Sunday, April 12, 2009

Angels Too Early

I can remember the sudden horror I felt when I learned that Bob was dead. We had lived on the same dorm floor during our first two years of college, and had both traveled hundreds of miles to attend school in North Carolina. Some days, we’d run into each other in the fifth-floor lounge of Hinton James Dorm, especially if there was a ballgame on the TV. We’d talk about our places on opposite sides of the rivalry – he was a Red Sox fan from Massachusetts, while I was a Yankees fan from New York. Other days, we might see each other while cramming for a final, and share a quick conversation to distract us from the task at hand. I can recall him stopping by my room with some other friends to sing happy birthday to me during my freshman year, before we all walked across the street to watch North Carolina play Duke in a men’s basketball game.

Bob was truly a terrific guy. He was a scholar, an athlete, a friend, and a caring individual. And then, one Saturday afternoon in September, a drunken driver crossed over the yellow line on Highway 54, slammed into Bob’s Honda Accord, and ended his life. At the age of 20.

I remember the beautiful church ceremony in Chapel Hill a few days after Bob’s death. They played Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young,” and we thought about the incredibly vibrancy that Bob had carried with him. We thought about the promise his life had held, and how it had all disappeared in a second. A van had swerved into his path, and that was it. I wrote a column for the school newspaper, sharing my own memories of Bob with the larger school community.

Bob was on my mind Thursday, when I learned that Los Angeles Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart and two others had been killed in a car accident, allegedly by a drunken driver. Police have arrested a 22-year-old and charged him with three counts of murder, stating that he had nearly triple the legal blood-alcohol level. Adenhart was 22 years old, and his death has stunned his family and friends, the Angels organization, and the world of baseball. The young man was tossing shutout baseball on a major-league diamond Thursday evening, only to see his life end in a flash just a few hours later. It is nearly impossible to believe. And yet, it happens dozens of times every day.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an estimated 12,998 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes during 2007. This adds up to 36 people per day. Some, like Adenhart, are famous. Others, like Bob, are not. All of them are loved, and none can be replaced.

My wife and I have been car-shopping lately, and we’ve been debating the merits of the cars we’ve test-driven. She’d like a minivan; I’d prefer something more fuel-efficient. Whatever. We’ll eventually agree, then we’ll buy something and drive it off the lot. As we do, we can only hope that Bob, Nick, and the thousands of other drunk-driving victims are looking out for all of us.

The Angels and Red Sox have played against each other this Easter weekend. If there’s a fifth-floor lounge in heaven with a TV running, maybe Bob and Nick have had the chance to catch a game together. I’ll bet they had a lot in common, and plenty to talk about.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Rooting for the Wrong Ending

It’s OK to root for my school, I’m telling myself. It’s not un-American.

Seven and a half years ago, I was rooting passionately for the Yankees to defeat the Arizona Diamondbacks in the World Series. I’d have done that anyway, but the events of September 11th placed the World Series storyline in a whole different light. The Bombers weren’t just playing for themselves, it seemed – they were playing for an entire city, one in need of all the inspiration it could get.

When Luis Gonzalez’ bloop single won the Series for Arizona in the last inning of the deciding game, it seemed as though someone had sabotaged the script and ended everything all wrong. Who really needed to see people hootin’ and hollerin’ in Phoenix at that time? Why was New York facing a sports-related heartbreak after all it had endured that fall? It was like leaving Dorothy in Oz with no good witch to save her, just Toto and a bunch of Munchkins.

Of course, the beauty of sports is that there is no set script (1919 World Series notwithstanding) and the thrill of the unexpected brings its share of joys and sorrows to the die-hard fan. We can write all we want about what a certain victory would mean to a town, a city, or a region, yet the facts remain that there’s a game to be played and symbolism doesn’t suit up to play; he just watches in press row.

So that takes us to tonight, in Detroit, when the North Carolina Tar Heels take on the Michigan State Spartans for the NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship. It is true, there has been incredible suffering among auto workers in Michigan and among those residents of Detroit itself. Only the heartless would lack sympathy for the thousands of unemployed in this area, or for the auto workers who are about to sacrifice portions of their precious pensions just to keep their jobs, or for the residents of Detroit who walk past empty storefronts and long for a new day. No matter how we feel toward the auto companies themselves, it has been a long, hard road for the people of Detroit, and they could use a pick-me-up as much as anyone this side of New Orleans.

It is most serendipitous that Detroit was able to host the Final Four this year, at a time when its economy could use a real jolt. Even more exciting for Michigan, though, is the fact that the Spartans are playing in the title game. As they suit up tonight, Tom Izzo’s players will try to win for themselves, for their school and for their region.

It sounds like a great, great story. The only problem here is that I went to the other school, the one that Michigan State is playing. I’d really like to see North Carolina win. And I have nothing against Detroit, auto workers or anyone in the Midwest. I just really like Carolina basketball. I feel somehow ashamed of that today, as I know the preferred plot favors the local guys winning one for Motown.

So if indeed the championship trophy is bathed in Carolina Blue tonight, I might just do one thing: I might forgive Luis Gonzalez. He didn’t mean to bruise my heart when he touched up Mariano Rivera with that well-placed single in November of ‘01. Neither did the Arizona fans. It’s just a game, and you don’t get to pick the ending. You just root for your guys, then get back to the literary devices of your own life.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Let's Play Some Ball

They asked me to write a baseball preview for the school newspaper back in my sophomore year of college. I had earned that job because, in a writers’ poll the year before, I had chosen the Cincinnati Reds to win the 1990 World Series. I was a big Lou Piniella fan, and he had taken over as Reds manager. In October of ‘90, my colleagues at the paper weren’t the only ones surprised that I had gotten this pick right – the entire baseball world watched in amazement as the Reds swept an Oakland A’s team that seemed nearly flawless.

So in 1991, as I penned my baseball preview, I felt it my responsibility to make another surprise pick. I liked the young talent on the Chicago White Sox, so I chose them to defeat the also young and talented Montreal Expos in the World Series.

That didn’t happen.

However … it did start a trend in my April baseball picks – I began falling in love with teams that were filled with young talent. And, inevitably, I was a year or two early in predicting these teams’ postseason success. It wasn’t 1991 that the White Sox made it back to the playoffs, but 1993. It wasn’t ’91 that Montreal made its big move, but 1994, a season that never saw the playoffs due to the absence of a labor agreement.

I gushed over the Milwaukee Brewers in 2005, ’06 and ’07, only to see them make the playoffs in ’08. I liked the Oakland A’s in ’05, but they made the American League Championship Series in 2006. I chose the Cleveland Indians to make the World Series in ’06, yet it was the following year that saw them come within a game of the Fall Classic. I picked the Phillies to make the World Series in ’07, only to see them win it in ’08. I picked the Mets to win it all last year, so that’s good news for the guys in Queens.

And so, as baseball’s regular season begins tonight, I present you with my picks for this year. As you read, I’d suggest you pencil these teams in for 2010.

American League: It seems that the New York Yankees will do whatever is needed to win the American League East this year, even if that means paying Sandy Koufax to find a fountain of youth and return to the mound. I’ll pick the Yanks for the division, with the Tampa Bay Rays and their scintillating young talent edging out the Boston Red Sox for the wild card. In the AL Central, I think the Detroit Tigers are the most professional ballclub in an evenly matched division, with the Indians right behind them and the Kansas City Royals paving the way for a return to postseason play in 2010. In the West, I am concerned about injuries to the Los Angeles Angels’ pitching rotation, but in a weak division I imagine they’ll trade for pitching if they need to do so. It is possible, however, that the Texas Rangers will be a much stronger team than most are predicting they will be. I like the Yankees defeating the Tigers in the Division Series, and the Angels outpitching the Rays. In the ALCS, I see the Yankees exorcising some demons by finally defeating the Angels.

National League: The Mets and Phillies both have tremendous ballclubs this year, and therefore they will both make the playoffs. I see the gritty, confident Phillies edging out New York for the division crown, but with both teams being well aware by mid-September that they’re playoff-bound. In the NL Central, the Chicago Cubs have tremendous pitching coupled with weaknesses in their lineup, but it will be enough to hold off the Brewers or whoever lands in second place. In the NL West, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks will duel it out in a very tight race, with the Rockies making some noise back in third place. But the Dodgers are just too talented a team, and if pitching is a problem, they’ll make the necessary moves as the season ensues. I like the Dodgers over the Mets in a classic Division Series matchup, and the Cubs edging out the Phillies in another close contest. The Dodgers will be far too much for the Cubs to handle in a seven-game championship series, putting Joe Torre’s group in the Series.

What a matchup: Yankees versus Dodgers; Torre versus the club he managed to four titles. The two historic franchises will meet in the World Series for the first time in 28 years, and they will be so evenly matched that the series can’t help but go seven. The Dodgers’ young players will find intestinal fortitude they never knew they had, and Torre will keep them calm amidst the nerve-wracking intensity of the Fall Classic. Matt Kemp will provide the big blow for Los Angeles in Game Seven, and the City of Angels will place a permanent halo over Torre’s head, as he leads the Dodgers to their first title in 21 years.

So there you have it – one man’s humble predictions in the newness of spring. As the season begins, it is indeed true that every team is tied for first place right now. But if you notice my picks, you’ll see that the Rays and Tigers are the only teams from mid-sized markets that I chose for this year’s playoffs. More than getting my World Series picks right, I’d love to see close races, involving teams with a variety of salary scales. That would be some real baseball.