Lions and Tofurkeys and Bores, Oh My!

November 27, 2008

It’s Thanksgiving again, and as it is every year, families join together to spend four to ten awkward hours trying to avoid eye contact while eating enough to feed the Sudanese army without remorse. And while it’s a beautiful time of year, it’s also a time to reflect on those traditions that make this the greatest of holiday seasons.

Watching Lousy Football Games: Watching football on Thanksgiving is a time-honored American tradition, partly because of football’s hold on American culture, and partly because it’s an awesome excuse to sit in a basement in front of a plasma TV drinking beer yelling about why don’t you just run the ball in fourth and goal so you’ll cover you piece of garbage go back to Oklahoma you worthless prick of a coach it looks like someone’s not getting a Wii this Christmas because daddy didn’t think the coach was going to be such a cautious pansy on fourth and frickin’ goal while the womenfolk are cleaning up and doing the dishes upstairs. Of course, most of this tradition is spoiled because someone with a remarkable ineptitude at foresight a few decades ago decreed that it would be none other than the Detroit Lions that would host a Thanksgiving Day game every year. The Detroit Lions. A team that hasn’t had a winning season since they started paying players. Even General Motors posted a profit since they’ve won. At this point, the only way they could win a playoff berth is if the football shrank significantly into something a little bit blacker and rounder, they gave everyone on the team a stick, and they renamed the franchise the “Red Wings.” Of course, there isn’t even a halfway decent matchup this year, since Detroit is up against the 10-1 Tennessee Titans, an incredibly lopsided match that absolutely no one is going to watch outside of Vegas. The only good thing to come of that game is that Vince Young is sitting in Ford Field instead of around the dinner table in Houston inexplicably crying like a woman at random intervals when asked to pass the gravy.

Stale-Dated Yams: Thanksgiving is primarily a food holiday, unlike, say, the Furth of July, where meals are more often than not equated with food poisoning and salads that are in reality desserts, or Labor Day, which is about playing tag football or some form of bocce mutated so your four-year-old nephew and play without crying than it is about hamburgers and hot sausage. Thanksgiving is all about the consumption of gross amounts of food. And, of course, the preparation and anticipation of the meal as well. So it would be no surprise that there’s always some dish sitting untouched on the table. Sometimes it’s a staple dish, such as yams or cranberry sauce, that just looks kind of suspect, like maybe it sat in the back seat of the car for an hour too long, or maybe the dog retched in it when no one was looking. Sometimes it’s a well-meaning attempt for someone to appease the lone pretentious vegetarian sitting in the group, an abortive monstrosity of a disaster, a half-finished tofurkey or poorly made watercress casserole. Then, as if it’s one big guilt trip for everyone involved, that renegade dish is parceled up and handed to each family as they go out the door, baited with dark meat and rye bread leftovers, so they can be immediately thrown in the trash in the safety of everyone’s respective homes.

Making Politically Neutral Talk With Your Unbalanced Secondary Relatives: You know who they are. Distant out-of-state cousins and uncles-in-law that you see perhaps every third Thanksgiving, or perhaps an errant viewing here and there. And of course talking about the weather and how much the Lions suck will only take you so far. Eventually someone is going to mention the government, or the church, or the lone pretentious vegetarian who gave everyone the stink eye for loving the turkey so much, or the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, or Jeff Gordon, and off they go. No one wants to say anything except this guy, who knows it all and knows that if you don’t know things the exact same way that he or she does, you are an unrepentant idiot undeserving of the last slice of blueberry pie. And while you have cogent reasons for having a reasonably logical discussion with that person, you don’t, for two reasons. One is that Aunt Jane might pop in and contribute her two cents, and she still thinks the Freemasons are poisoning the wells and the metric system is just a way for the “International Bankers” (cough, cough) to take control of the oil and finance industries. And, two, there is always a chance that this person has you in their will.

Xanax: Oh, come on, like you haven’t already ground it up and poured it in the brandy you don’t think everyone knows you have stolen away in the breast pocket of your jacket.

The 50 Meter Great Leap Forward

August 13, 2008

Welcome to the 2008 Summer Olympics in beautiful Beijing! Be sure to stop by the gift shop, where you can help imbalance the trade deficit and maybe pick up an oxygen tank or two. Also, French judges are on sale! Hope you enjoy your stay, and just remember that if a policeman cracks you on the side of your head with a baton and drags you to a dark, cold cell, it’s only because you spoke out against the government. Salut!

The Chinese government did a lot to prepare for these Olympics. While the nation of China has modernized quite a bit lately—and via a much different method than other attempts at modernizing in the past (cough, cough)—Beijing was expected to be ready for a massive restructuring of their society to welcome the hungry eyes of the world.

They first had to deal with protestors. China has had a lot of history to protest against, from the move for Tibetan independence to the recognition of the Falun Gong, to the court-martial of General Tso for making chicken too damn tasty. There were also protests that the Chinese armed forces were going to forcibly participate in the games under a new sport, the 1500 km dash to Taipei.

There have also been concerns about the environment. Upon landing at the shores of the celestial empire, the first thing most foreigners notice is that it looks like Pittsburgh circa 1890. The fog is so thick you can barely see any of the nine year olds that make your shoes. This was a concern, especially of top-tier athletes used to breathing in the crystal clear air of Turin or Paris or Johannesburg, that their oxygen intake may impair their athletic prowess, giving the native Chinese athletes, who have been filtering iron particles through their lungs for decades, an unfair advantage. Even Yao Ming, China’s most popular and richest athlete and who grew up in the country, was appalled at the filthy conditions in which the world’s best athletes were asked to compete, though he did concede that it was still preferable than playing for the Houston Rockets.

One of the more bizarre controversies involves the little Chinese girl who sang at the opening ceremonies. The opening ceremonies has been lauded as an impressive feat, the product of what can happen when an authoritarian regime spends an assload of money and utilizes underpaid workers to create an impressive song-and-dance spectacle when they just put their collective minds to it. However, it turns out that the girl that sang wasn’t actually singing; another girl, not as cute but with a better voice, sang instead. For some reason the act of lip-synching at a major event seems to have caused outrage amongst many media pundits, apparently equating the evils of the Chinese government with the worst sins of Ashley Simpson and Milli Vanilli.

Of course, despite all of these problems, Beijing had a fairly recent successful example to follow. In 2004, Athens was able to prepare for the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics much more efficiently, mostly by making sure all the goats were herded off before the torch made it to the market square, and security was tightened by certifying both of their police officers in anti-terrorism tactics, which mostly involved eating too many lamb gyros the night before and sleeping until noon.

Despite all of these concerns, the Chinese government has an incentive to make sure all of the sporting events go off without a hitch. The Beijing Olympics are the single most important cultural event that has occurred in modern China’s history. Or, rather, this has to be the case, since every American reporter mentions it approximately every other sentence in every report they give, even if the subject of the report is the ongoing war in Georgia or Lindsay Lohan dropping a bag of cocaine on the dance floor of the Coot Scoot. Although, to be fair, then mention that a lot less than they mention the fact that the Olympics started on 8-8-08, and 8 invokes the word “prosperity” in the Chinese language. Really! You don’t say! Every other minute!

Of course, the best news so far for the Americans from these Olympics—aside from the fact that our President was trying to get some strange from the women’s beach volleyball unit—is swimmer Michael Phelps. He’s already won the most gold medals of anyone in Olympic history; he is on track, barring any sudden unexpected appearances by Jeff Gillooly, to break the record of winning the most gold at any one single Olympics. Of course—and not to detract from Phelps’s rather impressive accomplishments—but it appears that it’s not that hard to get eight gold medals when there are approximately six billion different events with variations of swimming back and forth in a pool built specifically for the purpose by six billion different Chinese slave laborers.

Still, there are plenty of events yet to go, and there is most likely going to be a lot more interesting things still to come. And while I can’t criticize the Olympics too much—I get light-headed changing light bulbs and vomit at the thought of a light trot up a flight of stairs—I think credit is deserved where credit is due. I will feel unrecognized until the International Olympic Committee awards me my medal, since I feel that I deserve at least the gold for going an entire column without making one the-Chinese-eat-dogs joke. I’m just sayin’.

Hockeytown vs. the Steel City vs. Vs: The Stanley Cup Playoffs

May 24, 2008

Grab a case of Labatt and a pile of calamari and poutine, boys, it’s time to watch some good old-fashioned hockey!

Of course, the outcome of the Stanley Cup finals this week will go unnoticed by many, for two reasons: one is that potentially two sevenths of the game will be shown on the Vs. network. For those who are unaware of the Vs. network, it is a station ran by three or four guys in the back of their garage with a bunch of cameras they bought in the second chance bin at Best Buy, and the announcers are random people pulled off the street who, given all evidence, have never before seen a hockey game before. A typical exchange during the in-game announcing is of Madden-like proportions:

Announcer #1: And here comes…a guy…with the puck. OH he just got slammed hard against the glass.
Announcer #2: In baseball or basketball you wouldn’t be allowed to hit someone like that.
Announcer #1: When you’re trying to get the ball in the…net with your…hockey pole, anything goes, apparently. And there, a shot goes wide out of bounds. Seventh time this quarter.
Announcer #2: A little bit of shoving there. Not very sportsmanlike, it seems.
Announcer #1: Scoring goals is a top priority for the guys in white. The Quebec Navarachiers. Or something.
Announcer #2: And for those just joining us, the Pistons are up twelve points in the second.
Announcer #1: And now, for the next fourteen minutes, an interview with the AHL commissioner from 1982. Presumably the game will still be on when we get back.
Announcer #2: I sure as hell hope not.

The second reason, of course, is that it’s competing with the NBA playoffs. Granted, this is a statistically likely scenario, since hockey playoffs take about eighteen months to resolve. And basketball is an infinitely more popular sport with the American viewing public. This, of course, should not mimic reality at all, and yet it does. Any league that still has franchises in Portland, Oregon and Salt Lake City shouldn’t justify having larger numbers than hockey. Even Canada knew better than to keep teams in Quebec City and Hartford, Connecticut, though to be fair moving them to Arizona and North Carolina probably isn’t much better.

However, NBC is at least showing the playoffs from game three on, and this year there’s more hope than normal that perhaps Americans will fall in love with hockey. Ice hockey’s always been kind of the Cousin Oliver of professional sports, and every year there’s always a new set of fictions justifying a miraculous increase in ratings, something that will only happen if the jurisdiction of Ontario extended well past the Mason-Dixon line. And yet this year, a combination of three important factors slightly increases the chance that this may indeed be The Year:

1. Superstar Sidney Crosby, taking time off from filming Gatorade commercials shown only in Canadian markets, is playing in the playoffs for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
2. This playoff series does not involve, in any way, the Phoenix Coyotes or the Florida Panthers.
3. Both of the teams are in cities that actually experience winter.

In addition, the Detroit Red Wings are a successful and celebrated franchise, with fans as far as Sault Ste Marie. And while some may see it as a particularly northern-dominated playoff, given the Canadian lust for the sport and, despite the NHL’s insistence on trying to plant teams in hot, sticky cities so they grow a fan base in populations that haven’t received the news about Vicksburg, the lack thereof otherwise, it seems a fairly neutral endeavor.

As always, the mayors of each town have made a friendly bet. If Pittsburgh wins, for instance, Kwame Kilpatrick will have to direct the prison revue of Slap Shot when he goes to jail later this year. If Detroit wins, for the next ten years Pittsburgh will have to show, before any nationally shown games for any of the major sports, a long, panning shot of steel mills billowing black smoke, despite the fact that the last steel mill in Pittsburgh moved to Kuala Lumpur in 1976.

For Pittsburgh’s role, they are proven ratings-winners. The Winter Classic, played against Buffalo on New Year’s Day as a showcase for hockey, was watched by a reasonably respectable number of people at least for it being 1) on New Year’s Day and 2) hockey. This game was notable not only for its national coverage, but that it was 1) played outside, and 2) cold.

Detroit is at a slight disadvantage, however. A coveted tradition for the Red Wings is the throwing of the octopus onto the ice for good luck, usually before the game and when goals are scored. While normally discouraged anyway, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman specifically banned octopi throwing for the playoffs, citing a health and safety hazard from “octopus gunk,” a threat that has apparently grown unchecked. The tradition began decades ago, when a fish-monger of some sort tossed an octopus on the ice as a sign of good luck, since the eight legs of the octopus symbolized the eight games required at the time to reach the Stanley Cup. At least, this is the official story; everyone knows that eight actually symbolizes the number of beers the guy had before he chucked the thing on the ice. Anyway, without such morale-boosting endeavors, the Red Wings will no doubt be aimless and drifting throughout the series.

Of course, I am hardly an unbiased source, but I think it’s fair to say that the Pittsburgh Penguins are on their way to win another championship, because the Pens are the awesomist team ever in the world and Detroit sucks octopus crank. I could go into statistics and the dynamics of the game and all that, but in reality, it’s all a matter of who is best at putting the ball in the basket with their hockey pole.

The Long, Winding Road to Glendale

February 2, 2008

It’s been a crazy year for the National Football League. Granted, every year has its own special sort of insanity, but this year seemed to be just short of Britney-Spears crazy. Maybe it was the history-making New England Patriots. Maybe it was the unintended aftereffects of Roger Goodell’s personal conduct policy. Maybe it was just Michele Tafoya’s dazzling, hypnotic eyes.

Anyway, the road to Glendale was bumpy indeed, unless you were Randy Moss. Then it was pretty smooth until you got within the radius of the restraining order. There are, indeed, many stories in this year’s NFL. Here are just a few.

Who Let The Dogs Out? And Let Them Fight Each Other To The Bloody Death?
Last summer, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was charged with dogfighting, which is a federal crime in those jurisdictions that have more dentists than ammo shops. Vick tried to mount a fairy solid defense, claiming that it was friends and relatives that were using his property without his knowledge for the fights. Yet everyone on the face of the earth knows exactly how the conversation went:

Agent: Okay, Mike, the new personal conduct policy is in effect, so you don’t want to do anything that would look poorly against the NFL. Watch what you do and say and, if there is one thing I can emphasize above all else, whatever you do, do not purchase a pit bull. It has connotations of urban violence and will bring unwanted attention to yourself. Do NOT get a pit bull.
Vick: No problem.

[Two hours later, at his house]

Vick: Hey, guys, check it out. I just bought a pit bull.

Cheaters Never Win. For the Most Part. The season started out normally enough, except for the fact that one of the league’s best teams got caught cheating, pretty much the pure definition of a Nixonesque activity if there ever was one. It was a fairly blatant cheating, too, with a staff member videotaping the sideline action to get information from the opposition. Presumably, this was done to unlock the secret and masterfully complex code that is the defense of the Jets. Still, in a professional sports league that prides itself as being above the board for the sake of the fans and, more importantly, the Nevada Gaming Commission, any hint of cheating is frowned upon. In this case, that particular frown was worth about $750,000 and a first round draft pick.

Fans look at the effects of this scandal in one of two ways: 1) The Patriots, aghast at being labeled cheaters about a simple misunderstanding, have something to prove and so start being the ragged piss out of every other team they come up against in the season, running up the score on purpose to shove the middle finger of spite at the other 31 teams in the league; or 2) the Patriots used the information gleaned from their first game to springboard a poisoned well of regular season victories, their perfect season a flawed product of unethically prying open the prize plum of…the crack defense of the Jets. I guess.

The Miami Dolphins Suck at 15:1 odds: Seriously, they do. I mean, every season has their dog, but this year the Dolphins just sucked in a magnitude unparalleled in modern times. Each day, the members of the Dolphins staff should thank their lucky stars for the mere existence of the occasional suck-even-worsedness of the Baltimore Ravens.

Adrian Peterson Becomes Breakout Star: Peterson was the rookie sensation, much like Reggie Bush was last year. Reggie Bush had the help of being part of the Feel-Good Story of the Year, the New Orleans Saints rising from the wet, messy ashes of Louisiana and serve as a bright and inspirational icon for all the poor and downtrodden who one day aspire to earn $300,000 as a college athlete in a bright and inspirational violation of NCAA rules. Peterson, of course, could use his nimbleness and speed on the field to run as far away from Minnesota as soon as free agency comes around.

Jessica Simpson Goes Home, Cries Softly To Herself, Still Has A Better Playoff Passer Rating Than Her Boyfriend:
Football fans are a superstitious lot, and often latch onto small, insignificant items in the daily lives of themselves and their team as portents of victory or defeat. Some people decided to hang the mantle of harbinger on one Jessica Simpson, who was the girlfriend of Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. Last season, Romo became an effective quarterback throughout the season only to blow it on a botched field goal attempt, dashing any hopes of a Superbowl game. This year, of course, things were different. He blew a last-drive pass and converted a sure touchdown into a sloppy interception, thus dashing any hopes of a Superbowl game. Most fans blamed sometime actress and sometime singer Simpson as “distracting” the young quarterback, who replied, quite correctly, “Yeah? So what? Have you seen the size of those things?” To which all fans silently nodded and agreed, and Tom Brady told Gisele Bundchen not to wait up for him tonight.

The Undefeated New England Patriots Meet…the New York Giants? Sure, why not? The Giants weren’t exactly the expected victors in the NFC this year. That honor would probably go to the Dallas Cowboys or the Green Bay Packers or about ten of the other teams in the conference. Eli Manning is looking to do what his brother did last year and secure a Super Bowl ring, as well as earn the respect of his peers, not act like a hillbilly in front of the slick Arizona city folk, not star in any commercials during the coming year, and cure cancer, all of which have about an equal chance of actually occurring.

Sid the Kid vs. the World

December 8, 2007

The arrival of Sidney Crosby in Western Canada, at least from media reports, seems largely akin to the arrival of the Pope, or the introduction of a new Tim Horton’s anywhere. It’s rather amazing, to me, to see him called an “ambassador” for the NHL. I guess it’s one of those things you don’t realize because it’s always in your backyard, sort of like how I’m surprised not everyone else in the world is 70 years old and considers french fries to be a standard sandwich topping.

I’m a late convert to hockey, and I won’t pretend it’s not because of the Crosby Crush. I mean, sure, I watched hockey back during the Penguin’s back-to-back Stanley Cup finals (as an aside, it is a legal requirement within the jurisdiction of Pittsburgh to, when mentioning the phrase “Stanley Cup,” to precede it with the phrase “back-to-back.”) and Mario Lemieux and the communist traitor Jaromir Jagr was winning games. But then the intervening teenage years prevailed, and hockey was ranked on my list of important things to worry about right above new Kool-aid flavors and right below choosing a new Trapper Keeper cover. And who knows? Had the network Vs. been around back then, I probably would have been a faithful follower of the NHL, at least if I wanted to listed to play-by-play announcers that actually made me feel smarter about myself the more they talked.

Hockey is the least watched of the four major sports, which is why hockey loves soccer so much. The strike a few years ago was, in many ways, the best thing to happen to the industry, since it allowed both players and owners to revamp the game into something people would actually watch. Hockey games in the late 80’s and early 90’s eventually descended into scoreless ties or UFC matches on frozen ponds, neither of which was very attractive to the parents of children that just spent ten thou on hockey equipment just to have them go to junior hockey camp to practice dodging left hooks and passing the biscuit back and forth with the second round draft choice for three twenty-minute intervals. At one point, all but a handful of hockey franchises were losing money each season, forcing them into the realm of business models equivalent of domestic car manufacturers.

It was into this situation that Sidney strode gallantly in, with all expectations by hockey fans, franchise owners, media outlets, and Malaysian garment workers making jerseys that he will single-handedly revitalize the sport, even if a little bit of help is needed from property tax forgiveness and the fall of communism. The first team to get the draft lottery the year he was eligible to enter was a lucky team indeed, since the anticipation of his arrival bordered on the orgasmic—the post-strike draft of 2005 was dubbed the “Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes.” Of course, the Pittsburgh Penguins were planning on this highly anticipated event, so they deliberately played about a decade’s worth of lousy hockey previous to the lockout to secure the draft pick.

Thus prepared, the Pens drew the first pick, and gladly plucked Crosby as their first draft choice. The previous year’s first draft choice, Alexander Ovechkin, was also a young, promising player destined to jump start the league, but the lockout prevented him from getting any ice time in the NHL. Consequently, both young players entered into sort of a competition as to who could be hockey’s savior and phenom. Crosby had a few distinct advantages to this friendly contest, notably 1) being Canadian and 2) not being Russian.

Much of the attention lavished on Crosby isn’t just about talent, of course. A lot of it has to do with age, something that he has common cause with in supermodels, where being young is, in fact, the actual talent involved. Crosby holds about a dozen major landmarks in hockey history, all of which start with “The Youngest Player To…” His youth doesn’t define him, one hopes, but it’s still amusing to realize that left wing Gary Roberts was drafted into the NHL a full three years before Crosby was even born. There’s a pairing that one suspects they can trade complexes over.

Crosby is currently on a three-game stretch of western Canada, the parts with more natural gas and whaling and less French-speaking separatists. It’s the last cities (Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver) that Sid hasn’t played in, so his arrival was met with frenzied media attention unparalleled in quite some time. Cameras followed him everywhere, reporters fought for exclusive interviews and he was treated with celebrity status throughout his trip, something he would only get in Pittsburgh if he had shot union agitators or ran over Ben Roethlisberger with a Hummer.

So far, he’s won two of the three scheduled games, both in dramatic comebacks late in the game. It’s tailor-made for sports drama, not quite to the level of the Miracle on Ice but at least better than Marc Crawford’s self-worth. Some may predict that Crosby will sweep all three games; most residents know he already has.

Exhibiting a Sports Complex

October 3, 2007

Once a year, the perfect storm arrives. This perfect storm, awaited patiently by those men who are trapped in a conversationally suffocating relationship, the guys whose sole form of disposable income are from web sites based in former Soviet republics that accept credit card payments for moneyline bets, and the otherwise exacerbated women who, for better or worse, would rather have their husbands and boyfriends concentrate on something completely worthless to the accumulated culture of Western civilization instead of the fact that they just spent $240 on a purse shaped like the head of a horse.

Around the first of October, three of the four major sports—football, hockey, and baseball—converge into a unifying mass of citizen hysteria. Well, except for baseball, whose fans tend to be 1) unenthusiastically bored, 2) apparently have nothing more interesting to do, such as filing taxes or attending a Joe Biden rally, and 3) old as dirt. Or basketball fans, who tend to be incredibly interested in the sport until their city becomes large enough to support a more interesting franchise in a completely different sport. (I’m looking at you, Portland.) Or football fans, who are more than willing to pay $200 for a pair of mediocre seats and $6 dollars a beer but still complain about the terms of Chad Pennington’s contract. Or hockey fans, who are intently interested as long as they are able to buy tickets at the student rate of 90% off the regular ticket price, or are Canadian.

Men may be hit with a sense of information overload, and women may be disgusted with the amount of time, energy, and dereliction of lawn-mowing and house-maintenance duties involved, but the fact is that professional sports are a huge business. With teams expanding into new markets and marketing strategies increasing the total media and product loads, few areas of modern culture are left without some sort of association with a logo featuring a badly drawn Indian wearing pastels and exhibiting his prowess with a synthetic rubber ball.

Football’s regular season is about a quarter done, now, with the winners and losers already chosen by the elite sportscasters who made a career choice to talk about all the people on the field they used to cry themselves at night wishing and praying they would grow up to be. Football is by far America’s most popular sport, and it treats every game as an event—with only 16 games, every matchup is a do or die situation, unlike, say, baseball’s season, which seems last somewhere around 1,000 games and no one really puts in much effort until about the last ten games or so. This year, the surprises aren’t the perpetual winners, such as the Indianapolis Colts and the kitten molesting New England Patriots, but the few promising surprises, such as the Cleveland Browns and the Detroit Lions, but more importantly those franchises that have collapsed like cheap tents—the San Diego Chargers, the Chicago Bears, and the New Orleans Saints. Though to be fair “folding like cheap tents” is probably not the best way to describe what’s happening to New Orleans.

The regular hockey season also starts this week, as well. The defending Stanley Cup champions last year were the improbable Ducks of Anaheim, a product of a sinful midnight copulation between the Disney corporation and the Sheen estate. Almost a decade after their birth, they managed to pull off their first victory. The NHL is still slowly gaining in popularity after a player’s strike in the mid-90’s shook up the industry, and the league has since been transformed from a hyper-violent slow-scoring stickball on ice to a hyper-violent slow-scoring stickball on ice with a salary cap.

And, of course, the baseball season wrapped up and the playoffs begin this week as well. The playoff teams have an unusually different look this year—hopefully, one of the two dozen people who still actually watch baseball can tell me how it ends without me having to check up on it on the Wikipedia. There’s a lot of new faces, such as the long-suffering Cubs, the geographically inaccurate Angels, the hated, hated Yankees, the drunken Rockies, the bewilderingly misnamed Diamondbacks, the Indians, the Phillies, the Red Sox, and the Mets—oh, no, wait, never mind about that last one.

Of course, I’m from Pittsburgh, so the fact that the last holdout in the Fall Professional Sports Orgy, basketball, doesn’t start for another month or so doesn’t really bother me. Pittsburgh hasn’t had a basketball team since the war, leaving only two professional sports teams in Pittsburgh. (Pittsburgh hasn’t had a professional baseball team in about, oh, I don’t know, fifteen years or so.) The promise of the young starting lineup of the Penguins, along with the severe hope that Vladimir Putin does not recall all the expats in a military draft to conquer The Entire World, have the city rather excited about our chances of winning the Stanley Cup this year. And the Steelers seem to be off to a good start this season, despite the fact that the entire coaching staff has elected to rename the team the “Arizona Cardinals.” Despite all the hope, one has to temper this with a feeling of reality—not every season is a winning season. Regardless of the eventual outcome, one that can be certain: at least we’re not living in Cleveland.

The Bad News Bears. And Falcons. And Cavaliers. And Islanders. And…

August 21, 2007

It’s been a bad, bad month for sports.

Now, I’ve never been too impressed with sports. In fact, I kind of resented organized professional sports teams. I mean, I certainly am not athletic enough to play sports, unless eating six pieces of fried chicken in one sitting counts as an organized professional sport. And I don’t really have the mental capabilities to process the career statistics of every starting lineup on the New York Yankees since Roger Clemens ever set pitch to bat, which was approximately 2,000 years ago. So I viewed professional sports with the same amount of indifference I viewed snowboarding and HGTV: something latently interesting if everything else on the face of the earth became immediately inaccessible as a form of passive leisure and the participation of scantily dressed cheerleaders became more of a game-affecting contribution that the actual mechanics of the game.

Times change, of course, and so do I. I enjoy watching sports on occasion and will even make an effort to follow them, though my financial and mental investment is still pretty minimal if one makes the normal allowances for a personal involvement in

First off, of course, is Michael Vick, pending quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. He has recently pleaded guilty to running a dogfighting ring, a practice I kind of thought went out with such things as leeching, indulgences, and Joe Namath’s chances of hooking up with a middle-aged reporter on live national television. Vick’s crimes not only displayed an ugly side of the NFL that seemed to had at last finally been tempered after years of violence and mayhem, excepting as always the Cincinnati Bengals. It also shone a bright, unwelcome light into a world of rape stands, canine executions, and, worst of all, the rampant violation of interstate wagering laws. It also highlighted Roger Goodell’s harsh new policies concerning personnel, amounting to the suspending of players for conduct unbecoming of a professional football player, which apparently means working more than six months out of the year and refraining from endorsing soup once your passer rating cracks about 90 or so.

While the NBA is known for the off-court antics of its players, it’s the on-court criminal mischief that is currently giving the sport some unwelcome news. There is mounting evidence that basketball referee Tim Donaghy bet on games, using his position as referee to fix games. He recently agreed to a deal, which appears to implicate over twenty fellow referees. Given the NBA’s reputation, it’s a bit of a shock that the only criminal gangs on the court are white, wearing striped jerseys, and are going to jail for wire fraud. Donaghy engaged in what is known as point shaving, a rather complicated (though not as complicated as figuring out the odds on a moneyline bet) style of fraud that no doubt has an enormous impact on the wages of Malaysian shoe factory laborers.

Of course, the biggest news in sports this past month was the career home run record broken by Barry Bonds. Reaching this record is, of course, a very difficult accomplishment to achieve for any man, attainable only because baseball is the only professional league to permit players to play regardless of talent until they reach the age of 65, at which point they reach free agency. Controversy abounds, as always, because of accusations that Bonds has used steroids. Granted, there’s accusations that pretty much everyone in major league baseball has used steroids, including but not limited to Kevin Costner and Chief Wahoo, but they aren’t trying to get in the record books. (Well, Costner is, “Most Movies Released By A Major Motion Picture Studio That Are Over Four Hours Long That No One Really Enjoys All That Much But He Won That Oscar So Let’s All Humor Him, K?,” but that isn’t really directly baseball-related.) It goes without saying that Bonds has a polarizing effect on baseball fans: either you think he’s a drug-injecting national-pastime-destroying stonewalling criminal, or you think he’s a drug-injecting, national-pastime-destroying, stonewalling criminal who is also a huge jerk. At the very least, the involvement of Bonds in the record chase has almost doubled the audience of major league baseball. Or, at least, I assume so. Both of them were away so I couldn’t ask.

Finally, there’s the participation of the entrants in the Tour de France. Several of the high-profile leaders in that race have been accused of doping to aid in winning the race. Leave it to cyclists, a niche subgenre if there ever was one, to come up with an incredibly pussyish way to cheat. While all kinds of endurance-enhancing drugs are passed from jersey to jersey within the cycling groupies (or whatever they’re called—I’m actually kind of afraid to find out), one of the more recent attempts to cheat is blood transfusion. By performing blood transfusions, as cyclist Alexander Vinokourov has been accused of, players can reoxidize their blood allowing them to presumably perform better at the races. For me, this is the epitome of competition. Any guy willing to undergo a blood transfusion just to win a kinda womanish non-competitive sport deserves to win something. What that something would be, I don’t know, but I’d like to place good money it involves whatever Chief Wahoo has in the trunk of his car.

On This Night Of a Thousand Pars

June 19, 2007

One day, a crevice within the earth opened forth. Light spewed from the depths of everlasting fire, as molten formations bubbled up from beneath the hollow interior of the globe. Pools of flattened land, pockmarked with pits of fine sand, dense reeds, devilish pools of stagnant water, swarmed by gaggles of blasphemous geese and botanical engineering bordering on the profane formed on the surface. As the dust settles and the fields turn an artificial shade of light green, one can almost see the hand of Ol’ Scratch himself positioning steppes, leaving wind breaks in disrepair and poking inconveniently placed holes at regular intervals. One last gasp of bluish smoke puffs up from the inner depths of Hell, and if one were at the wrong place at the wrong time to witness this nefarious signal of doom, one would lay claim to being present at the auspicious birth of the golf course at the Oakmont Country Club, host to this year’s U.S. Open.

The difficulties of playing the great game of golf at Oakmont were pretty much the talk of Pittsburgh this past week. Many a commentator described, in graphic detail, the slaying of such golf giants as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Bubba Watson, their bloodied carcasses laid waste by hitting one over par all afternoon. The main reason, of course, that the US Open is so much discussed in Pittsburgh is that it distracts from the fact that it causes yet another reason, besides the biannual repaving of all the roads, to close half of the lanes in a city whose civil engineering was done in a time and an era where it was thought that road layouts should resemble a cross between a drunkenly-spun spiderweb and a placenta.

That’s not to minimize the difficulty of Oakmont. The winner—the winner, mind you—of the tournament was five over par, effectively meaning that the best players in the world couldn’t beat past the course’s inherent difficulty. It’s like not even getting tongue after taking the girl from the cigarette store who gets fuel points down at the clinic to Red Lobster for “dinner.” Par is supposed to represent the target for a reasonably good player, so when you have the cream of the crop in the golf world throwing golf bags into swan nests, you know that the engineering of the place was done with blatantly Luciferian intent.

The surprise winner, of course, was Argentine Angel Cabrera. In such a tightly contested game, Cabrera’s appearance adds a little bit of drama to an otherwise pedestrian event. Cabrera’s golfing prowess, no doubt formed by developing his observational skills during childhood by making sure he wasn’t “disappeared,” was mitigated by those who felt that with a hard-luck course such as Oakmont, chance played a little bit more than its fair share. He is known affectionately on the course as “El Pato,” or, literally, “the sumbitch who lucked out when Tiger Woods kept overshooting his fairway shots, not unlike his prospects for a lengthy marriage to a Swedish nanny.”

Another big story was the homecoming of James Furyk, who tied Woods for second place. Although Furyk hails from the eastern part of Pennsylvania, his family is from the Pittsburgh area, and spent many practice years in the area. Many at Oakmont were cheering for his victory, which almost seemed miraculously assured at certain points. This is somewhat miraculous in and of itself, since Pittsburghers tend to view Philadelphians with a certain level of contempt and irritation that one normally reserves for the unclaimed cards in the Most Wanted Iraqi Deck. Likewise, Philadelphians tend to take a condescending view of Western Pennsylvanians much in the same way that one views a nervous, lost puppy who through generations of social evolution somehow produced Rick Santorum. To see a native of close Philly suburb West Chester be cheered by Pittsburghers is a mellowing sight indeed. It’s almost heartwarming to see such a rare and magnificent sight, right before all the Pittsburghers in the crowd went home and moved to their new jobs in Arizona and North Carolina.

The Big Cranky Wet Blanket Awards goes to one Phil Mickelson, who unceremoniously failed to qualify after the second round. Mickelson has won the PGA Championship and the Masters twice, but has failed to come out on top in the U.S. Open in any given year, always settling for Buffalo Bills-level props. After practicing, he petulantly announced that practicing at Oakmont was about as useful as teeing off with a Titleist, since the course’s difficulty left the players prone to injury. This, of course, is something that seems to have been successfully avoided by approximately 155 other players. His putting was off, he was reluctant to drive hard due a his wrist injury, and he failed to measure up to his otherwise commendable #2 ranking, his only physical accomplishment over the long weekend being his ability to move his hands up to his throat with enough force to choke on the green.

After all of the preparations, all of the drama, and all of the excrementally boring hours of golf footage, everyone walked away from the competition with equal parts satisfaction, anticipation, and the smug sense of satisfaction that someone, somewhere, ponied up $7 million for a bunch of grown men to hit small white balls with metal sticks for four days straight, and that someone wasn’t you.

Major League Offenses

June 7, 2007

Last time, I wrote about the excesses of crazy Hollywood girls, so it’s only fair to take a look at the male equivalent: the esteemed members of the NFL. There’s a lot of excess going on there, too, and I’m not just talking about the terms of Chad Pennington’s contract. The commissioner of the National Football League, Roger Goodell, recently established a Personal Conduct Policy as a response to the increasing occurrences of off-the-field misbehavior. The threat looms over the heads of players, threats such as suspensions, fines, and possible exclusion from playing in NFL games, the latter a particularly nasty threat to the league as a whole with the exception of the Detroit Lions. Still, it can be hard to remember who did what to warrant punishment, so here is a list of misbehavior in the NFL:

Tank Johnson (Chicago Bears)
Offense: Possession of a handgun; then, while under probation for this offense, a search at his home produced six firearms, including assault rifles. Also, his bodyguard was killed. Whoops.
Official Excuse: The multitude of weaponry simply displays his commitment to the Bears’ defense. Also, he was born in Gary, Indiana, where not carrying a firearm to do such mundane tasks as clubbing and grocery shopping was a criminal offense, the only way out being forming an R&B band with your creepy-ass brothers.
Penalty: Under the terms of his house arrest, he was not permitted to drive himself or travel outside the state of Illinois. A judge made an exception so that he could go to Florida to participate in the Super Bowl. He was thus granted the single, longing taste of the Superbowl, only to have it unmercifully destroyed by Peyton Manning’s incredibly unexplainable hand-eye coordination. Or perhaps it was the existence of Rex Grossman, I don’t know.
Precedent: No precedent, per se, but it is important to note that residents of certain other NFL cities such as, oh, I don’t know, Green Bay, Wisconsin, or Nashville, Tennessee, routinely bring assault rifles to home games as a matter of course, but usually for the purposes of assaulting deer who are trying to move in on their women when they go to after-game square dances.

Terrance Kiel (former San Diego Chargers)
Offense: Selling drugs and urinating in public. But the most important thing he’s in trouble for is that he tried to ship codeine-based cough syrup across state lines, which to me is by far the most amusing thing for an NFL player to be caught for, besides cottaging or certain kinds of securities fraud.
Official Excuse: He had an excrementally bad cough waiting for him in Texas.
Penalty: Free agency. Also, 10,000 hours of community service, which seems like a ludicrous number to me. I think I’d rather spend a year and a half in jail then spend every afternoon in the summer telling kids that while it’s cool to play professional football, you want to stay away from the funky stuff, and just ‘cause the package says “over the counter” doesn’t mean it’s kosher to buy it in bulk. Also, pee indoors.
Precedent: Legendary QB Dan Fouts was ones addicted to Halls Eucalyptus Cough Drops.

Michael Vick (Atlanta Falcons)
Offense: Vick is currently under investigation for housing a dogfighting ring in his house, which is conveniently being house-sat by someone that Vick has apparently never seen before in his entire life. The biggest crime, however, is spending $40,000 betting on tenuously illegal dog fights when you are currently making $167 million dollars.
Official Excuse: He doesn’t know nothin’ about nothin’. Vick claims that he’s being taken advantage of by the relatives that are staying at his house; however many contend that they can place him with ringside seats at the canine Ultimate Fighting Championships, which is technically slightly less stupid than the real Ultimate Fighting Championships. Vick is too involved with his fans to participate in dogfighting anyway, such as flipping the bird to the home crowd, blowing off congressional testimony, hiding inhalable jewelry in water bottles, and spreading genital herpes.
Penalty: Dogfighting is a felony, so if convicted will be traded to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Precedent: Despite his clean-cut reputation, Tiki Barber routinely consumed a raw Corgi in view of the opposing team’s locker room before every away game to intimidate his rivals.

Larry Zierlein (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Offense: This offensive line coach was caught forwarding a pornographic and inappropriate email to every single member of the NFL management team, which to me is the single most hilarious thing on the face of the earth. I hope it was that monkey that peed in his mouth. Though I don’t think that’s classified as pornographic. I think.
Official Excuse: Everyone makes mistakes, especially with these newfangled computers and somesuch. I mean, it’s not like he was riding a motorcycle without a helmet or anything.
Penalty: He is no longer permitted to have any of his wishes come true by forwarding a jpeg of a dancing frog wearing a party hat to his fourteen closest friends within two hours.
Precedent: Alan Faneca once sent $14 million to a deposed Nigerian diplomat and is hoping that Dan Rooney doesn’t find this out before contract negotiations start up again.

The Cincinnati Bengals
Offense: Hey, this is just easier, OK? The Bengals have somehow managed to make getting arrested an art form, apparently bringing those lessons learned from the cast of Diff’rent Strokes to the gridiron. In the past three years or so, we’re looking at an accumulated list of embarrassing offenses, such as but not limited to (and as of this writing): resisting arrest, providing alcohol to minors, DUI, DWI, spousal battery, vandalism, operating a vehicle while impaired, domestic violence, drug possession, and possession of marijuana.
Official Excuse: Forget it, Jake, it’s Cincinnati.
Penalty: They all have to learn how to pronounce “Houshmandzadeh.”
Precedent: The entire roster of the Buffalo Bills was eventually placed under citizen’s arrest in 1994.

Pacman Jones (Tennessee Titans, at least for now)
Offense: One of the more amusing things I get to do in this endeavor is to learn something new every day. Here I sit at my computer being all smartass-like, and yet there are certain cultural phenomena that I am blissfully unaware of. Apparently, the harsh evolution of urban culture has produced the concept of “Making It Rain,” whereas the subject takes a large amount of money presumably secured in small bills, throws the collective pile into the air, and watches in apparent glee as it flutters downward as gravity puts in its usual day’s work. Hey, to each his own, but I guess people who have $80,000 to literally play around with can do this sort of thing without a second thought. Though Pacman Jones did have second thoughts—he made it rain (oh, I can’t believe I have to type that) at a local strip club during the NBA finals, and then was appalled when one of the ladies had the nerve to actually pick up some of the bills. So much so that he grabbed her by the hair and slammed her head on the runway. The resultant chaos is the reason for his current suspension.
Official Excuse: $80,000 is a touch too much for a standard lap dance.
Penalty: Currently, Jones is on a one-year suspension from the NFL, the first in a more drastic application of the organization’s personal conduct policy. Also, he’s not allowed in any strip clubs anywhere except certain parts of New Orleans.
Precedent: While Jones only wasted 80 thou, the Cowboys wasted about $25 million on Terrell Owens. At least Jones got some bouncy cleavage out of the deal.

Death By Cricket

March 28, 2007

In this increasingly complex and globalized world, where we have Swedish furniture, Japanese steaks, and British jazz singers, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that an Indian-born Briton who played cricket in South Africa and coached the Pakistan team was murdered in Jamaica. Clue never had this.

Bob Woolmer was the coach of the Pakistan cricket team. After losing rather unexpectedly to Ireland at the Cricket World Cup being held in the West Indies, he was found rather unexpectedly dead in his hotel room in Jamaica. Unfortunately, this seemed to become an insurmountable obstacle to his developing career.

The intertwining global loyalties sound complicated, and, in a way, it is. I’ve seen Japanese game shows with less bewildering complexity. It’s got more drama than such famous gruesome murder cases such as O.J. Simpson, Jon-Benet Ramsey, or Sanjaya Malakar’s version of “You Really Got Me.” It’s got more twists than the ending of an M. Night Shyamalan film and Snoop Dogg’s visa application combined. (See how globalizingly progressive I am with my pop culture references?) But, as murder cases go, this one looks like it may stay under the radar of the American press unless an eight-year-old blonde girl somehow gets involved.

There are probably not too terribly many people in America who have heard of Bob Woolmer or have seen too many reports of his death. I certainly know I hadn’t, what with my subscription to People You Don’t Really Care That Much About and Would Never Have Heard About Under Any Other Circumstances Anyway Weekly lapsing. But while I’m vaguely aware of the massively colonial popularity of cricket, I’ll be the first to admit that it is a singularly confusing game, much more complex than the blue lines on hockey, the passer rating formula in football, or, well, the murder of Bob Woolmer.

Perhaps I underestimate myself a little bit. The central concept of cricket is a largely simple affair, at least when compared to other sports of a similar type. Like most competitive sports, it involves overpaid entitlement farmers with insecurity complexes batting a small round object around for a few hours a week for about five months out of the year. What I find most confusing, though, is that the entire concept of cricket is based around the thought of, “Hey, you know, baseball is boring and all, but…do you think there’s a way we could make it even more incredibly dull?”

(Sports historians may point out that cricket was invented before baseball, a point that I would like to advise is “culturally relative,” by which I mean that I have lied, plus that it hardly makes my point any less true.)

Tying cricket to a murder is perhaps a rather drastic way to excite up the game, since, like baseball, cricket is one part exciting physical drama and eighteen hundred parts guys standing around in drab uniforms staring at nothing in particular and scratching themselves. (Obligatory joke: and that’s just the fans!) That perhaps wouldn’t be so bad if commercial breaks, graphics with incredibly esoteric statistics, and color commentary could fill in the numerous gaps, but cricket games also have the distinction of being much, much longer than most entire sports seasons. For example, the first game of cricket is widely believed to have started in 1550 AD and has yet to reach a satisfactory conclusion.

But back to poor Bob Woolmer. Much of the information of the case is being taken from the Jamaican Gleaner, a rather comical name for a newspaper based in a country not exactly known for its judicious fact-finding aptitude. And calling your newspaper the Gleaner is kind of like calling your cricket team The Pakistan Cricket Players. Perhaps all of that latent creativity went to those rasta hats and inventing ways to sell “Jamaica” window decals with a “surprise” taped in a sandwich bag to the back of it.

There are many theories for the cause of death for Woolmer. The Jamaican-led investigation points to the fact that he was strangled and is currently classified as a homicide investigation, though to be fair the phrase “Jamaican investigation” is roughly equivalent to “Bahamian marriage,” so take that for what’s it’s worth. The only popular theory is that is it a gambling-related murder, since the only other crime associated with organized cricket is killing precious days of everyone’s lives. Then again, murder in Jamaica is just about as common as booths selling T-Shirts proudly proclaiming “Jamaican Me Crazy!”, so it hasn’t been completely ruled out as a random hit.

Still, there are enough doubts that no one is certain what is going on. Not an unusual state of affairs in Jamaica, I’m afraid. Woolmer had complained about a myriad of medical ailments before he died, though this is of dubious value since asphyxiation is rarely a symptom of Type II diabetes. And family members have attributed stress and breathing difficulties to a possible medical verdict. But it’s enough that, regardless of which way the investigation goes at this point, the Jamaican police forces, the media, and supportive citizens will not rest until the answers have been found. Or 4:20, whichever comes first.