Thursday, April 30, 2009

My second round picks and a perfect mint julep

The first round of the playoffs is behind us, and, as usual, it didn't disappoint. The two game 7s played Tuesday night were classics, with Washington knocking off the Rangers after falling behind three games to one, and Carolina scoring twice in the last two minutes to send the Devils and Marty Brodeur packing. I picked six of the eight series correctly, fanning on Vancouver's sweep of St. Louis and Anaheim's upset of San Jose. But upsets in the first round are to be expected. As the playoffs progress, the better teams, and the better defensive teams, usually prevail. Here's the way I see round two:
Boston over Carolina in six: The Bruins are the best team in the East and they're well rested. Vezina Trophy favorite Tim Thomas now has his first playoff series win behind him, and Phil Kessel is emerging as an NHL star. The 'Canes Eric Staal is playing great, but the Bruins have home ice and depth.
Pittsburgh over Washington in five. The glamor boys--Pittsburgh's Sydney Crosby and Washington's Alex Ovechkin--square off in this one, and I'd love to see it go seven games. But the Caps barely squeaked by the offensively challenged Rangers, and the Penguins are hitting on all cylinders. But these games will be wonderful entertainment, because the stars don't like each other, on top of everything else.

Detroit over Anaheim in seven
: This will be a nasty series between the last two Stanley Cup champions, and it's not a good draw for Detroit. Anaheim is tough, mean, and loaded with North Americans--they have only two Europeans on their roster, not counting Swiss goalie Jonas Hiller--and they led the NHL in fighting this year. The Red Wings are fast, skilled, disciplined and are loaded with Europeans--they have 13 in all, seven of them Swedes--and were last in the league in fighting. Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf fought San Jose's pacifistic Joe Thornton at the opening faceoff in their clinching game against the favored Sharks, so it's not hard to figure out what Anaheim's strategy will be against the Wings. Intimidation. If Detroit's power play can make them pay, and the Wings players are able to refrain from retaliation penalties, and goalie Chris Osgood plays as well as he did the opening round and doesn't revert to regular season form (that's a lot of ifs), the skilled Wings should prevail. Barely.
Vancouver over Chicago in six: The Hawks are a team of the future, and showed tremendous heart and fire in knocking off Calgary in the first round. But Vancouver has the best goalie left in the playoffs in Roberto Luongo, and are well rested after their relatively easy first round sweep of the Blues. Chicago will play well, but look for the Canucks to move on.

...And speaking of moving on, why not enjoy a mint julep, not just while watching the Derby, but while enjoying the NHL playoffs in HD? I've always wondered why the mint julep is generally only enjoyed one day a year, and sometimes not even that often. I think it's because it's generally served too sweet. Here's the recipe recommended on the website of Maker's Mark. If you have a couple of hours, go for it. It looks wonderful.
...Me, I prefer this one: 2 1/2 ounces bourbon
2 tsp. water
1 tsp. Breakwind Farm honey (or any honey)
crushed ice

Place water, honey and mint in a tumbler. Crush mint and mix with a spoon. Add ice and bourbon. Mix well. Serve with sprig of fresh mint. Sip. Repeat. Enjoy.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Ellsbury steals home; I check my bees and they're "Safe!"

For those of you who may have missed it--and made YouTube take the clip down, so it's not that easy to find--check out Jacoby Ellsbury's straight steal of home during Sunday night's 4-1 Red Sox win over the Yankees. It came in the fifth inning of a tight 2-1 game, with the bases full, two outs, and J.D. Drew at bat. Drew hits fifth in the Sox lineup, and if Ellsbury had been out he'd have been a goat of colossal proportions.
As it was, the steal of home ignited the crowd and his teammates, and put pitcher Andy Petitte so out of sorts he then threw an inside fastball to Drew--who'd looked terrible striking out on breaking balls his first two at-bats--that Drew hammered into right field to drive in the final run of the game. It was the Sox tenth straight win, and completed a three game sweep of the arch-rival Yankees. It's only April, but they all count. And they count double against the Yanks.
....Ellsbury's straight steal of home was the first by the historically lead-footed Sox since 1994, when Billy Hatcher did it. Stealing home is a rare thing on any team these days, and its one more reason Ellsbury is my favorite player. The guy's electric, he's humble, he flies (10 stolen bases already), he runs everything out, and he's got a great smile and a great glove. He's the first full-blooded Navajo in the major leagues. Women hold up signs asking him to marry them. Fathers hold up signs asking him to marry their daughters. The guy's having fun.
... A theft of home is the second most exciting play in baseball--I'd rank the inside the park home run first--and it's almost never done anymore. In the very first pro baseball game I ever saw--I must have been about eight--I watched Roberto Clemente steal home against the hapless Cubs. It's also the last time I ever saw a straight steal of home in person, and I remember it to this day: the surprise, the sudden burst of speed, the pitcher's slow-motion delivery home, the sense of unreality-- What's he doing?!--and the air going out of Wrigley Field, and the Cubs, when Clemente was called safe. It's baseball's equivalent of a bitch slap. For the defense, it's an embarrassing play.
...The most famous theft of home of all time was probably when Jackie Robinson stole home in the opening game of the 1955 World Series against the Yankees. To this day Yanks catcher Yogi Berra swears he was out, but Berra's in the minority on that one. Then again, no one was in a better position to know. In all, Robinson stole home 19 times in his career, an amazing total, but not as amazing as the record holder: Ty Cobb, who stole home 50 times!! Why the play has virtually disappeared from modern baseball is unclear to me, but I'm pretty sure it has something to do with players not wanting to get hurt. Face it, it takes a lot of courage to run directly into a man holding a bat, a catcher, and a pitcher armed with a ball. The great thing about Ellsbury's play--and it was his first straight steal of home since high school--was he did it while a left-handed batter was at the plate. So the catcher, Jorge Posada, should have had a clear view of what was going on. Petitte, a lefty, was in a full windup, his back to Ellsbury. And the Yanks third baseman was playing over near the shortstop hole. So Ellsbury had a huge lead. Still, the element of surprise was the key factor, and it absolutely turned the momentum of the game. Sox fans stood and clapped until Ellsbury came out of the dugout to take a curtain call.
....Faithful followers of this blog will recall that eight days ago my queen bee emerged from her cage. That's a good time for the beekeeper to go back into the hive and make sure she's doing her job, which is to lay thousands and thousands of eggs in neat and disciplined patterns. So my neighbor, Kate McCandless, and I lit up the smoker and donned our suits and prepared to enter the hive. That is me on the right, loins girded. Kate looks quite a bit more stylish in her new white suit, and more relaxed, which was impressive, since it was her first foray into a living hive. Later that day we would install her first package of bees, and she's a natural. It's quite important you move slowly and show no signs of nervousness or fear. That only agitates the hive.
....After blowing a little smoke in to calm the fellas down, I pulled out one of the centermost frames to inspect it. The bees were relatively relaxed in their labors, which is the first thing you look for: a contented hive. Contented hives tend to have functioning queens.
...What I was looking for was evidence of brood, which at this point looks a little like a droplet of milky dishwashing liquid at the bottom or one of the hexagonal cells. The difficulty was seeing into the cells with thousands of bees happily walking over them, depositing pollen into them, and regurgitating nectar into them. But I caught enough glimpses of the milky brood to be convinced that things were proceeding as they should have been. After carefully replacing the first frame, we removed a second and found the queen, which was marked with a big green dot on her back. She was merrily scurrying across the cells. I was hoping she might lay an egg or two for us, but she was a shy monarch and wasn't about to perform on demand. So I very, very carefully replaced that frame so as not to accidentally squish her, and closed up the hive. I'll check it again in another ten days or so to make sure that she is laying in sufficient quantities to keep the hive healthy and strong. Worker bees only live five or six weeks, so she has to reproduce entire generations several times over the course of a summer.
....But she has all the looks of a winner to me. I think I'll call her Miss Ellsbury.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Black Hawks: Been down so long it looks like up to me

Here we go again, Hawks fans. Brace yourself for another post-season swoon.
...Actually, "another" isn't quite right, since it's been seven long years since they've even had the opportunity to swoon in the playoffs. And to be fair to this Hawks squad, no one expected them to go all the way. They're an exciting team, but they're young. Still, there was every reason to believe the Hawks would win their first playoff series since 1996 after getting a two games to none lead on the Calgary Flames, who just happen to be the last team to lose to the Hawks in the post-season. But alas, the Hawks dropped games 3 and 4 in Calgary, and their senseless yapping has managed to wake up the Flames sleeping captain and star,Jarome Iginla. So the series returns to Chi-town even at two wins apiece. Given their history, I'm not liking the Blackhawks chances.
....No team in the NHL has gone longer between championships. A few have never ever won a Stanley Cup: St. Louis, Buffalo, and Los Angeles among the early expansion teams; the Washington Capitals, who have the most exciting player in the league in Alex Ovechkin, but now, thanks to the heroics of Rangers goalie Henrik Lundquist, are on the brink of elimination. And of course some more recent expansion teams like Florida, Nashville and Atlanta are Cup-less too. Maple Leaf fans rightly bemoan their forty-two year drought, which stretches back to 1967. And some teams--the Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets--came and went without ever treating their fans to the game's ultimate prize.
....But the hapless Hawks? They have the longest drought of all. Their last Stanley Cup was in 1961--48 years ago. And counting. I was nine years old when they last won, and every year of my childhood I expected they'd win again. They were always stacked with talent. My father had seasons tickets, and they put on a show every game in the old Chicago Stadium, which was always sold out and rocking.
...What a lineup they had between 1962 and 1973. The Golden Jet, Bobby Hull, was in his prime, and became the first player to break the hallowed 50-goal barrier in 1966. The Blackhawks second line was the so-called Scooter line, perennially among the best lines in hockey: Stan Mikita at center, Ken Wharram at right wing, and Ab McDonald at left. The formula for winning in the playoffs then was the same as it is now: You need two scoring lines and a checking line. The Hawks had that. Their defense was anchored by their captain, Pierre Pilote, and Elmer "Moose" Vasko, one of the biggest players in the league. And their goaltender was "Mr. Goalie" himself, Glenn Hall. How good was this team? One season, 1963-64, the Hawks placed five players on the NHL's first all-star team: Hull, Mikita, Wharram, Pilote and Hall. The one interloper from the rest of the league was Toronto defenseman Tim Horton. Vasko was a second-team all-star. Yet Chicago still didn't win the Cup.
...Years later I ran into Glenn Hall when I was doing a story on goaltending, and we spent an afternoon reminiscing about that team. I, too, had been a goalie, and stylistically had been greatly influenced from watching Hall in my youth. But I'd never met the man who'd once played 502 straight regular season games, a record that will never be broken, and I knew little about his personality except that he used to throw up before every game. I always had heard it was out of nervousness, but Hall told me it was out of excitement. He never really felt ready unless he'd thrown up, so he'd make himself heave by putting his finger down his throat. He was quite funny about it, remarking that sometimes, if he'd had a glass of water, it would still be cool when he puked it. Indeed, he was so charming, unassuming, and amusing that afternoon that I now tell people who ask that Glenn Hall was my all-time favorite athlete to interview .
....I asked him why they didn't win more often in the '60s, and he shook his head in disgust. Other teams, he said, approached the playoffs with the idea they would cut down on their goals against. This was particularly true of the Maple Leaf teams of that six-team era. The Hawks, who were coached by Billy Reay, approached the playoffs with the idea they would increase their offensive production. He related one story about how he enraged Hull at a restaurant by calling him an average NHL player. "Average?" Hull snapped. "How do you figure that?"
..."Average," Glenn Hall repeated. "Bobby, you're the best offensive player in the league, and the worst defensive one. So you're average."
...Hull was so upset he overturned the table.
...But that was the way that Hawks team played, and, as a spectator, it sure was fun to watch. Mikita and Hull were two of the earliest players to experiment with hooked sticks--they'd steam them and bend the blades by prying them under a door--and before the NHL put 1/2 inch restrictions on the amount of curve that was legal, some of the sticks they used had blades bent like bananas. 2-3 inches was nothing. They used to have contests at practice to see who could shoot the puck highest into the stands. Before games Hull, Mikita, and Dennis Hull (Bobby's younger brother) used to get their laughs during warmups by shooting pucks over the net so they'd crash against the glass. The purpose was to rattle the goal judge into spilling his soft drink all over himself. Meanwhile, Hall--who played without a mask--would curse and mutter and eventually vacate the net in disgust, because with those huge curves, sometimes the puck would dive and weave like a knuckleball. The shooter had no idea where it was going. Hall told me he was certain Bobby Hull would have broken the 50-goal mark much sooner if he'd stayed with a straight stick. Why? Because he'd had one of the best backhands in the game, a shot Hull virtually abandoned once he switched to a curved stick.
....But the Golden Jet was the face of the sport, dashing, rugged, electric, his thinning blond hair flying in the wind. He was the first hockey player in 30 years to make the cover of Time magazine, and he was easily the most popular athlete in Chicago. After a salary dispute with skinflint Hawks owner Arthur Wirtz, in 1972 Hull jumped to the fledgling World Hockey Association, giving that league instant credibility. It also marked the end of the Hawks string of sellouts at the Chicago Stadium, and ushered in an era of Blackhawks futility that marked the entire tenure of Arthur's son, Bill Wirtz', ownership. A proud franchise was brought to its knees, from which it is only now starting to rise.
....There was one especially difficult loss that Hawks fans had to endure at the end of that stretch of time. It was in 1971. Hull and Mikita were still in their glory, but Glenn Hall had moved on, and Pilote and Vasko had retired. But the Hawks were, again, the best team in the NHL, and, with Tony Esposito in goal, were on the verge of their first Cup in a decade. Facing Montreal in the finals, the Hawks won the first two at home, dropped the next two on the road to an overmatched Canadiens team, who were backstopped by a rookie goalie named Ken Dryden. Game 5 in Chicago was another Hawks win, leaving them two games in which to close the Canadiens out and win the Cup. Montreal won game 6 at the Forum, 4-3, setting up the series clincher back in the Chicago Stadium. Home ice advantage in Game 7--this is what you play the regular season for. The Hawks absolutely dominated the first period, taking a 2-0 lead, that could have been twice that were it not for a couple of shots off the post and Dryden's heroics. But the game was well in hand. Then midway through the second period, Jacques Lemaire skated through the neutral zone and fired a slapshot from just beyond the center ice line. Esposito fanned on it. Beaten by a 90 footer. It completely changed the momentum of the game. The Canadiens soon tied it, 2-2, and in the third period ageless Henri Richard skated past young Hawks defenseman Keith Magnuson and beat Esposito for the game winner. 3-2. The Hawks, with the better team and home ice advantage, had failed again.
....Forgive me if it all seems as if it were yesterday. I was 19 in 1971, playing college hockey, rooming with a group of Canadians who were, of course, rooting for the Habs. It was a lonely thing being a Hawks fan in Princeton, NJ in those years--Rangers and Flyers country--playing on a team made up of Bostonians, Ontario-ans, and upstate New Yorkers. It's been even lonelier to be a Hawks fan in the 38 years since. And it looks like 2009 will not be the year that will make us forget that heartbreaking loss in 1971, and the glory years of the Golden Jet.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Big Papi fades; my bees rally

Let me say first of all that Big Papi, a.k.a. Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, is a huge favorite in my house. Last year my wife named Papi and Emmylou Harris as her two living heroes, and while I tried not to take the choice personally, husbands were eligible for the draft. I like him, too. Not as much as I like Emmylou, but, then, she can't hit a high fastball either.
...Papi's been a breath of fresh air since coming to Boston in 2003. He single-handedly improved the city's race relations with his sunny disposition and broad-based popularity; he took the edge off Manny Ramirez; he was a clutch hitter in the post season of both the 2004 and 2007 World Series victories that removed the world-class chip from Boston's shoulders; and he talked Celtics star Kevin Garnett into coming to Boston when Garnett was a free agent and was on the fence. Papi was the best.
....Which is why I take no pleasure in writing that he's done. Toast. Put a fork in him, and a fork in the Red Sox if they keep batting him third. Papi can no longer catch up with the high fastball.
...I had a very good seat at the Red Sox-Orioles game on Friday night, which is why I can say this with a sad degree of certainty. Ortiz struck out twice with the bases full, left about 8 guys on base in the Sox come-from-behind 10-8 win, and generally looked like a man waving a butterfly net at a chimney swift in a high wind. He was fed a steady diet of high fastballs. Not exactly lasers, either. The garden variety 93-94 m.p.h. variety, a speed about 90% of the pitchers in the majors can reach. Papi wouldn't have touched them if he'd been swinging a tennis racquet. And he's healthy.

....A little research shows he's not alone. Papi's a big man, listed at 6'4"-230 pounds. He's 33, which just happens to be the age most big men's production numbers fall off a cliff. Papi's certainly have. When he came to the Sox in 2003 as a 27 year old, he hit 31 homers; then 41, 47, 54, and 35. Last season, hampered by a wrist injury, he hit only 23 dingers. His slugging percentages have followed a similar pattern: .592 in 2003, then .603, .604, .636, .621 and last season only .507. His batting averages? .288, .301, .300, .287, .332, then .264. This season, after the first twelve games, Papi is hitting an abysmal .170, with only 4 RBIs and one extra base hit, a double. His slugging percentage is .191. No homers. He's struck out 14 times in 47 at bats. Once the rest of the league discovers he can't catch up with the high heater, that's all he'll see. That, and curves in the dirt.
...It happened to Ted Kluszewski, the big Cincinnati Reds first baseman of the 1950s. When Klu was 32, he hit 35 homers. In the next seven seasons the big guy with the muscle shirts never hit more than six.
....Same with former Red Sox first baseman George Scott, another first sacker with a gargantuan girth. He hit 33 homers when he was 33, but once he turned 34, he never hit more than 12 in a season. Former Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn, who was 6'1"-230 lbs., hit 36 homers when he was 32, missed a season with an injury, fell to 26 homers at age 34, then had only three more homers before he retired.
...Look, a lot of people are predicting that when the weather heats up, so will Papi. I hope it happens. I really do. And I know he'll still hit mistakes--low fastballs, hanging curves--to the tune of about 20 homers this season. But in the post season? When he won't see many mistakes, and will be facing teams with the strongest pitching staffs in the league? And the cold weather returns? Bye-bye, Papi. Bye-bye Red Sox. 2009 will not be their year.
....Okay, now for some good news. My bees arrived the same day that Papi's struggles became apparent to me, and I installed two packages into my waiting hives. Here's what they look like in the package, driven up from southern Georgia by Vinny and Joe Gagliardi of Peabody, MA.

...Here's Joe, standing in his garage filled with 450 packages of bees, each containing some 5000 honeybees and one queen. Kind of looks like big Klu, doesn't he?

...This is what the queen looks like in her cage. It's plugged with a sugar cube and the worker bees have to eat their way in to free her. To speed up the process, I put a hole through the cube with a nail. In this way, the queen is gradually accepted by the bees in the hive. If she were introduced more suddenly, they might think she was an intruder and kill her.

.....This is what the bees look like when I dump them into the hive body I've prepared for their arrival. They are rather docile at this point, since they haven't yet identified their new home as a home, and are not defending it. I assume they are disoriented. Plus they've been in a damn cage driving up from southern Georgia for the last 36 hours and are probably beat. In any event, they aren't in the least aggressive. It's almost like shaking jelly beans into a box.

....And here they are in their two new homes, all shuttered up for the night. In the next 24 hours, I'll check to make sure the queens have emerged from their cages and are busily running over the frames, laying eggs. I'm feeding them sugar water, a 1:1 ratio, that is medicated to help them fight various bee ailments. They are hungry and thirsty, for in just one day they went through an entire jar of the sugar water. Soon there will be apple blossoms and multiple other nectar-bearing flowers in bloom around Breakwind Farm. But for the next couple of weeks I will have to feed them as they get used to their new home.
....And as I get used to the idea that our beloved Papi is no longer the horse that he's been around here. We still love you, big guy. We always will.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

My bees and my picks in the Stanley Cup playoffs

Whenever I think of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs I think of my bees. I am a backyard beekeeper, and in Massachusetts, where I live, the NHL playoffs always begin just when I have to get to work on my hives. There is not a lot of work to beekeeping, at least not the way I practice it, but there are certain things you have to do and certain times you have to do them, and if you fail to hold up your end of the bargain, you will pay the price.
....I learned that lesson yesterday, when I was cleaning out my hive bodies, or supers, in anticipation of my two new colonies, which are arriving on Friday from Georgia. My bees died over the winter, you see, which was a harsh one here in Boston. Actually, one colony died over the winter, sometime in February, and the other collapsed late last summer. Not sure why. In any event, I left that empty hive body where it was, outside, putting a mouse guard over the entrance to protect it from invasion. But that wasn't enough. Not near enough. Some time during the fall wax moths invaded and absolutely decimated the empty supers, laying waste to all the honey that had been stored inside, the wretched caterpillars eating all the combs. I had to throw all twenty frames out. They were entombed in webbing and unsalvageable. It was a preventable disaster. What I should have done was take the frames inside once I'd discovered the bees had vacated the hive last summer. They would have stored nicely and been ready to house my new colony when I picked it up on Friday. Instead, the new bees will have to build out combs and store honey from scratch, which they will do uncomplainingly. But it means that next fall I won't have a honey harvest for the first time in ten years.

....Live and learn. It's a wonderful hobby, beekeeping, and I encourage any of you with the remotest interest to pursue it. The honey my bees produce is unlike any I have ever tasted, complex and slightly spicy, the result of gathering nectar from apple blossoms, clover, garlic chives, dandelions, roses, goldenrod, and whatever else manages to catch their fancy, depending on the season. Interestingly, they don't like lilac blossoms. The stronger a flower's fragrance to the human nose, the less the bees seem to like it. (Here at Breakwind Farm,my bees only go to the roses when nothing else is in bloom.) It's fascinating to me to see what appeals to bees. Garlic chives? Who knew? I recently visited a stunningly beautiful herb garden in Los Angeles at the Getty Villa . With hundreds of blooming plants and trees to choose from, about 30 bees--the only ones I saw as I strolled the grounds--were buzzing around a rather unassuming, weed-like plant with blue, bellshaped flowers called Borage

I determined then and there I would plant the weedy borage in my flower garden, eyesore though it may be. If bees like it, I like it.
....Anyhoo, I'll periodically post more updates on my bees, and perhaps will share some snapshots with you when I pick my two new colonies up on Friday. It's pretty colorful, a cage of 5000 bees. But this blog entry started with the Stanley Cup playoffs, which begin tonight, and the first round, for my money, is the best, most entertaining, least predictable two weeks of hockey of the year. If you have access to Versus, have HD TV and at least a 42 inch screen, you are in for a viewing treat. But don't plan on getting a full night's sleep. Two, three, even four overtime games await you. If I could make one change in the NHL, it would be to remove a player from each team every ten minutes of sudden death overtime. 5 on 5. Then 4 on 4. Then 3 on 3. Then 2 on 2...until someone scores. For god's sake, let us get some shut eye!
Here are my first round picks: Eastern Conference.

1) Washington over the Rangers in 7. Too much Ovechkin, but the Rangers and Washington's suspect defense will make it interesting.
2) Carolina over the Devils in 6. Scotty Bowman used to tell me that it isn't where you are as you enter the playoffs (Hurricanes are in 6th, Devils in 3rd.) It's how you're playing. The Devils won only four of their last eleven. The 'Canes won 9 of their last 11.
3)Boston over Montreal in 5. The Bruins are the real deal this year, and the Habs are a mess.
4) Pittsburgh over the Flyers in 7. I look for this one to be very close and very physical. But the Pens have been a new team under coach Dan Bylsma, and ultimately their power play will be the difference.
Western Conference

1) Detroit over Columbus in 5
Columbus is a fine defensive team under coach Ken Hitchcock, and this series is not a mismatch. But the Red Wings, defending Stanley Cup champs, have the best defenseman in the game in Nik Lidstrom, and an underrated coach in Mike Babcock. If their goaltending doesn't let them down--and it could with Chris Osgood coming off an off year--they'll prevail.
2) San Jose over Anaheim in five.
The Sharks are perennial underachievers in the post season. But they were the NHL's best team in the regular season, and under first year coach Todd McLellan this could be their year.
3) St. Louis over Vancouver in 7. Both teams won 17 of their last 25 games. Goaltending will decide it. Hell, goaltending always decides it!
4) Chicago over Calgary in 5. If this series goes the distance, I look for Calgary to win it over the inexperienced Hawks, whose best chance is an early knockout punch. This pick is a sentimental one for me: I grew up with season tix to the Black Hawks in the heyday of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Glenn Hall. It's only the second time in eleven years they've made it to the post season. I HAVE to pick them. Who knows when I'll get another chance! (Actually, this is a good young team that has laid the foundation for years of success.) They need a taste of playoff success now to build on.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

On Fenway Park, southpaws, and Tiger Woods, ice dancer extraordinaire

One of the joys of living in Boston is having access to Fenway Park, that quaint little bandbox that somehow encapsulates the soul of the city. My wife and I are lucky enough to share season tickets with 9 other couples, giving us access to eight games a year. Our two boys are mostly away now, but we've kept all four of our seats because there is no better way to catch up with friends than taking them to Fenway. Few couples turn down an invite, because the Red Sox are a fine team, a great team, actually. And the games are always sold out. But they take their time about playing them. No baseball team takes more pitches than the Red Sox, and no pitching staff works so slowly. 3 1/2 hour games are not unusual, and if the Yanks are in town, count on the game crawling along for 4 hours. Most of that time, of course, is devoid of action. So there's plenty of time to catch up.
....On Thursday we took Barret Brown and Charley Sawyer, two of the more amusing conversationalists we know. Charley is an architect; Barret an ice dancing coach of national renown. Charley and I play golf quite a bit; Barret and I meet for drinks at U.S. National figure skating championships, where she fills me in on the latest, unprintable gossip. She swears me to secrecy every time, or I would share it. Seriously good stuff. In a nutshell, if you can imagine it, figure skaters you have read about and watched your entire lives have done it...and been caught doing it. It's why I love the sport.
....I met Charley, not on a golf course, but on a heliski trip to British Columbia that ended tragically, and wound up being one of the most dramatic stories I've ever written for Sports Illustrated. Published in 1991, it was entitled
Snow Blind and you can read it by clicking on the big blue title. I went straight from the heliski adventure to the 1990 U.S. Nationals, where I met Barret and told her in grisly detail about the trip. I did not mention the Chicks on Sticks, an Aspen trio who had been interested in spending as much time as possible with Charley. But he was a good boy, not being a figure skater, so I don't hesitate to do so now.
....It was an afternoon game, which are all too infrequent these days in baseball, and Barret, who hadn't been to a game in many years, was seeing Fenway as if for the first time. She is artistic, and saw it artistically, commenting on the great swathes of green in the urban landscape; the patterns made by the mowers; the moving shadows in the afternoon sunlight; the red-tailed hawk that soared above. She loved being there and, as this photo attests, it showed. She is a woman with a generous smile.
....I cannot resist, when I'm with her, getting into our old, familiar, well-practiced argument: Is Ice Dancing A Sport? I have the same discussion with NBC commentator Tracy Wilson at every Olympics, a foolish place for me to go since Tracy, who is a friend, won Canada's first ice dancing Olympic medal in 1988 with partner Rob McCall. You can see a clip of their superb work here, taken at the 1987 World Championships: Tracy Wilson. Watching it does not change my fundamental premise: I like ice dancing; it's athletic; it's difficult; it's entertaining; but it's not a sport. Why? Because it can't be fairly judged. The criteria is entirely subjective, at least to my eye. Sure, there's a big difference between the first place dance couple and the 15th. But between the first and second? Second and third? Third and fourth? Barret allowed that at the most recent World Championships in Los Angeles many coaches and former ice dancers felt that the fourth place couple, Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White, had been better than the first place couple, Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin. I told her I had no opinion on the matter, since it couldn't be judged. It's like placing Oklahoma! over South Pacific.
....Which doesn't change the fact that ice dancing is wildly popular: in Europe, tickets to ice dancing sell out before the women's finals. Little known fact: The great golf writer and novelist Dan Jenkins, a man's man if every there was one, loves watching ice dancing. And it has given me one of my favorite sportswriting stories. In 1984, when Jane Torville and Christopher Dean were performing their Bolero free dance at the Sarajevo Olympics--they received solid 6.0s from the judges--a British sportswriter bet Sports Illustrated's Bob Ottum he couldn't get the word "lubricious" into his story. [lubricious: 1) characterized by lewdness 2) slippery] Ottum accepted the bet. This is how he won it:
"The Torville and Dean program was perfect, possibly even transcendent, and it was skated entirely to Ravel's Bolero. This one should be shown only after the kids have gone to bed. It started with what appeared to many people to be long moments of unseemly writhing on the ice with the two skaters on their knees. Perhaps one writer best described it when he turned to a colleague in the press gallery and whispered, "How do you spell lubricious?"
....May I just say that that was the golden age of Sports Illustrated, when writers really wrote, and were given the space to write. In any event, after Bob lost his battle to cancer, I took over the figure skating beat in 1986, and have not written as good a paragraph on ice dancing since.
...It so happened that Thursday we were at Fenway was also the opening day of the Masters. Both Charley and I have been fortunate enough to play Augusta National, and I covered the event in 1989 (Nick Faldo's first win); so about the fifth inning I started checking my Blackberry for scores. Mostly I was curious about Tiger. Barret told me the one time she'd been to the Masters was in 1997, the year of Tiger's first Masters win. She's no golfer, but she obviously understands sports. "I've never seen such focus in a man. If I could teach my ice dancers to focus like that..." Her voice trailed off wistfully. One of the complaints one frequently hears in the figure skating world is the best athletes--at least in the States--seldom go into figure skating. "Tiger is so strong," Barret said. "He's totally ripped. And he's so flexible." Then she said the sentence I never thought I'd live to hear. "Tiger Woods would have been a great ice dancer."
....Of course...if only...what a waste! You could see her rolling it over in her mind: If I could just get my mitts on Tiger Woods, gold medal here we come!! But I'll say this, it made me realize just how athletic a pursuit ice dancing must be. And it made me appreciate that no matter how ripped and flexible and coordinated an athlete may be, to a coach focus is the talent that separates the great from the good.
....As the innings rolled on and the shadows lengthened, the Tampa Bay Rays brought in a lefthanded pitcher. I asked Charley if he knew the origins of the word southpaw. He didn't. I pointed to the shadow being cast by the pitcher. It was pointed almost directly toward center field. The sun was setting behind home plate. That's because when ballparks are ideally positioned, the sun sets behind the batter so he won't be blinded by the late afternoon sun. South, then, is the first base side of the pitching mound. Hence: southpaw.
We argued about that for awhile. Turns out the sun in Fenway sets directly into the right fielder's face, not the center fielder's. Charley can be a little anal that way. Time passed pleasantly enough as we meandered to other topics: houses, golf courses, trips. After 3 1/2 hours and eight innings, my wife and I bailed to beat the traffic, despite the fact the Sox only trailed 4-2. It's not something I'm proud of, and few of the Fenway faithful ever leave early. But it works, and if they played quicker, I'd stay till the end. Besides, I don't get all worked up over who wins or loses. I'm actually a White Sox fan in my heart.
....But Charley and Barret stayed to the end, a 4-3 Sox loss, guaranteeing them an invite back next season. Here's what they reported to us afterward:
....Barret: "We DID stay and it was plenty exciting. And painful with the winning runs left on base. Talk about sucking the life out of the room!!! The end was so sudden...with this huge collective sigh, or was it a scream? And then people just stood up and headed out like nothing had happened. I wasn't sure I had it in me to walk, but as Charley pointed out...that's baseball. Get over it. I loved being back at Fenway Park! Watching how the changing light played on the space, seeing the red tailed hawk (who gets to watch every game), ogling the larger than life stars of the sports page, having a good reason to jump out of my seat and was all great."
.....And Charley: "After the game, while Barret waited in an endless bathroom line, I lingered in the almost empty grandstand to watch the place go quiet. A few others did the same. What a beautiful evening. How lucky I am to not have any kind of a life so I can actually stay to the end. As you know now, it was a really good ninth inning. Didn't end quite right, but hey, it's April, who cares? the Park felt great, the baseball was good and occasionally exciting, it was a beautiful afternoon, the early season vibe was perfect."
....Just another day at Fenway Park, the soul of the city.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Death of the 3 sport athlete

One of the saddest trends in high school sports these days is the death of the three-sport athlete. This is as true for girls as it is for boys. College athletics have become so intense, so focused on the recruitment of athletes who are ready to contribute from day one, that the era of the all-around jock who plays a different sport every season is just about over. It's a shame.
.... Oh, there are a few athletes who still play three sports in high school, but if they want to play at the next level--college--they're falling behind the specialists who play or train for one sport all year around. My son, Teddy, is a three-sport guy, and as a father, I must say, it's been a lot of fun. He's a fine football player--next year he'll be one of the captains--a solid hockey player, and a good baseball player on those varsities at St. George's School in Rhode Island. But that's probably going to be the end of the road for him as far as competitive school sports goes. In all likelihood, he isn't good enough in any one of them to play a varsity sport in college. I talked to him about it during his freshman year. I said that it was his decision, and that I personally was thrilled that he wanted to play football, baseball and hockey in high school, but if he wanted to play in college he probably should pick one of those three and play it all summer, and weight train for it, too. That by not choosing one he was essentially making a decision not to play in college. He said he was fine with that. He enjoyed the diversity of three sports, and the camaraderie of playing on three teams. And he certainly didn't want to spend his summers just playing hockey, or just playing baseball, or whatever. He had wider interests than that. (Like chasing girls.)
....Okay, that was a cheap shot. The fact is, I was proud of his decision, and of his reasoning. Why colleges have gone down this road of the specialized athlete is beyond me. I played college hockey, and I've followed the sport closely in the 35 years since I graduated, and the level that Division 1, and even Division 3, college hockey players are playing today is amazing. But very few of them are going to make a career at it. And they don't get to play at that level, generally, by being well-rounded. They are hockey players. They live it. They talk it. They think it. They play it all summer. Their friends are hockey players. It's a rough, macho, not particularly intellectual gang. Same with football players, lacrosse players, baseball players, basketball players who are good enough to play Division 1. They're specialists. Why do our colleges want such singularly one-dimensional students roaming their halls? I don't get it, but they do. Certainly the coaches want their players to be as one-dimensional as possible. But then, the coaches have their jobs to think of. I would argue that the interests of the coaches is out of alignment with the general interests of the student body as a whole. But I could be wrong.

....Teddy recently finished his hockey season at St. George's, and I asked him if he was looking forward to baseball. This may have seemed like a dumb question, but it really wasn't: St. George's baseball team is a league doormat, and its hockey team is something of a powerhouse. But Teddy told me he was looking forward to the change baseball would provide, win or lose. He said football
was his favorite sport during the actual games; that hockey was his favorite sport to practice; and that baseball was his favorite sport for general ambiance. It was relaxing--esp. after six months of the violence of football and hockey--calming, and it was played in the fresh air and sunshine of spring in New England. What's not to like? The message he seems to have absorbed is that everything has a time and place, and to be able to appreciate that enhances the quality of one's life. It's not a bad lesson to learn.
....So he'll spend a week this summer at a hockey camp, and a week at football camp, mostly for the fun and camaraderie, since a number of his teammates will be at both camps. And he'll get some sort of job and will spend some time just fooling around, being a 17-year-old. He isn't trying to get spotted by a college coach. To do that he'd have to try out for one of the teams that plays in Hockey Night in Boston, the high-powered summer all-star league that serves as a showcase for the top high school-aged players in the U.S. and Canada. Or a baseball AAU league. Just not interested.
....Saves me a lot of trouble, actually. Getting your kid on a college coach's radar screen is a time-consuming and expensive proposition. There is the coach's camp to attend. You can have a DVD made of your progeny's heroics and then send it around. There are professional videographers who make good livings doing exactly that for high school-aged football, basketball, volleyball, lacrosse, and softball players. They spice the DVDs up with music, with sound effects, with voice-overs, with stats, and with packaged highlights, all in one neatly labeled DVD. The challenge is getting the college coach to actually look at it. A friend of mine had a daughter who was a highly recruited volleyball player, and when he visited the offices of various coaches he was blown away by the hundreds and hundreds of DVDs--many unopened--that were stacked on the bookshelves, unwatched and never-to-be watched. Think of the waste of time, money and effort. Who took us down this crazy road?
...Now a new trend has started: the you tube video link that can be emailed to a college coach for his or her viewing pleasure. Quick, cheap, easy, painless, no muss, no clutter. Here's an example, put together by a friend of mine:
Brooke Cragan

.....It's pretty cute, and I hope it works for Brookie, who's a great kid and, like Teddy, is a junior in high school and worrying about where she's going to college. In the video she points out that if the coach wants to see her in person, her AAU season is just beginning. Thus will she be playing basketball in the spring, too. Maybe all summer, I'm not sure. I happen to know that Brooke is a terrific athlete who could also be playing softball or field hockey or lacrosse in the spring, if it weren't for basketball. I know this because I used to coach her in ice hockey, and she was damn good at that sport, too. But she wants to play at the next level. And to do that, she has to specialize.
....It's not her fault. It's the system's. I find that terribly sad.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Michelle Kwan's "comeback"

The news reports started leaking during last week's world championships. Michelle Kwan the greatest skater of her generation, wasn't ruling out a comeback. The story ran in USA Today. The New York Times printed it. Even my old haunt,, ran an AP story suggesting that Kwan might decide to compete in 2010. Michelle Kwan at Vancouver? Who knows?'s subhead ran.
....They should have called me. I know. It ain't happening. I promise you all this talk about Michelle Kwan's "comeback" is nonsense being floated by Kwan on instructions from her agent, Shep Goldberg, to increase traffic on her website, position Kwan for a television commentating future, and rejuvenate her endorsement career. Kwan is 28 and isn't even performing with a skating tour. She couldn't do a triple-triple combination in her prime, never mind now. She could not possibly win if she competed in Vancouver. She would not medal. And in all likelihood, she would not even qualify for one of the two spots the weak U.S. women will get in 2010. Why would she risk her stellar reputation for such potential embarrassment? She wouldn't. So, please, let's stop reporting nonsense. Kwan's competitive career is over.
....Just for fun, take a look at the short program of Michelle Kwan from the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, which was one of her finest performances. (Tara Lipinski won the gold by beating Kwan in the long program.) Kwan was 17 years old at the time, a few months shy of her 18th birthday, in her skating prime. She could not possibly skate like this today.

....It is a wonderfully lyrical performance, but the most difficult jump technically was the triple lutz, double toe combination. The height of her jumps was average. The spins and positions were nothing special--Kwan was never a terribly flexible skater--and the speed was, well, restrained. But it was beautiful, unquestionably, especially her spiral.
Now take a look at 18-year-old Yu-Na Kim's short program from last week's world championships:
Yu-Na Kim
This is as good as it gets: a brilliant triple flip-triple toe-loop; a high, sure triple lutz, a breathtaking spiral, and dramatic, flexible spins. Above all, the speed of the program, throughout, was maintained at a high level. It was, I think, the best women's short program I've seen since I began covering the sport in 1983.
Kim is about the same age now as Kwan was when she skated that short in the 1998 Games. The Michelle Kwan of 1998 would have been a good match against Kim, but based on these videos, it's clear she would not have beaten the Korean even then. The technical superiority of Kim is quite apparent, and the artistry is comparable. The Kwan of 2010, however, would be 12 years older than she was in Nagano, and even slower and less flexible. Compared to the lithe, butterfly-like Kim, Kwan would look like George Foreman did at the end of his career. Kwan may be old in figure skating years, but she's not a punch-drunk numbskull. The only place you'll see her in Vancouver is in the television booth.