoroughly depressing every time. And of course for other fans, it wasn’t 43. It might have been 50. It might have even been 64.

Would you keep reading? Or would you find another hobby?

Well fans who have stuck with the story of the Northwestern Wildcats were rewarded Tuesday.

Wikipedia pages rarely produce emotions unless they’ve been tampered with by someone. But the bottom of this chart is one of the most satisfying things I’ve seen in a long time.  Maybe it’s the bold font of the word “won” after all those years of blank spaces and losses.

Pat Fitzgerald was crying tears of joy after the game. His postgame speech to Wildcat nation was inspiring.

“We talk to our guys all the time: ‘act like you’ve been there before,’” Fitzgerald said. “Well, we’ve never been here before! But as David Nwabuisi just said, ‘we’re here now and we’re here to stay!’”

He went on to thank all the fans for their support through the years.

The man in front of me was in tears too. He was also speechless. The man who’d been yelling the whole game was at a loss for words. As the old cliché goes, there weren’t too many dry eyes in the place.

People laugh at bowl games a lot. They say the games are meaningless exhibitions. I guess that depends on your definition of meaningless.

For long-time Northwestern fans, this win means everything. I know how much it means to me and I’m only 25.

There’s more to accomplish of course. Fitz isn’t satisfied. Neither are Northwestern fans.

This story is just beginning.

My Day as a Professional Baseball Player

 

It is my belief that most professional baseball announcers wish they could be professional baseball players. Maybe that’s because I wish I could be a professional baseball player.

Growing up in Seattle, WA, I dreamed of starring for the Seattle Mariners. Around age 11, I realized this was not going to happen. I was placed in “minors” in Little League for the second straight year. If you can’t make the “majors” in Little League, you’re probably not making the Majors with a capital M.

It was at this point I started thinking about the movie “The Sandlot.” This film came out the year I was in Kindergarten and remains one of my favorite movies to this day. Scott Smalls, the narrator, was lousy at baseball, so eventually he became an announcer. Now I was much better than Smalls (and for crying out loud I’ve always known about The Great Bambino) but the general idea was very appealing. So after my second straight Little League rejection, I set my sights on one day making it to the broadcast booth. I’d already been broadcasting pretend baseball games in my driveway since I was three, so this wasn’t a radical change of direction in my life plans.

The idea…

Fast-forward to 2012 and I’m the voice of the Joliet Slammers professional baseball team. It’s not the Majors yet, but I’m being paid to broadcast professional baseball games at the age of 24, so that’s a plus.

Our VP of Baseball Operations, Ron Biga, had an idea a few months ago. How about I participate in Spring Training with the team and write about the experience? I hadn’t played organized baseball in six years but I can throw and catch the ball well enough. “So,” I thought, “why not? Let’s do this!”

My plan was to use the off-season to get in shape. This didn’t happen. See, the off-season in professional baseball is actually more stressful than the season. During the season I get to broadcast baseball. During the off-season, my hours are more normal but I spend the entire time trying to find corporate sponsors.

No one has ever gotten in playing shape while cold calling. By the time I got home, I’d be tired from work and I’d go to sleep. Working out just didn’t happen.

(Alternative explanation for not working out: I’m lazy and there’s just too much college football and basketball to watch while sitting in an incredibly comfortable recliner.)

So I was the same chubby kid I’ve been since the sixth grade when I stepped on the field in early May for the first day of Spring Training. Before we went out there, I was privy to 2011 Frontier League Manager of the Year Bart Zeller’s pre-season welcome speech to the 2012 Slammers.

One of the key components of the speech was “what happens in the locker room, stays in the locker room,” so sorry, I’m not going to reveal what was said. However, I can tell you that Zeller emphasized to the entire team that a key component of them sticking around was that they must be model citizens in the community.

“Good,” I thought to myself. “The most trouble I’ve ever gotten in with the law is a speeding ticket on Jefferson Street.”

I was introduced to the team and the coaching staff explained that I’d be working out with them for a few days. I’d put on the catchers gear and caught our star relief pitcher Brian Smith the other day with our best hitter Erik Lis at the plate so they knew I wasn’t a complete clown on the baseball field.

I eagerly jogged out to the field to get my first day as a professional baseball player started. I’d bought cleats, baseball socks and other necessary gear the day before at a used sporting goods store, so I was ready.

A player who will remain nameless pulled out a can of dip (chewing tobacco) when I got to the field and offered it to me: “hey, you want to make this official?”

I laughed.

“No way,” I said. I’ve seen “The Sandlot”, remember?

The workout…

I should have taken the fact I was exhausted after the warm-ups were over as a hint. Running back and forth, frontwards, backwards, sideways, upside down (okay, not upside down) takes a lot out of a man. Bart started yelling at me during the stretches because apparently I wasn’t doing them correctly. Now, I don’t have many muscles to stretch, but I digress. Stretching was never something I paid much attention to since I’d never gotten hurt playing a sport. This is probably due to the fact I don’t move quickly enough to get hurt.

I was still winded as I began playing catch with Kyle Maunus. This is one area of baseball where I thrive. If you need a guy to play catch at the highest level, I’m your man. So no one yelled at me that I wasn’t throwing or catching the ball properly.

Next up on the first day of practice was good old infield and outfield work. I joined Lis and Maunus over at first base. I started playing first base at the age of 12 because (a) I couldn’t move very quickly and (b) there is no other reason.

Once again, I held my own. Professional baseball players throw the ball a lot harder to first than my buddies did back in high school, but at the same time they are a lot more accurate. I think only one throw went over my head which is impressive considering I am 5”10” with spikes. By comparison, Maunus is 6’4’’.

Bart doesn’t know this but I nearly took off his head on a throw home once during infield/outfield. Luckily one of the catchers saved him from being hit and thus he is still our manager today. Nonetheless, infield practice went very well for me. This is where I can hang with pros.

This entire time I am sure the players were watching me with bemusement but frankly I didn’t notice. When I get involved with a sport, I may not be very good at it, but it consumes my focus. In Little League, I was not the kid picking dandelions in the outfield. I was the kid who screamed angrily at that kid for picking dandelions or for making an error. My competitiveness has always outweighed my talent by an unhealthy margin. (Seriously, watch me bowl some time, it’s not pretty).

After infield/outfield, it was time for batting practice! I love batting practice. Batting practice is usually the one time I can pretend I’m a good hitter. A 90 mph fastball (heck an 80 mph fastball) is insanely hard for me to hit and I’m helpless against any sort of junk. But in BP, it’s straight, down the middle, with no movement.

The day was not a cold one. It had started overcast but by the time BP rolled around it was over 80 degrees out on the field. So my second wind after I felt tired from the warm-ups was almost over.

I was in group three so for the first two rounds I shagged balls in the outfield and watched one of our pitchers nearly pull a Mariano Rivera at the right field wall. One of the players asked me what I do in the off-season. I explained cold calling. He lost interest.

Finally, it was time to hit. Hitting is something I can actually be fairly effective at if given a few weeks to get my swing going. Unfortunately, this was one day and I was already tired. I stepped in to the batter’s box and a lot of grounders to short followed. Words that will never be heard on the radio were said by me as I grew increasingly frustrated.

Nonetheless, after it was over, relief pitcher Chuck Lukanen told me he was impressed with my hitting and fielding. That made my day. Holding my own with the pros was the entire goal of this exercise.

The end…

I’d stop reading if you have a queasy stomach. The next part of practice was what I like to call torture. Others call it conditioning.

Conditioning started with something known as an “Indian Run.” Is this politically correct? I’m not sure. But that’s what it’s called. The entire team gets in a line and jogs around the field. The person in the back of the line has to sprint to the front. This goes on and on until the coaching staff decides the cruel and unusual punishment, I mean, exercise, can end.

It was hot.

I was tired.

I can’t run to save my life when I’m not tired.

“Yeah, this isn’t ending well,” I thought to myself as I sprinted to the front of the line. Hector Pellot told me they’d probably be doing this for 40 minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever been more terrified.

Near the end of the first lap, both my legs started cramping up at once.  Have you ever had both your legs cramp up at once? The pain is comparable to a thousand paper cuts at once.

I persevered and once we got to center field it was my turn to sprint to the front of the line again.

“Still want to be a professional baseball player?” pitcher Geoff Brown asked me as I stumbled by.

“No!” I yelled back.

I finally got to the front of the line but as we made the turn towards home I begin to not only have cramps in my legs but…well…my throat and stomach started to feel a little weird.

Pellot finally lost patience with me and passed me to go down the home stretch.

At that point, let’s just say I left it all on the field.

The aftermath…

I sat at my desk pondering how I could survive day two when our team president Bill Waliewski called me into his office along with VP of Baseball Operations Ron Biga.

“Son,” Waliewski said with a straight face. “This is the hardest decision a team president has to make, but we’re going to have to let you go.”

“Oh come on!” I protested. “Couldn’t you have at least traded me to the Pecos League?”

“Sorry kid, for your own safety, this is it,” Ron responded.

My day as a professional baseball player was over. I was the first casualty of Spring Training.

You’re killin’ me Smalls.

 

When worlds collide

My buddy Lars (left) and I at Alaska Airlines Arena, home of the Washington Huskies.

More than 2000 miles separate Seattle and Chicago.

I made the flight last Thursday for a NIT game. As my dad told me, “You are probably the only person in the country who is doing this.”

Well, I wasn’t the only person, but I may have been the only one not affiliated with the Northwestern Athletic Department.

Washington vs. Northwestern in the second round of the NIT was more than just a basketball game. It was my two worlds colliding. The schools have squared off in recent years before, in softball, in golf, but not in football or basketball.

This would be the first game of men’s hoops between the two schools in my lifetime.

I grew up in Seattle as a Washington Huskies fan. Granted, professional sports carried a bigger weight but UW football and men’s basketball meant a lot to me. I still remember the devastation of Richard Hamilton’s improbable fade-away shot to beat UW at the buzzer in the NCAA Tournament like it was yesterday. Rooting for UW basketball generally ends in pain. The farthest they’ve gotten in the NCAA Tournament in my lifetime is the Sweet 16.

Of course being a Huskies fan pales in comparison to rooting for Northwestern basketball. Northwestern has never made the NCAA Tournament in my lifetime. In fact, they’ve never made the NCAA Tournament, period. NU is the only team in one of the “power six” conferences to have failed to go dancing.

So the NIT has been as good as it gets for the Wildcats. This marked the fourth straight season they’ve made the NIT. Last year they made it to the round of eight before falling at Washington State in OT to the Cougars.

That game between the ‘Cats and the team I loved to hate growing up: the Cougars, was exciting enough. But this year’s NIT battle raised the bar.

Being a passionate Northwestern fan is beyond infuriating. The lack of bowl wins and NCAA Tournament appearances is one thing; I could deal with that alone. However, it’s the national perception that really gets at me. Because we’re a so-called “smart school” our fans and athletes don’t get the respect other schools’ fans and athletes get within the world of sports. Our fans are viewed as less passionate and our athletes are dismissed as curiosities. We perpetuate these myths ourselves because every now and then an idiot freshman Daily Northwestern columnist will advocate us moving to the MAC or something absurd like that. Never mind that NU football has won the fourth most Big Ten titles since 1995.

But I digress. Respect is something I crave and NU athletics gets none. (“At least you have women’s lacrosse” is a taunt I often hear.) This is especially the case when it comes to my friends from high school. Most of them went to the University of Washington and they think very highly of their Dawgs, as they should. However it often comes at the expense of my Wildcats. I always hear from them how much NU sucks. They do it mostly to bother me and it does, a lot. All I ever want is for the teams I root for to become champions and all the teams I root for do to me is laugh in my face as they find new and increasingly devastating ways to disappoint me. (The 2001 Seattle Mariners remain the most egregious offenders of leading me on to think I’ll actually see a title in my life). With Northwestern my expectations are lower for now, all I want them to do is win a bowl game or make the NCAA Tournament, but sadly the last time they won a bowl was during the Truman Administration and the last time they made the NCAA Tournament was in a dream I had the other night.

It’s hard to compare athletic programs without teams actually playing each other regularly so it’s been a Cold War between my friends from Seattle and I over the years.

Washington football has been terrible in recent seasons. They’ve won a total of 27 games since 2006, the year my friends and I started college. Meanwhile, NU has won 40 games since 2006. Neither win total is impressive, but at least I have bragging rights in that category.

In basketball, there are no bragging rights for me. The UW men’s team has been consistently at the top of their (increasingly lousy) conference and NU men’s hoops has been consistently around eighth or ninth place in the Big Ten.

So this second round NIT game between the two schools meant more to me than any NIT game will mean in the foreseeable future. It was finally a chance for the two schools to do battle in one of the two major collegiate sports.

Around 200 members of the Northwestern Alumni Club of Seattle went to the game. The Executive Editor of the Seattle Times wrote a column about how he would be rooting for his Wildcats over the Huskies. So there was quite a bit of excitement among NU alums in the area.

There was no such excitement coming from the UW team or their fans. In fact I’m not sure the friends I went to the game with would have gone if I hadn’t come back to town. Making the NIT this year was especially annoying for Washington because they’d won the regular season title in the PAC 12.

My buddy Lars got us tickets near the NU bench right by the “Dawg Pack” which is the UW student section. I had obtained a sign that read simply “Go Cats” from the Alumni Association before the game. Lars decided that it’d be more fun if we stood in the Dawg Pack than sit in our assigned seats. (This is a traditional of ours, whenever we go to sporting events we always sit somewhere else besides our ticketed seats. For example, we’ve sat in the front row on the infield of the lower deck at Mariners’ games many a time over the years.)

I started waving my “Go Cats” sign around near the start of the game and an usher came up to me and told me that only UW students were allowed in the Dawg Pack. I would have to leave. By leave he meant literally step across the aisle and sit in my ticketed seat. There had apparently been some fights between opposing teams’ fans and the students in the Dawg Pack over the years so they’d cracked down on outsiders like me. I negotiated with the usher and explained to him the situation: that I was here with friends, not to make trouble. He finally let me stay as long as I put my “Go Cats” sign down since in his words: “at least you are wearing purple.”

My two purple worlds collided and only UW’s world remained intact. After a slow start they blitzed Northwestern with their superior athleticism. There were some monster dunks, blocks and fancy dribbling that basically humiliated the poor Wildcats. John Shurna, NU’s all-time leading scorer, was really the only NU player who truly showed up as he poured in 24 points in his final collegiate game.

The details of the 76-55 defeat are hardly worth mentioning though. This game got to the heart of what I love about sports. The deeply rooted nature of fandom is hard to explain to someone who doesn’t follow sports but it’s a passion that goes nearly unmatched in our lives. Here I was, more than 2000 miles from where I normally watch my beloved Wildcats play basketball, yet I was also home.

Seattle is where I spent my entire childhood. It’s where I developed my love of sports and maybe one day I’ll return permanently. But for now, I simply can’t return that often. In order to achieve my goal of becoming a major league baseball announcer, I must go where there’s a job to be had. Luckily one of the first stops on my journey happens to be only an hour and a half from Northwestern. I feel a strong connection to both the city where I grew up and the school where I learned so much. In Seattle I would broadcast make-believe games in my driveway. At Northwestern I refined my broadcasting ability by calling actual sporting events thanks to the great student radio station: WNUR. Broadcasting NU sports and getting to know the athletes who play them gave me a deeper understanding of collegiate athletics and made me care about every game that much more.

I have friends in Seattle who don’t get why I love Northwestern so much. I have friends from Northwestern who don’t get why I love Seattle so much. Then I have friends and colleagues in Joliet who don’t get why I like Seattle or Northwestern so much.

It’s a bizarre combination of fandom that doesn’t often result in actually winning a whole lot. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Because I know in my heart that one day Northwestern will get that bowl win and that appearance in the Big Dance. I know one day the Mariners will win the World Series and the Seahawks will win the Super Bowl. I know one day the Sonics will return.

I know…or maybe I hope…these things will happen while I am still on this earth. I’m only 24 but the losses continue to pile up.

There’s still a lot of time for both my worlds to finally be happy. And when these things do happen, no one will be happier than me.

An atheist’s case for Tim Tebow

Logically there is no reason why I should like Tim Tebow.

In fact, there is no reason why a lot of us should like Tim Tebow. I know Tim Tebow’s brand of Christianity very well. It’s not an easy one to digest when you know the facts. Tim Tebow’s brand of Christianity holds that if you do not accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior…you are going to hell. That’s right, even though Tim Tebow has never met me, he thinks I’m damned for eternity unless I accept Jesus Christ died for all of our sins.

That’s a rather radical perspective, isn’t it? No matter what kind of life I lead, it’s not good enough according to Tebow’s brand of Christianity. Tebow does a good job dressing up his religion but facts are facts. Tebow believes the Bible is the literal word of God. And as anyone who has read the Bible can attest, the literal word of God is not particularly pleasant.

Furthermore, I’m an atheist. It is my opinion that man created God, not vice versa. I’m a fan of Bill Maher, George Carlin, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and the many others throughout history who stepped up and said “religion is bullshit.”

But God help me I love Tim Tebow.

Perhaps some background information is in order. I spent the summer of 2007 in Fairbanks, Alaska with a baseball team called the Athletes in Action Fire. This is where I was introduced to Tim Tebow’s brand of Christianity. I spent the summer broadcasting their games and traveling with them throughout Alaska. At that time I was rather ignorant of the power Christianity had on people’s lives. Growing up in Seattle I had assumed fundamentalist religion in America was a thing of the past. Yes, some people went to church, but it was more a tradition than any actual belief in a higher power. I had known a few religious people, but they did not subscribe to this brand of Christianity, not even close. Politicians talked about their religious beliefs, but they were politicians, the best bet there was not to believe a word that came from their mouths.

Basically, religious fundamentalism was not something I experienced growing up, so it was not something I really comprehended as a reality in America.

Needless to say the summer of 2007 was a rather eye-opening experience for me.

These guys were the real deal. They also couldn’t have been nicer human beings. I think a few of them were thrilled to have an atheist in their mix to challenge their beliefs. And challenge them I did. I remember one particular discussion about dinosaurs. It’s a tenant of Tebow’s brand of Christianity that the earth was created in six literal days. Not metaphorical days. Literal, 24-hour days. Naturally this brings up the rather problematic issue of dinosaurs and well the entire fossil record. It’s been a few years now but I’ll never forget one of the guys coming up to me after the debate and saying in a quiet voice “hey man, I really think you were making a lot of sense in there.” I wish he’d came to my defense during the debate (30 against one is not easy), but I appreciate the sentiment.

To make a long story short, I couldn’t have had a better time with the AIA Fire. Their mission was to spread the word of Jesus Christ through baseball and that is Tebow’s mission when it comes to football.

And guess what? That’s fine by me.

Would I want some of the friends I made with the AIA Fire running our country? No. But in the context of sports, their religion, no matter how fanatical it may seem to me, is frankly, irrelevant.

What made that group special and what makes Tim Tebow special is that they kept prevailing despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

The Fire were a regular bottom dweller in the league before I arrived in 2007. It’s hard enough to recruit good talent to Fairbanks but when that talent has to be fundamentalist Christian to boot, it’s even harder. The other teams had an almost unlimited talent pool to choose from, not so much the Fire.

But they did it. Of all the players on that team only one that I know of (Kirk Nieuwenhuis) is still in affiliated baseball. A few others got drafted late but didn’t stick. Some of the team’s very best players in my opinion didn’t get drafted at all. They were going up against five other teams who had a number of future high draft picks and yet in the end, it was the Fire who won the title.

How did they do it? I don’t know. It had nothing to do with any higher power but was still one of the most thrilling summers of my life. Two years later I went back and called games for the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks. The Goldpanners ended up having nearly three times as many players drafted as the Fire but finished in the middle of the pack that season in the league.

The Fire were not the most talented team and Tim Tebow is not the most talented quarterback.

But they both embody what I absolutely love about sports. On Sunday Tebow went up against the vaunted defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers finished the season as the AFC’s number one defense. They were loaded with playoff experience and some fearsome talent on both sides of the ball.

Tim Tebow entered the game having completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes on the season. Naturally he carved up the Steel Curtain for 316 yards through the air and three total touchdowns.

All of this defies logic, just like Tebow’s religion.

It’s one of my (perhaps illogical) beliefs that in order to be the best at what you do, you must have more passion than anyone else. I chose baseball broadcasting as my career because I care more about calling baseball than I do anything else. I’m not a natural. I talk too fast at times and my voice isn’t exactly going to make people think of Vin Scully. But I’ll be damned if I let anyone else outwork me at pursuing my dream of becoming a major league baseball announcer.

When I see Tim Tebow screaming “LET’S GO” on the sideline like a madman, it inspires me. His inspiration for his passion may be a belief in a God I don’t believe in, but his passion is genuine. We live in a world of millionaire athletes who certainly want to win, but there are a few special ones who stand out for wanting it more. Their reasons may vary but the results are often the same. Michael Jordan wanted it more because he had an insatiable desire to prove every doubter wrong. Ichiro displayed more passion for winning the World Baseball Classic than he does the average MLB game because his country’s honor was on the line. These guys became the best at what they did through athletic ability AND a passion that was unmatched by their peers.

Being a highly skilled player simply isn’t enough. Tim Tebow has plenty of athletic ability but minimal throwing ability. Do I think he can succeed long-term thanks to his determination to be the best quarterback in the game? I don’t know. He will never be the best in the game but I do think there’s a chance he could develop in to a very solid starting quarterback. I know he’ll continue to outwork his peers.

Every time Tebow wins, it’s not a sign from God. But it is a sign that a fanatical dedication to success can outweigh talent. No one can teach what Tebow has and no one can explain it with statistics.

I asked my friends on Facebook and my followers on Twitter to weigh in why they did or did not like Tebow. The most negative responses related to him “throwing his religion in our faces” which is ironic considering Tebow’s throwing accuracy. (I couldn’t resist.) Look, I think all religious views are silly, it’s just a matter of degree. Tebow’s open displays of his religion don’t bother me because I just see it as part of the show. Sports are entertainment and what’s a better story line than a fundamentalist Christian QB who can’t throw helping his team to improbable victory after victory? Besides, on Sunday it certainly beat rooting for the alternative. Religion being “thrown in my face” is fine. We’re constantly bombarded with messages from the advertising industry every day. Religion is just another product being sold.

Some people take issue with ESPN’s overwhelming positive coverage of Tebow. They think the hype is excessive. Well, I ask you this. When Tebow plays the Patriots, will you be watching? I thought so.

That’s really it though. The only reasons people have for not liking Tim Tebow seem to be his religion and the media hype surrounding him. The former is a rather silly reason to dislike someone personally and the latter is not really his fault.

However, as I said at the start, the fact remains that if Tim Tebow is right about the nature of God, I’m most definitely going to hell.

But in the meantime I’m in heaven watching him defy the odds.

Joe Paterno and the myth of the university

They rioted in the streets of State College, PA Wednesday night for reasons that are hard for a neutral observer to fathom. How could the love of one man go so deep that students would actually protest when he was fired for failing to report child rape to the police?

The situation at Penn State revealed many truths about the society at major universities. It took an extreme example, the failure to report the raping of children, to reveal what I’ve known to be true for a few years now.

The image and reputation of a major university is more important to the powers that be than anything else. It’s more important than research and it’s certainly more important than actually educating students.

The reason behind this is simple. Reputation is what gives a university its mystique and aura. Society likes to think of universities as a separate entity from the real world. We all love myths. They let us feel like there’s something out there bigger than ourselves. Reality is all about routine but universities are a place where supposedly anything is possible. The more mystique and aura a university has, the more the best and brightest will want to go there. This increases the likelihood of those best and brightest landing lucrative jobs down the line and donating large sums of money to their dear alma mater. Money leads to the ability to build bigger, more impressive buildings on campus, increasing prestige and attracting more talented people to the school.

And the circle continues indefinitely.

***

A strong reputation can be earned in two ways: through academics and through sports. Harvard, Yale, Princeton. These are terrific schools, no doubt. But their myth has grown to the point where they are revered in American society to a degree that is disproportional to their actual impact. A student willing to put in the effort could get just as good of an education at a wide range of universities. But somehow it’s The Ivy League that has the virtual reputational monopoly on educational superiority.

At all times, it’s the reputation that must be safe-guarded. To use a specific, incredibly mild and harmless example, take the school I went to: the Medill School at Northwestern. It’s been riding on its reputation since my mom attended back in the late sixties/early seventies. The classes are easy to pass without much effort and the instructors are generally fairly average. It has the reputation of being the hardest school at Northwestern. In reality, it’s the easiest. The best part about Medill is the quarter you leave campus and intern at a news station/paper/magazine. It taught me I wanted nothing to do with the world of news.

This program is called Journalism Residency. A friend of mine is on hers now and she texted me asking if she’d get in trouble for complaining publicly on Twitter that Medill offers absolutely nothing in the way of sports journalism education. Almost none of the JR sites are specific to sports and there are no classes to be found.

I was confused. Why would she get in trouble for voicing a complaint? Well it turns out that before she left on JR, she and everyone else had been told in no uncertain terms to “watch what they tweet” because the school didn’t want anything in the public sphere that would  make the Journalism Residency program look bad.

The program, while lacking sports specific sites, is actually quite good. Most students would tell you that is the case. Medill knows it’s good but is still incredibly paranoid about anything that might hurt its reputation in even the tiniest way.

***

Universities sell you on school pride the moment you set foot on campus. And students, due to the amount of money we’re paying to go there, buy in quite willingly. I know I did. The Penn State students turning the press conference announcing the firing of Joe Paterno into a madhouse and their subsequent rioting does not surprise me in the least. They’d been sufficiently brainwashed.

I use brainwash metaphorically, not literally. What separates college football games from any other event is the undying loyalty of the fan bases. Professional sports simply don’t compare. It can be the best thing in the world to share your passion with 100,000 other screaming fans on game day (in Northwestern’s case chop that down to around 20,000, but still). This can be the greatest thing in the world. But it leads to more myths, more undeserved reputations, that can be dangerous.

This brings us to Joe Paterno. Joe Paterno has a long track record of being a good man. But Joe Paterno fell victim to his own deification at Penn State. At some point in time, protecting his own unblemished reputation became more important than anything else. It then manifested itself in the worst way possible. Informed that his long-time friend and colleague was raping children, he passed on the information to his athletic director. Paterno wanted nothing to do with the situation. A man he’d trusted for years was a predator and Joe Pa did not take the information to the police. Of course, neither did his athletic director nor the school’s president.

Instead of caring about the predator’s victims, school officials cared more about the pristine image of Happy Valley. They tried to sweep child rape under the rug.

But the horrible reality of State College finally rose to the surface and now men who I believe are at their heart: good, are paying the price, as they should.

***

Universities obviously should try to build a strong reputation, but when reputation becomes more important than reality, that’s when you run into trouble. This obsession runs the gamut across the nation: from incredibly mild and frankly silly (the Medill JR example) to dark and disturbing (what happened at Penn State).

Myths can be fun as long as you maintain self-awareness. I have a passion for the Northwestern football myth. That myth is that our players are somehow special because they play for a school that actually cares how they do academically. In reality, our players are a mixed bag when it comes to intelligence and there have been plenty of football players from other schools who went on to have a lot of success in something other than sports. We just happen to produce fewer NFL players. This is fine with me and I enjoy using that myth as an argument in a debate with other B1G fans. I don’t take it seriously though.

But it’s clear Penn State students took the myth of Paterno very seriously. They have lost all self-awareness. The destruction of the Paterno myth has been too much for many to handle. Now they are rioting in Happy Valley.

Not because their former coach failed to report child rape to the police.

But because he was fired for it.

Penn State’s reputation will never be the same again.

Sadly that’s all those in power and those who are rioting really care about.

Baseball, glorious baseball

One day, the final regular season game of the baseball season: September 28, 2011, will go down as the day baseball finally emerged from the Steroids Era. It featured four teams battling for two playoff spots and dramatic finishes that will be remembered for years to come.

The National League Wild Card battle was only the opening act.

The Cardinals took care of business against the Astros but the Braves were three outs away from securing a one-game playoff with one of the top closers in the National League in Craig Kimbrel on the mound. He couldn’t get the job done as he walked three batters and surrendered a sacrifice fly as the Phillies tied the game. The Phillies would go on to win in 13 innings thanks a bloop single from Hunter Pence.

But the American League was where the real drama was Wednesday night. One of the preeminent franchises in the game, the Boston Red Sox, and the little engine that could: the Tampa Bay Rays, were tied entering tonight’s action for the final AL playoff spot.

First the Rays were one strike away from losing their game to the Yankees.

But Dan Johnson, a career 3.3 WAR player who was below replacement level for the Rays in 2011 was at the plate. Of course he homered to tie the game. Did I mention the Rays were down 7-0 at one point? We’ll get there, I promise you.

Then the Red Sox were one strike away from winning their game against the Orioles.

And Nolan Reimold, a player I admittedly had never heard of and a career 2.3 WAR player was at the plate. He was facing Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon, who looked untouchable until he gave up a two-out double to Chris Davis. But still, the right-handed Reimold looked overmatched.

Of course he doubled to right-center to tie the game. And of course Robert Andino, a career 1.9 WAR player, delivered the game-winning hit. It was a low liner to left that Carl Crawford could not catch despite a sliding attempt. His throw home was poor and the Orioles celebrated like they were going to the playoffs.

Of course they weren’t, the Rays were. Only three minutes later, Evan Longoria moved closer to legend status with a walk-off home run down the left field line in the 12th inning to win it for Tampa.

It was Longoria, one of baseball’s brightest post-Steroids Era stars, who delivered the initial body punch in the eighth when the Rays stunned the Yankees with six runs. Longoria’s three-run home run that inning pulled Tampa to within one after having been down 7-0 and seemingly doomed to start the inning.

What made this night amusing for me was seeing the Yankees, bitter rivals of the Red Sox, playing their scrubs. The Yankees had already clinched the East Division so instead of Robertson and Rivera it was the likes of Ayala and Proctor that Tampa had to deal with. It didn’t make the night any less dramatic, just slightly humorous.

Baseball has taken a beating in the national press ever since 1994. The strike killed many people’s interest in the game that season. It was revived during the Steroids Era due to the prominence of the home run, culminating in the epic 1998 clash between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa that resulted in McGwire hitting an unfathomable 70 homers in one season. But as the internet took over the country at the end of the 20th century, attention spans started to go down and Barry Bonds made a mockery of competitive fairness with his 2001 season. The revelation that all those home runs were produced not from smaller ballparks or a juiced ball, but from juiced players, once again killed many people’s interest in the game.

Football has taken over as the king of American sports. Baseball has responded with more statistics, each one more advanced than the rest.

But the beauty of Wednesday night was that it was one of those classic cases where the stats go out the window. Dan Johnson, Nolan Reimold, Robert Andino. Are you kidding me? It was the culmination of epic collapses from both the Braves and the Red Sox, but it was more than that. Baseball has seen epic collapses before but it hasn’t seen a night like this in many a year. Tampa Bay is a wonderful story. In a game that is often dominated by the Yankees and Red Sox, the Rays have made the AL East one of the most compelling divisions in the game the past few years. They only started playing baseball in 1998 in Tampa, and for years they were complete jokes. Their World Series run a few years ago ended those jokes and Wednesday night saw them capture the imagination of the country.

I don’t pretend Twitter is a good gauge of the national conscience. But it certainly is a good gauge of the national media’s conscience, since almost every relevant media member has a Twitter account. And the media can set the agenda for the country. Well, Twitter was buzzing Wednesday about baseball in a way I’ve never seen before. I follow lots of baseball people of course, but being a huge college football fan, movie fan, and my fascination with politics, I follow a fairly wide segment of the population. People I’d never seen tweeting about baseball before were tweeting tonight. The usual tweet? “I normally don’t get very in to baseball, but this is incredible.”

Wednesday night was the night baseball made a statement. Baseball said loud and clear that it will not go quietly into the night. It will not be ignored.

It has risen again.

The sad decline of Ichiro

It was the running start that always fascinated me.

Ichiro came to Seattle in 2001, the year after Kazuhiro Sasaki had won the AL Rookie of the Year and the Mariners had taken the New York Yankees to six games in the ALCS. If it were not for Arthur Rhodes’ chronic inability to get David Justice out, Seattle would have made the World Series that year. It remains the closest they’ve ever been to the Fall Classic.

Ichiro arrived the year after A-Roid left. Rodriguez decided to take his talents and needles to Arlington, Texas. Since Randy had left in the middle of 1998 and Griffey had departed after the ’99 season, Rodriguez’s departure seemed like a death blow to the franchise.

But it allowed them the money to afford the first Japanese position player in the history of major league baseball. He was a man who went by only his first name, like Elvis, like Pele. He was already a legend in Japan, but would his game translate to America?

The answer was yes.

Opening Night, 2001, I’m sitting in the left field bleachers with my family. As someone who was taking Japanese in middle school (I was 13 at the time), Ichiro was the player I was there to see. My expectations for the Mariners as a whole were modest. I had no idea Bret “most likely juiced to the gills” Boone was about to unleash one of the great offensive seasons by a second baseman of all time and Paul Abbott (Who? Exactly.) was going to win 17 games (insert disclaimer about wins being a meaningless stat.) Boone, in fact, had a career total WAR of 3.1 over nine seasons. That’s terrible. In 2001, he posted a WAR of 9.3. To give you an idea of how insane that is, Jose Lopez, the man who replaced Boone after the *probable use of* steroids finally wore off, has a career WAR of 6.4 over eight seasons.

So a lot of weird stuff happened in 2001 that allowed the Mariners to win 116 games and lose to choke against the Yankees in the ALCS. But Ichiro’s batting style was the weirdest thing I’d ever seen in the game of baseball. No one would teach their child to hit that way. You’re supposed to keep a solid base, weight back, etc. Ichiro did none of that. He was more a slap hitter in softball than a baseball player and I mean that as a sincere compliment. No one made a slow roller to short seem more dangerous than Ichiro. In fact in that Opening Night game against the Oakland A’s and their genius overrated GM Brad Pitt, Ichiro’s speed caused a late throwing error that cost Oakland dearly as the Mariners went on to win the first of 116.

Lots of players are fast. But very few incorporate their speed into their hitting style. Ichiro knew that all he had to do was pound the ball into the ground and he could beat it out. In an era of juiced up sluggers and hitter friendly ballparks, Ichiro’s style was refreshing, to say the least. But what was amazing was that his teammates swore he could win the All Star Home Run Derby if he chose to participate. Yes, Ichiro, the master of the infield single, was legendary for the shows he would put on in batting practice. Ichiro’s power though is entirely to right field so in order to be a more complete player, he mastered the art of the single. Two batting titles, the all-time single season hit record, over 3000 career professional hits, his accomplishments at the plate are undeniably Hall of Fame worthy by themselves.

But then you factor in the stolen bases and the defense and he rises to a whole different level. By at least one advanced metric, Ichiro is the 13th best defensive outfielder…ever. Now granted, defensive metrics are highly flawed (some bro named Paul Blair ranks ahead of him…who the hell is that?). But the eye test agrees with the metrics in Ichiro’s case, and then some.

He introduced us to his spectacular defense with the throw (against Brad Pitt’s Oakland A’s no less) and didn’t stop wowing us for 10 years.

Well, now he’s stopped wowing us. In fact, in 2011, he’s become a liability. At the age of 37, he finally failed to make the All Star team. He may not get to 200 hits for the first time in his career. And from a purely objective standpoint, his WAR in 2011 is -1. A replacement level player would be better than Ichiro. Even Chone “disgrace to the game of baseball and America” Figgins is having a “better” year (-0.5 WAR).

I could tell something was wrong early in the season when Ichiro dropped/badly misplayed a few routine fly balls. The man has always had his critics; there are some people in Seattle who have never liked the guy. (He is seen as aloof, arrogant, and lacking in hustle. There is a running joke that he has something against getting his jersey dirty.) Normally my response to these people was the same response I would give to people who think 9/11 was an inside job or that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. (Meaning, I ignored them and wrote them off as lunatics, and possibly a little bit racist.)

This year though the haters have had a field day and for good reason. Perhaps a decade of losing (they haven’t made the playoffs since his “rookie” year) has finally worn him down. I just fail to understand how someone who was still so good at age 36 can all of a sudden be terrible at age 37. Normally declines are slower in the game of baseball.

I hope this year is an anomaly.

However, I think this is the end of the road for one of the most unique superstars the game of baseball has ever seen.

It’s sad, but the man known for his running start…has crashed into a wall.

Mariners Radio and Living the Dream

A view from the visiting radio broadcast booth at US Cellular Field

I never really liked the word “dream.”

Dreaming that you can do something implies that you aren’t really working towards it. I dream that I can play major league baseball but my goal in life is to become a major league baseball broadcaster. It’s a singular focus of mine that has been unrelenting since I was around 11 years old. For instance, at age 13 I auditioned for a show called “Kids Talk Sports” (I got the gig by the way) and the guy asked me if I wanted to be a broadcaster when I grew up. I responded that I didn’t want to be one…I was going to be one.

As I grew older I realized that there are very few jobs in major league baseball for broadcasters. Also, everyone wants to be one. Becoming a major league announcer seemed more like a dream than ever before.

Rick Rizzs is living that dream. He’s the voice of the Seattle Mariners. He also happens to be best friends with John Dittrich, the General Manager of the Joliet Slammers. I work as the Media Relations Coordinator and sometimes broadcaster for the Slammers and when they hired me John told me that he would introduce me to Rick. I talked to Rick on the phone back in March and that in itself was a thrill.

But Monday, June 6 is a day I will never forget. I’ve been listening to the late Dave Niehaus and Rick all my life on the radio. Rick worked eight years in the minor leagues before being hired by the Mariners and this is the first season he’s been their number one voice with the passing of Niehaus. The Mariners opened a three game series with the White Sox on Monday and John arranged for me to go up to the press box and talk with Rick before the game.

The trip didn’t start so well. The traffic from Joliet to Chicago was unbelievably brutal and I got stuck on the highway while they cleared an accident up ahead. Words not fit for the radio were flying out of my mouth as I sat in my car on I-55. Luckily I got to the game in the nick of time and after a bit of confusion how I actually was supposed to get up to the press box (apparently I needed a ticket even though Rick had left passes?), I was there.

Rick was not though. He had stepped out of the booth for a few minutes. So I exchanged some awkward conversation with producer/engineer Kevin Cremin. Kevin is sort of a legend in my mind because he’s been in the booth on Mariners’ broadcasts for years but you never hear him. He also has a really cool name.

Rick arrived a few minutes later. He has a reputation for being one of the friendliest people you could ever meet and he more than lived up to that. When I mentioned that my favorite call of his was the Luis Sojo play in 1995…he repeated it verbatim. That was awesome. Rick also introduced me to Dave Valle, the color commentator for the game. He explained that Valle was a catcher for the Mariners back in the day (I knew this of course but I nodded politely). The number one piece of advice Rick has for aspiring broadcasters is to know the game inside and out. I could not agree more. If you don’t have a thorough understanding of the game and the team you are covering, you’re not going to make it no matter how good your voice is. He also emphasized that it’s important not to try and copy people. Find your own voice.

It should be noted that I brought a friend with me to the booth who is not my girlfriend, but I’m pretty sure Rick thought she was. So it was quite amusing to hear him tell me three times to “always listen to her.” But that’s good advice nonetheless.

Near the start of the game I made my move. I asked if he would give my demo CD a listen. He said absolutely, he would love to, so I gave him my demo CD with my business card inside the case as well. Rick reemphasized later as he was about to go on-air that he would definitely listen to it.

I hope he has a lot of feedback (well I actually hope he thinks I’m the greatest broadcaster ever and I should be in the big leagues right now, but there I go dreaming…) because that would be quite the thrilling email. Getting feedback from a major league announcer is not something very many people get.

The first inning started and Kevin gave me an extra headset so I could hear the call clearly. There was a crazy play in the bottom of the first where the M’s left fielder looked to have made an amazing catch up against the wall. But at the last second he dropped it. The White Sox runners became confused and at one point were both by second base. It was a crazy play and Rick was able to get through it like a pro. Watching him call it was hilarious because at the end he stood up and gestured to the field in excitement. I always like announcers who really get into the game because that’s my style as well, and that was a great moment.

Rick had other guests scheduled to come to the booth during the game (did I mention he’s very popular?) so we only stayed for the pregame and the first inning. But it is something I will never forget. They say life happens while you’re waiting for the next big moment; well that was a big moment, and I’ll treasure it forever.

The Mariners lost the game, but quite frankly I didn’t care. I think Chone Figgins did something stupid like getting picked off but I can’t be sure.

To paraphrase “Casablanca,” I hope this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Maybe I’ll get to go back to the booth sometime in the future and stay longer.

Maybe one day I’ll be the voice of the Mariners and live the dream Rick Rizzs is living.

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