Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Breaking Down the Final Four

One of the things I like best about the NCAAs is when I couldn't care less who wins which game. With Mizzou never in and Kansas bounced early, I've been able to enjoy the games for their sheer excitement. I loved the pace of the games, especially the cliffhanger ending Sunday between Kentucky and Michigan State. I figure many folks have Illinois and NC in their bracket, and I picked Louisville to make it in couple of my espn.com brackets, but Michigan State? Not a huge surprise, sure, especially when you look at Tom Izzo's winning percentage in the tournament, but still unexpected for them to come out of the bracket, especially one when Duke and Kentucky were on the docket. Anyway, St. Louis will be center stage this weekend, so to all my friends in the Gateway City, don't screw this up like Jacksonville did the Superbowl, okay? On to the games and the picks...

Illinois vs. Louisville
In terms of absolute excitement, I think this is the the premiere game of the weekend. Illinois survived a game they should have lost against Arizona, and Louisville hung in against a tough-as-nails West Virginia team who led by as many as 20 points in the first half, so neither one of these teams is going to play with fear or throw in the towel if they get down. Illinois is essentially the home team—St. Louis has as many Illini fans as Mizzou boosters—so they'll have somewhat of a crowd advantage, but don't underestimate Louisville's popularity, either. As a Conference-USA team, they play here every year. My gut instinct is to go with Louisville, but I think it'll be a close, fast, exciting game from buzzer to buzzer.

North Carolina vs. Michigan State
The Spartans have already knocked off two powerhouse teams in Duke and Kentucky, but I wonder if they will be able to match Carolina's physical inside game. Roy Williams has a lot of experience getting to the finals, but he's never been able to win one. Is this the year? It looks like it, and Carolina is the favorite to win it all, but Michigan State's gotten to this point by defying expectations and playing smart basketball. Again, it's just gut instinct, but I'm going with Izzo's boys to pull of the trifecta.

Projected Final
Louisville over Michigan State; just don't blame me if you wager cash and lose. Remember, when it comes to sports, we're all almost always wrong!

Friday, March 25, 2005

Why Illinois Won't Win

I truly enjoyed last night's game between Illinois and Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It was, for the most part, one of the fastest college games of recent memory, with both teams executing the fast break almost at will, with Illinois jamming the ball inside with intermittant threes from their outstanding guards, and UWM hitting lots of open threes.

But Illinois won't get past Arizona, who handled a rock-solid Oklahoma State team last night in the late game. I'd be saying the same thing about OSU if Stoudamire hadn't hit the buzzer-beater. Both of those teams just looked tougher and more confident at this point in the year than Illinois has.

If I'm wrong (and I usually am when it comes to sports, and so are you, and so are the "experts" who get paid for it--it's why sports are so much fun; their inherently democratic) then I'd wager a dollar or two that Louisville beats them in the Final Four in St. Louis. Rick Pitino's Cardinals look like the team to beat in the whole tourney right now. They handled a good (albeit overrated) Washington team last night and won going away. At this point, I think they could beat either North Carolina, Duke or Kentucky from the other side of the bracket.

In any case, the rest of the NCAA tourney promises some outstanding basketball, and right now, that's about all the sports world has to offer right now. Baseball's still a few weeks away, football's a whole season away, I don't care about the NBA, and hockey's just gone away for good. When T.S. Eliot wrote "April is the cruelest month," I think he was lamenting the lack of exciting sports news.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Misery Loves Company

Hello again, sports fans. Sorry I was gone last week. I was in Minneapolis to accept a graphic design award through Wednesday, then spent the rest of the week trying to catch up from the trip. I did get time to enter five spectacularly pathetic losing NCAA tourney brackets on espn.com's fantasy challenge, proving once again that I can be just as wrong as the so-called experts who get paid to do what I do for free--express sports opinions.

I don't think there's anything more American that March Madness, because it expresses two of our culture's most prominent qualities. One is a myth, and the other is an unpleasant reality.

The myth is that Americans like the underdog. Oh, we do in sports, because it helps reinforce the myth that it works that way in real life. We love a "David and Goliath" story because we've been fed the Horatio Alger b.s. line all our lives, that America provides anyone with the opportunity to achieve and succeed. That's a nice bedtime story, but reality hardly ever fits that pattern. That's why we love to see it happen in sports. Whenever an unknown team rises up to beat a national powerhouse, most people who don't have some vested interest in one team or the other love to see the underdog upset the favorite (except for chronic gamblers, of course, but that's another story for another day).

This year's tournament has been exceptional for some stunning upsets. Two No. 2 seeds (UConn and Wake Forest) have been sent home, a stunning three No. 3 seeds (Kansas, Oklahoma, Gonzaga) are watching the rest of the tourney on TV, and two No. 4's (Syracuse and Boston College) are gone. Sure, my brackets are ruined, and so are yours, probably.

We love watching little schools like Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Vermont and Bucknell knock off the big boys because it reinforces the underdog myth that we almost never see outside the sports arena. Anyone taking on Microsoft? Rush Limbaugh going to jail anytime soon? How about Ken Lay? In real life, money talks, and the rich and powerful usually get a free pass while the regular guys get screwed. Don't believe me? Try scoring ten grand worth of Oxycontin on the street and see how long you stay out of jail for illegal drug possession. It helps if you're the official mouthpiece of the ruling party in the nation.

But the myth is necessary for the ruling class. Without the myth of the underdog, we would have to face the real economic realities of the nation: poverty, poor health care, atrocious public education, disparity in wealth and incomes, the list goes on. This myth is the reason why poor people keep re-electing rich men who vote for tax cuts for their rich friends at the expense of the poor who voted for them, and sports reinforces the myth. So be it.

The reality that March Madness reveals comes from a remarkable German word, "schadenfreude," which means "taking delight in another's misfortune." This is the real appeal of the tournament for me, especially since I'm an alum of the University of Missouri, a college synonymous with NCAA tournament futility (not to mention NIT failures, as well--we suck on so many levels!). I take unashamed glee at watching Kansas and Oklahoma collapse like a Democratic presidential campaign. I love watching the teams that East Coast wankers like Dick Vitale and Digger Phelps love--UConn, Syracuse, Wake Forest--lose to teams that hardly merit a line of agate type in the local sports page. Joy, joy, joy!

Of course, in the end, it will probably be a couple of No. 1 seeds facing off for the national championship, as it usually happens. In real life, not only does the underdog rarely win, he usually never even gets a chance to get into the game.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Some Free Advice for Reggie Fowler

Dear Reggie,

I am pleased to hear that you are planning to buy the Minnesota Vikings. As a long-time fan who has suffered through four excruciating Superbowl losses, the Les Steckel error--sorry, I mean era-- the horrible nightmare that was the 1998 NFC Championship (Denny, how could you tell Randall to take a knee with 30 seconds left?), I remain steadfast in the hope that someday before I die (and I'm pushing 40 soon, so get busy!) I will get to see the Purple hoist the Lombardi trophy toward the heavens.

It's just that there's a few things that you need to know before you get started. First, you're buying a team from a Texas used car salesman. This is a guy who makes Dick Cheney look honest and sincere. Red McCombs is the most craptaculous owner in the NFL. He makes Jerry Jones look patient and reasonable. He makes Bill Bidwell look marginally competant. He actually makes Vikings fans long for the good old days when Mike Lynn ran the team.

Now, this team you're buying may look like a good deal, but it's gonna need some serious work. Red's already stripped off the turbocharger unit, Randy Moss, for a few spare parts that may or may not work. Yeah, Randy dropped the gas mileage down quite a bit, and the car was noisy, but man, could that baby run when he was working at peak efficiency. I know it was prone to unexpected breakdowns, but what was once a monster muscle car is now just another roadster.

Also, your transmission is shot. You know, the head coach, the one who determines direction and power? He's gotta go. The guy has admitted to scalping Superbowl tickets, for pete's sake; something it appears many coaches do, but this is one more distraction you don't need. If Red won't replace it for you before you sign the papers, your first action as the new owner should be to pink slip Tice right out the door.

And while you're at it, send the rest of the inept coaching staff with you. The Vikings haven't had a decent defense--and not coincidentally, a decent defensive coordinator--since Tony Dungy left for Tampa Bay. Dungy would be the perfect guy to replace Tice, but I think he's gonna stick with that older Manning boy in Indy for a while, at least until Bob Irsay gets tired of losing in the playoffs every year to New England. But you won't have time to wait around. The entire coaching staff should follow Tice out the door. Let your new guy, whoever he his, bring in his own folks.

The good news is that the engine is sound. You've got Daunte Culpepper, a defensive end who happens to play quarterback, and a good stock of decent running backs. Even Mike Martz couldn't screw up this offense. Well, okay, of course Mike Martz could screw up this offense, but hey, the car has to be worth something, otherwise it's not a good buy for you.

Last thing: You'll want to build a new stadium. Everyone knows the Metrodome isn't up to snuff in terms of facility amenities or the revenue it generates. But here's the deal: forget public financing. Minnesota is one of the last bastions of true progressive politics, and they'll tell you to go jump in a cold winter lake before they spend tax money to make you richer when it can go toward more legitimate public needs. We liberals like using tax money to help the poor, not the rich, so deal with that fact from the beginning. Spend your own money; you'll be a hero in the state.

And here's the last part: make it an outdoor stadium. Yes, it's cold in the winter--it's freakin' Minnesota! Don't you think they all know it? They love the cold! They go fishing when it's 20 degrees below zero! The Vikings must reclaim their roots as winter warriors. Green Bay gets the credit, New England gets the glory, and they both play outdoors when it's cold and snowy. Reclaim the Vikings' true heritage. Your best move is to convert this stripped down sports car into a blizzard-busting SUV.

And hurry up, would you? The stupid Red Sox have already won a championship. Let's get one before those hideous Chicago Cubs fans break their losing streak.

Best wishes for your success,

The Sandman

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Bad Decisions and Rampant Hypocrisy

The latest head-scratching news out of Jupiter (that's Florida, not the planet, although sometimes it's hard to tell) is that would-be Cardinals pitcher Nuke LaLoosh--sorry, that's Rick Ankiel--has finally given up on actually being a pitcher. He's gonna move to the outfield.

Well, it's about time, but two years two late.

Look, I'll go out on what I think is a short and stable limb and say that Rick's got a good chance of making the club as an outfielder. Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders have a combined age of what, about 87 years old, and our current backups are John Mabry and So (What?) Taguchi, so Ankiel as another option isn't as crazy as it might seem. He hit well as a DH in the minors, and setting himself free of pitching expectations that probably only Sandy Koufax could have lived up to might cause him to catch fire. So, as a Cardinals fan, I'm certainly hoping he'll succeed.

As you'll probably read and/or hear from a variety of sources over the next few days in response to this story, the Cardinals had another failed pitcher who moved to the outfield a few decades back, a guy named Stan Musial. I seem to remember reading something about him having an okay career, although certainly nothing to attract the attention of baseball experts such as Ken Burns or George Will.

Now, before your blood pressure gets too high, I'm not even close to comparing Ankiel with Musial, even in terms of potential. I'm just saying it's not an unprecedented idea. What bothers me is that LaRussa and Duncan didn't recognize the signs that Ankiel might not have the right stuff to pitch in time to unload him to Oakland instead of Dan Haren in the Mark Mulder trade. And who knows, maybe Walt Jocketty tried to trade Ankiel instead of Haren with no luck. I doubt we'll ever hear that. But I'd feel a lot better with Haren in the 5th starting slot instead of Ankiel maybe riding the pine as a reserve outfielder, pinch hitter/runner, or emergency extra-extra-extra inning pitcher.

Now, about the hypocrisy...I'll keep it short and simple: Having a congressional hearing about steroids in baseball without calling Barry Bonds to testify is like having a hearing about illegal bootlegging in prohibition-era Chicago without calling Al Capone to testify. Come to think of it, that would have happened; Capone would have had something on every member of that committee. So that leads us to the question: What does Barry have that makes him immune?

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Out of the Wilderness?

Most of us who lived in eastern Missouri in the 1970s and early 1980s who followed the St. Louis football Cardinals have strong, and sometimes highly ambiguous, feelings about the team, even though it's been more than 15 years since they moved to the Arizona desert. I have fond childhood memories of rooting for the Cardiac Cards of Hart, Metcalf, Wehrli, Gray, Dobler, Dierdorf, and Coryell with my father and grandfather.

I also remember the precise moment that I gave up for good on the Cardinals, three years before they ever left St. Louis. Oh, I bet you do, too, if you remember. 1984, last game of the season, Neil O'Donahue with a potential game-winning kick to beat the Giants [correction: it was, in fact, the Redskins they lost to that day; the loss put the Giants in playoffs, hence my mistake, and remember kids--alcohol kills brain cells!] and put the Gridbirds into the playoffs. Miss it, and we miss the playoffs.

Oh, of course. Wide of the uprights. No good. No playoffs. No hope. I had to give up on them. My first football love was the Minnesota Vikings, and I couldn't tolerate twin heartbreak every season. It was just too painful.

So they left, and we watched the fiasco that was NFL Expansion pass us by. By this time, I lived in St. Louis and worked downtown. I watched them build the dome stadium day by day, and I waited while it stood empty. Then came the Rams. As Chris Berman might say, the bumbling, stumbling Rams. How perfect for St. Louis--another inept, hopeless football team.

But then came 1999: Vermeil, Faulk and Kurt Warner. Who? An arena league QB? You know the rest of the story. Two MVP awards, one Superbowl win, one heartbreaking Superbowl loss, and a fall from grace as quick and as stunning as his rise to glory.

While I don't hate Marc Bulger (I never have), and can admit that he does have some skills at the position, he just doesn't have the same magic that Warner did. Now Warner's going to get the chance, it seems, to see if lightning can indeed strike twice. He'll probably be the starter this year for the Arizona Cardinals, whose head coach is Dennis Green, who used to coach the Vikings. Coincidence? I think not. It's more like a harmonic convergence for me.

My dad has never stopped rooting for the football Cardinals, even though to this day, just like 25 years ago, he gripes about how much they suck. But the Rams sucked, too, before Kurt Warner took over as their QB. Does Arizona have the right ingredients? Can they pull off another remarkable "worst to first" NFL success story. All of the so-called experts--and a half a century of utter futility by a franchise--loudly say "no."

But you know what? I believe that anything is possible. And as I watch the NFL draft next month, and training camps in July, pre-season games in August, and finally, the start of the season, I'll be doing something I haven't done in more than 20 years: rooting for the football Cardinals, led by my favorite quarterback since Fran Tarkenton still had hair.