Friday, February 26, 2010

Curlers Unite

Curling is a game of skill and of tradition. A shot well executed is a delight to see and it is also a fine thing to observe the time-honoured traditions of curling being applied in the true spirit of the game. Curlers play to win, but never to humble their opponents. A true curler never attempts to distract opponents, nor to prevent them from playing their best, and would prefer to lose rather than to win unfairly. – World Curling Federation rules of curling

Every so often, during a respectful conversation among adults, someone will tell me how much they dislike baseball. “It’s so boring,” they’ll say. “All the players do is stand around, take pitches, spit and wait for the ball.”

I smile, then politely share my opinion that when you get yourself deeply involved in this sport, all of the drama, grace, power and poetry are inescapable. My conversation partner sometimes asks for an example, and I talk about the way in which 162 games over six months can get whittled down to one final day in early October, with first and third and the score tied in the bottom of the ninth. There’s no touchdown pass, no overtime goal, no slam-dunk that builds to this type of crescendo, I say.

Baseball is boring. You’ve heard it, and maybe you’ve even said it. Passionate fans such as myself long ago accepted the reality that the intricacies of this sport are not for everyone. I can marvel at the way in which Joe Mauer or Derek Jeter use every ounce of their ability to hit a tough pitch the other way, or make a defensive stop that saves the game. But I know that there are countless others who’ll take your worst NFL game over a World Series matchup.

In the past two weeks, however, I have come to recognize a prevalent trend in American sports-watching. And it has me begging for a fresh debate with those baseball haters. My bone of contention is based on the number of individuals who have tuned into USA, CNBC and MSNBC in recent days to watch the hottest Winter Olympic sport on the planet.

The world loves curling. Shuffleboard on ice. Two and a half hours of men and women pushing 40-pound stones along a slippery surface, furiously sweeping brooms in front of said stones, all in the hopes of landing that stone inside a bull’s-eye-like target known as the “house.” Strategy-making curlers known as “skips” shout words like “Hurry hard!” and “Whoa!” to their broom-sweepers as the circular piece of granite glides, or “curls,” toward the house.

Curling is immensely popular in Canada, where winter activities are a must in order to survive the onslaught of winter. But here in the U.S., curling has hidden far under the radar for years. That is, until TV coverage of the sport during the 2006 Winter Olympics caught more than a few people’s eyes. This year, the sport is a ratings bonanza for NBC Universal. Yesterday, The New York Times even reported that CNBC’s curling coverage has become quite popular on Wall Street.

I’ve watched some curling during these Olympics. It’s got some nice dramatic buildup and a ton of history to it. I appreciate that in a sport. When I tune into a curling game, I also see a lot of players standing around, with one of them kneeling on one knee like a putter on the green. They plot strategy, stare at their target, and finally give the big stone a slide, complete with the obligatory broom-sweeping. Curling requires patience, strategy, attention to detail and endurance. I can enjoy a sport like that. Baseball’s got nine innings; curling has ten ends. No bad blood between me and the curlers.

What I do resent is the fact that a sports fan can sit for nearly three hours with the curlers, yet can’t stand to watch any baseball. Are you honestly telling me that it’s far more interesting to watch Kevin “The Bear” Martin toss a stone down the “sheet” than it is to watch Albert Pujols crush a baseball 400 feet? Is it truly more interesting to watch one stone kick another off the house than it is to watch Jimmy Rollins leg out a triple?

Maybe I’m missing something, but I just can’t comprehend how curling can experience this explosion in popularity, while baseball takes its annual punches to the gut. Maybe some fans don’t really dislike baseball as much as they resent the ubiquity of the sport. Come spring and summer, there’s no escaping pitchers and catchers. Curling, on the other hand, is nearly invisible in this country. Have you played any pickup curling games lately? (You can, actually, this Sunday when the Plainfield Curling Club holds an open house in South Plainfield, N.J.) Curling is your textbook definition of a novelty sport, and Americans love few things as much as novelty.

Last night, when the curlers had long finished their sliding and sweeping, I had my own sports-hating epiphany. For years, I have loathed figure skating. I’ve shouted at my TV during countless Winter Olympics, enraged that four years of intense preparation by underfed teen-agers can come crashing down just because a kid is unable to finish off a third twist in mid-air while wearing ice skates. I can’t even stand on ice skates, and this kid is supposed to feel like she messed up because she couldn’t pull off the near-impossible? I’d listen to Dick Button’s criticisms of the skaters and feel as though the sport was set up to make people fail.

And then there was last night. As I got ready for bed, I watched South Korea’s Kim Yu-na take to the ice for her long program. A gold medal awaited should Kim skate a strong program. I figured I’d watch, as I’d heard the hype about how good Kim was. As this 19-year-old hit the ice with a burst of speed, spins and spunk, I saw a kind of grace and athleticism that I’ve never witnessed before. It was a like watching a combination of Kristy Yamaguchi and Nadia Comaneci, with a touch of Madonna tossed in. Kim’s performance gave figure skating a new meaning for me. It was four of the most extraordinary minutes I’ve ever seen in sports, and I didn’t find myself worrying about whether or not she would fall. I was captivated.

So maybe we all discover the beauty of a sport in time. The figure skating fans who have no time for baseball may one day catch a glimpse of Tim Lincecum’s fastball or Carl Crawford’s baserunning and see the light. When they do, I’d be happy to swap stories with them. We can go curling together. No matter the sport, a shot well-executed is a delight to see.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Rookie in the House

The rookie walked into the room the other day, and everyone was there to greet her. Pats on the head, big hugs, a ball to play with. She grabbed a sip of water and a bite to eat, then promptly pooped on the floor.

Her name is Daisy, and she is a golden retriever. She was born two months ago, and we purchased her from a breeder earlier this week. She’s a little fur-ball right now, but she is the bold-faced headline in the news of our household. For the girls, this is their first time with a puppy, and they can’t get enough of her. They want to hold her, walk her, wake her up from her naps, and show her off to their friends. Katie, who is 8, is at a perfect age for helping take care of a new dog. She’ll usher Daisy outside, then play with her in the yard for an hour. Chelsea, at 5, is still a bit spooked by the idea of an animal in the house, so she alternates between trying to pet the dog and trying to run away from her.

For Amy and me, Daisy was an easy sell. She brings back fond memories of our previous golden’s puppy days, yet also brings her own, frisky personality. Daisy will lick your hand and wag her tail at you, but then when you’re on the floor with her she’ll gnaw at your hands, and even your hair. We’re trying to explain that she doesn’t need to retrieve parts of our body; she’s starting to get it.

The new kid on our block has helped us emerge from some of the darker days of winter, and she seems to love her new home. But somewhere in between that poop on the floor and the 4:30 a.m. whines from her crate, Daisy has helped Amy and I clear up a very important piece to our marriage: We are absolutely finished having children.

Amy’s been sure of it for a long time, while I’ve been slower to come around. But as I walk around my house this weekend in a fog of dog-induced fatigue, I am finally and fully on board. Two kids is a blessing; two is enough. Committing months to waking in the night, cleaning the messes and shushing the cries? That’s just more than this 39-year-old body is willing to take on. The little fur-ball is getting better, sleeping longer each night and leading us toward the door when nature calls. In a week, we hope she’ll be fully house-trained. But this past week has brought more than enough extra parenting for the two of us.

The rookie is a pretty fast learner, and Coach Katie has been a champ. But waking us up before dawn, as Daisy did today, just so she could go outside and eat snow? That’s enough to make Mom and Dad a tad cranky during the day.

There’s more I could tell you about Daisy – her white, almost polar bear-like fur; the clumsy way she tries to jump over the puppy gate, only to bounce off of it and land on her back in the water bowl; the trips she’s made down our backyard hill on Katie’s flying saucer. I could keep going, but honestly I’m pooped. Figuratively speaking, of course.

The rookie is being taken to her locker. Mom and Dad need some sleep.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Life on the DL

You learn a thing or two when you’re on the DL. For one, you discover just how appealing a diet of water and bagel chips can be. You also learn what color the hair on your beard is these days (for me, a mixture of brown, red and – gulp – gray). On a more serious note, you’re reminded of just how important it is to have health care.

My trip to the disabled list was prompted by a delightful sinus infection/influenza cocktail. It kept me out of work for a week, landed me in the Hynes Sick Room, and left me with little to do except hold my forehead, pull the covers close, and, drink my fluids.

So many of us look around our homes and say, “If I just had a few more days off, I could get so much done around here.” Sick days grant us that extra time, but of course the irony is that we have no energy at all to get anything done except refill the humidifier and take our medicine. We’re left, instead, to accept the reality that life’s gotta slow down when you’re on the DL.

So, when the fever has dipped closer to normal, we turn on the TV and absorb whatever our senses can take in. I remember seeing a lot of Weather Channel reporters in Washington, D.C., standing knee-deep in snow with rulers in hand. I recall hearing the play-by-play from some dismal basketball games featuring the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets. I watched some of the soap opera now known as “The Damons of Our Lives,” as MLB Network commentators tried to determine just which team Johnny Damon will play left field for this year. (Please, Johnny, enough is enough!)

I learned that Henry Louis Gates Jr. is teaching us some cool lessons about our ancestries on PBS by researching the family trees of celebrities. I found out that Bob Dylan, Jennifer Hudson and Smokey Robinson can actually team up for a pretty cool concert, especially if that concert is held in the White House. And I even learned that there is a television station devoted to showing music videos of songs from movie soundtracks. And you thought Kenny Loggins’ career was over!

There comes a point where you feel your body turning a corner, and you’re ready for something more than channel surfing. So you pick up a newspaper or a magazine. You try and figure out just what’s happening in Iran right now, and you learn about the courage so many Iranian journalists have shown in recent months. You read about some of the creative ways that people are raising money for Haiti. You finally get to Gary Smith’s Sports Illustrated article about a South African man and his journey from living in a semi-pro team’s clubhouse to playing minor-league ball for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

You have time to read that Times Magazine story about the Obamas’ marriage. You take a few minutes to learn the back story of Lady Gaga. You steel yourself for Nicholas Kristof’s sobering columns about the war in Congo. You absorb some Winter Olympics preview stories, and learn what you need to know about Shani Davis and Lindsey Vonn.

When you’re feeling well enough to lengthen your attention span, you start reading Luckiest Man, a biography of Lou Gehrig. You learn about the extreme poverty in the childhood of this man who would become one of baseball’s greatest players. You find yourself reading not so much the story of a ballplayer, but a tale of the immense obstacles and extreme determination present in the lives of American immigrants 100 years ago.

The bagel chips get old eventually, and you’re ready for a bowl of cereal, maybe even a glass of orange juice. The bones stop aching so much, and the head pounds a little less. You’re working your way off the DL. The doctor says to avoid rushing back to full speed.

You get back to work, and that feels good after so many days in bed. You didn’t get anything done around the house – in fact, the place is messier now than it was before. But in pulling back from business as usual, you had the chance to nourish your mind with stories it wouldn’t have had time for otherwise. And if knowledge equals power, then you’re feeling rather strong indeed.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Rivalry Royalty

Watching the North Carolina-Duke men’s basketball game last night was a little like watching Yankees-Red Sox, circa 1992. The rivalry was there, sure. The fans were intense, as always. But the talent was not the same.

Eighteen years ago, the Yankees and Red Sox both finished at least 20 games out of first place, both with losing records. That was the last time that neither New York nor Boston finished in the top two in the American League East standings; most years since then, they have both finished in the top two. The last dozen years, in particular, have seen the Yankees and Red Sox bring their storied baseball rivalry to an unprecedented level of excellence. Since 1998, in fact, Boston has won at least 92 games nine times, while New York has done it 10 times.

In the same way, it’s typical this time of year to see both North Carolina and Duke ranked in the top 10, both battling furiously for the Atlantic Coast Conference title and a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Since 1975, only two seasons have ended without UNC or Duke having won either the ACC’s regular season or tournament titles. The two schools have a combined 32 Final Fours and eight national championships between them.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see the UNC-Duke rivalry up close – first as a student, then as a sportswriter. And I’ve been lucky enough to see the Yankees-Red Sox duel many times from the seats of Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. They are, without question, the two most impressive rivalries I’ve ever witnessed in sports. The histories of the teams, the settings for their games, and the intensities of their fan bases all play a role in this. But the most important piece to these great rivalries is simple: It’s the quality that the teams produce, year after year.

You can say you’re a Red Sox fan and you hate the Yankees. But the reality is, a Boston championship is indescribably sweeter if it involves a hard-fought win over New York (see 2004). You can say that God loves the Tar Heels so much He made the sky Carolina blue, and that the Blue Devils truly belong in hell. But you know, deep down, that no UNC title is worth winning without some dramatic wins against Duke (see 2009).

These two rivalries are as revered as they are because of the high standards that all four clubs aspire to year after year, and the astounding levels of success that all four have achieved. You don’t need to be the champion every year to still be the team to beat. The Tar Heels, Blue Devils, Yankees and Red Sox have achieved so much success over the years that the best measuring stick for their progress has been the games they play against their heated rivals. It’s not just bragging rights they want in Chapel Hill, Durham, the Bronx and Kenmore Square; it’s an idea of just how good they are.

That’s why last night’s UNC-Duke game was such a letdown. Sure, this year’s Duke Blue Devils are a top-10 team, and they can hit three-pointers from anywhere on the court. But they’re not a complete team, and they don’t look like a real contender for an NCAA title. Duke may hold on and claim the ACC title, but that has more to do with a weak ACC conference this year than with the Blue Devils’ prowess. North Carolina, just 10 months removed from its fifth national title, lost four starters to the NBA and doesn’t have enough experience to compete at its usual level this year. This year’s Tar Heels are scrambling just to keep their record above .500.

And so, as the veteran Blue Devils fended off the young Tar Heels last night in Chapel Hill, I was reminded of how dreary those early-90s matchups were between the Yanks and the Sox. Sure, Boston still had Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs, while New York had a veteran Don Mattingly and a young Bernie Williams. But the teams didn’t have much sizzle to them, and therefore the head-to-heads didn’t carry the weight that they so often had and would in the years to come. (Even the one game with sizzle – Clemens pitching on a Saturday afternoon in the Bronx – lost its luster when I got my friend lost on the way there, and we ended up in Bogota, N.J. Bogota, by the way, just happens to be the hometown of former UNC sixth-man Pat Sullivan.)

North Carolina, at 2-7 in the ACC this year, is truly down on the canvas for once. While the rest of the conference gloats at the fall of the mighty, America’s best college rivalry suffers. The standards have been lowered, and who really likes it when your top rival is a punching bag?

Before we get too worried, though, let’s take a look forward. This year’s number-one high school recruit, 6-foot-8 forward Harrison Barnes from Iowa, recently chose UNC over Duke, joining two other nationally-touted recruits already on their way to Chapel Hill. And so the rivalry breathes on, and the balance of power shifts again.

As for baseball, the Yankees and Red Sox have carefully improved their teams again this off-season, spending their money on pitching and defense to add to their already-impressive batting lineups. There will be no letdown in that rivalry in 2010, and both teams will be favorites to make the playoffs once more.

I will root for the Yankees whenever they play the Red Sox. And while I won’t actually root for the Red Sox in their games against other teams, I won’t be too upset if August rolls around and the standings show New York and Boston tied for first place. It may cause some butterflies in the stomach, but you know the saying: Nothing that’s worth having comes easy.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Numbers & Intangibles

In the spring of 2003, the world was introduced to a movement that had been budding within baseball for several years. Michael Lewis, author of The Blind Side, wrote a baseball book that year titled Moneyball. The book followed the career of Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics, who had helped usher in the use of statistical analysis to guide baseball decisions. For more than 100 years, the eyes of baseball scouts had served as the primary tool for determining a ballplayer’s value. But as a new century dawned, Beane and other front-office executives determined that statistics could tell you more, in many cases, than any set of eyes ever could.

Nearly seven years after Moneyball was published, statistical analysis has overtaken baseball. There are number-crunchers and computer experts in every team’s offices, and there are highly educated programmers constantly improving the matrixes used to analyze baseball skills. The newest innovation: Computer programs that can break down defensive skills, to tell you how quickly a player gets to a ball in the field, how often runners advance on that player’s arm, and how well that player performs compared to another player of average skills. This new focus on defensive numbers has led some poor defenders, such as Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye, to find themselves without a team just two weeks before spring training begins.

Computer-generated numbers rule the game now, and the naysayers such as ESPN analyst Joe Morgan find their voices drowned out by the drumbeat of keyboard taps and mouse clicks. Since so many Americans are captivated by fantasy baseball – which is also guided by numbers – there is little argument from fans against this Moneyball revolution. Many of those fans will likely flock to movie theaters if the movie version of this book is ever released (Brad Pitt has signed on, and the script is undergoing revision).

As convincing as the numbers are, there are still moments when they can’t tell us the whole story. The poster child for this point has long been Derek Jeter, the Yankees shortstop and captain. Sports Illustrated did not select Jeter as its ’09 Sportsman of the Year solely because the guy hit .334 last year and scored 107 runs. The people who write about Derek Jeter often talk about the intangibles attached to his game. They talk about his ability to position himself in the right place for a cutoff throw, or his penchant for hitting a pitch toward right field when he’s having trouble getting around on a hard fastball. They tell you about his quiet leadership on and off the field, from the pat on the back he’ll give to a nervous pitcher during a touch inning to the kind words he often has for both teammates and opponents. They rave about Jeter’s model behavior, the absence of any link between him and performance-enhancing drugs, and the close relationship he has with his parents.

These are characteristics that statistics just can’t reveal, some will argue. They say you can’t judge a player completely based on the numbers because baseball – like life – always demands more from us than any math computation can contain.

I was thinking about this debate earlier today, when I was outside clearing the white stuff from my driveway. Humility aside for a second, I am a tremendous snow- shoveler. The statistics could tell you this – my shoveling average (amount of snow per over-the-shoulder toss) is strong, as is my overall shoveling time. My VORS (Value Over Replacement Shoveler) is top-of-the-line, and the accuracy of my tosses is spot-on. So yes, the numbers support my dominance as a shoveler. But do they tell the whole story?

Do the statistics tell you that I broaden my shoveling beyond the driveway and into the street, so that all the parking spots we might need are completely free of snow? Do they reveal the fact that I wait until the plows have gone by, so that we don’t get another sheet of snow in front of the driveway after I’m done? Do the numbers speak to the friendly conversations I have with neighbors, to keep their spirits high when their lower backs begin moaning? Do they tell you how free I am from performance-enhancing products such as snow blowers and snow plows?

No, they don’t. You can’t fully appreciate my shoveling prowess unless you watch with your own eyes. And since no one does that, I’m left to reflect on my own abilities as I sip some hot chocolate and marvel over the job well-done.

Moneyball is real and here to stay. There’s no debating that. But please, don’t forget to watch for the intangibles. They are everywhere, from shortstops to shovelers.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Winners & Winners

So now they’ve got 10 movies nominated for Best Picture. And I couldn’t even begin to tell you which one should win.

There was a day, back in the years B.C. (Before Children), when I had easily seen all the Best Picture nominees by the time the Academy Awards were handed out. Not only that, but I’d also watched the more deserving films that the Oscars had failed to even nominate. I could sit there with my wife, my brother or my mom and debate the merits of each race while Billy Crystal danced on stage. “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Thin Red Line”? Are you kidding? “Gladiator” over “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Traffic”? How can this be? “American Beauty” wins the award, but “Magnolia” isn’t even granted a nomination? What were they thinking?

Yes, those were the days when Amy and I would drive into the city on a weekend night to see a film that was playing in limited release. We might meet some friends for dinner, then all head over to the movies together. Afterward, we’d grab some ice cream and discuss the film. When March came around, we’d all talk about the Oscars, fiercely defending our own personal favorites.

That might has well have been a million years ago. The seismic shift from B.C. to A.F. (“Anno Fatigo” – In the Year of our Fatigue) only happened eight years ago, but the advent of parenthood has drastically altered our movie-going habits. Amy and I try, once or twice a month, to watch a movie together at home on a Saturday night. We search the library or video store for films that are 90 minutes or less, in the hopes that we will actually make it all the way through without falling asleep. More often than not, we still wind up watching the movie over two nights because one or both of us drifted off midway through the film. It’s kind of pathetic.

Every once in a while, though, that golden opportunity arises. Either my parents are over on a weekend night, or we’ve actually managed to get ourselves a babysitter. We kiss the girls goodnight, grab some Thai food or pizza, then make our way to the movie theater. Amy orders a large Coke, I end up drinking most of it, and we savor a couple hours of escapism.

These movie moments are rare enough that even with 10 nominees this year, we can only claim to have seen two. And one of those – the Pixar film “Up” – we saw with the girls. The only one we saw together on a date night was “Up in the Air,” which of course we enjoyed – but, really, we don’t have much with which to compare it.

Maybe we’ll get around to seeing “Avatar” or “Precious” or “The Hurt Locker” sooner or later. But when the awards are given out next month, we won’t be able to judge them all equally. Which means we’re going to have to watch the Oscars just for the fun of it, without all the rooting.

And you know, it’s actually a pretty cool feeling to watch a competition and not really care who wins. Last spring, Katie and I spent a few weekend hours watching college softball games on ESPN. We sat there together, talking about how you play the game, how cool the uniforms looked, and how the girls all kept their hair in ponytails. But whether Arizona beat Tennessee, or vice-versa? Just didn’t matter. No sweating over each out, like Katie’s dad might do with a Yankees playoff game. No butterflies in the stomach with Mariano on the mound. Just fun. Eventually, we felt inspired enough to go out in the backyard and have our own catch. To us, it was a game of winners and winners.

So as the Oscar debates rage on for the next month, Amy and I will follow all the hoopla. But we won’t be in on the water-cooler debates this time. We’re Switzerland on this one.

Our opinions are up in the air. Our spirits are up. Good luck with the envelopes.