Friday, May 29, 2009

Picking the Pens

I thought last year's Stanley Cup finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings was the finest hockey I'd ever seen, so I'm thrilled there's going to be a rematch. Some remakes are better than the original, and this could be one of them. The Wings took the Cup last year in six games. This time I predict the Penguins will turn the tables. I'm calling Pittsburgh in six.

...The last time there was a rematch in the Stanley Cup finals was in 1984, when Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers faced the powerful New York Islanders, who'd won the last four Stanley Cups. I covered all four of those Cup wins for Sports Illustrated, and had done numerous stories on the rise of Gretzky and the young Oilers, so I was as familiar with the two teams as anyone in the media. The year before, in the 1983 finals, the Isles had swept the high-octane Oilers, holding them to just six goals in four games. Led by Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, and Bryan Trottier, and with "Battling Billy" Smith in goal, they'd shown no signs of slowing down.

The Isles were tough, they were mean, they were talented, and they were well-coached. Further, they had an eye on history with their "Drive for Five", for only one other club, the Montreal Canadiens, had ever won five straight Stanley Cups, which the Habs did between 1956-1960. I was certain the Isles would make history by beating the Oilers again in 1984 and claim their place as the greatest hockey dynasty of modern times. "Five games? Six games?" I boldly wrote the week before the series started. "It doesn't matter. The Islanders will win it."
....What I hadn't taken into account was how much the younger Oilers had learned from their defeat the year before. A high-powered offensive juggernaut, Edmonton learned the value--the absolute necessity--of team defense in a Stanley Cup finals. In the opening game, on the Islanders home ice, the Oilers shut down the Islanders attack and won a nail-biter, 1-0. They played Islanders hockey. It set the tone for the rest of the series, which the talented Oilers went on to win rather easily, in just five games. The Isles, who looked old and tired by the final game of the series, never really recovered their mojo, and they haven't been back to the Stanley Cup finals since.

....There's a lot of similarities between this Detroit-Penguins matchup and that Isles-Oilers series of 1984. The Oilers were led by the 23-year-old Gretzky, who was already the greatest player in the world. But his resume lacked a Stanley Cup, and the Isles loved to point out that the Cup, not scoring titles, was what they were playing for. The Penguins are led by Sidney Crosby, their 21-year-old captain, who has been called the next Gretzky since he was 18. It isn't fair. He's no Gretzky. But Crosby is a great player who is mature beyond his years. He has a burning intensity to win, and he leads all goal scorers in these playoffs with 14. Yet Sid the Kid is carrying himself like he hasn't done anything yet. He remembers what a long summer it is when you lose a Stanley Cup finals, and he won't let his teammates forget.
....But you need two scoring lines in the playoffs, and Gretzky had a pretty good center behind him by the name of Mark Messier. The second-leading scorer of all time (behind Gretzky), Messier was a force of nature during the playoffs. He gave the Oilers a one-two punch that the aging Islanders couldn't cope with. It's the same with Pittsburth. Crosby has a guy named Evgeni Malkin playing behind him, and Malkin's had a breakout playoffs. He absolutely dominated the Carolina Hurricanes in the conference finals, scoring six goals and three assists in four games.

More important, he began throwing his weight around in all three zones, much as Messier used to do. Who knew that Malkin, with his magic hands and explosive bursts of speed, could also hit and play defense?

If Malkin continues to play as he has been--and why wouldn't he?--it will be impossible for the tired and injured Wings to stop both Penguins scoring lines. They can try to match up 39-year-old Niklas Lidstrom against either Crosby or Malkin. But not both.
....Which isn't to say the Red Wings will be overmatched. They're deep, well-coached, experienced, and highly skilled. But Detroit is wounded. Their leading scorer (97 pts) and best forward this season, Pavel Datsyuk (below), missed the last two games of the Chicago series with an injured foot, and he is questionable for Game One Saturday night.

Lidstrom, who is still the best defenseman in the game, also missed the last two games against the Black Hawks with some sort of lower body injury. He'll be in the lineup for Game One, but it's doubtful he'll be 100%. Kris Draper, one of their best penalty killers, is out indefinitely with a sore groin, and defenseman Jonathon Ericsson had an emergency appendectomy on Wednesday. The stars are out of alignment for the defending champs.
....None of which would matter if Detroit had superior goaltending, but that isn't what 36-year-old Chris Osgood gives them. Like the Islanders Billy Smith, who was 34 in 1984, Osgood gives the Wings experience and dependability. He's solid. He's played on three Cup winners, starting in goal for two of them. But Osgood just isn't going to steal a series, the way the Penguins Marc-Andre Fleury is capable of doing.

Yes, Osgood shut the Penguins out in the first two games of the finals last year, but Pittsburgh was still starstruck, happy just to be in the finals. By the time they woke up, Detroit was up two games to none. The Penguins will come out firing on all cylinders this year, and I don't see Osgood being able to withstand it, the way Washington's rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov did so spectacularly in the Caps-Pens second-round series, which went seven games. With the first three games of the finals scheduled to be played over four nights, I look for the young Pens to jump out fast and wear the battered Wings down. Detroit's penalty killing unit has given up a horrendous 15 goals in 16 playoff games, and Pittsburgh's power play may go to town.

....So there it is: Pens in six. But I've been wrong before. After the Oilers dispatched the Islanders in 1984 and had supped from the Cup, a funeral wreathe was delivered to the Sports Illustrated offices in New York. It was addressed to me, adorned with black roses, and sent by my friends from the Edmonton Journal. The card read: "Five games? Six games? It doesn't matter. The Islanders will win it. May your prediction R.I.P."

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hockey's lexicon, Brian Engblom's hair, and the incredible Zamboni

The verbiage of hockey broadcasters has changed. I don't know why. I don't know who started it. But the men behind the mike are fiddling with the verbal traditions of the game, and I don't like it one bit.
....Watching the Versus telecasts, which feature studio analysts Keith Jones and Brian Engblom, you might be confused which sport they're covering. Two home wins in a playoff series is referred to by Jones, who speaks in a clipped, annoying Canadian accent, as "holding serve." Really? We're going to trivialize 120 minutes of bloody, desperate, playoff hockey (assuming no overtime, which is a dubious assumption) by comparing it to about 4 minutes of play on a tennis court? They kept home-ice advantage, is what they did, Keith. They didn't hold freaking serve.
...Engblom, a former NHL defenseman who is now best known for his outrageously bad hair, likes to say that someone in the crease is "in the paint." When Engblom played, in the late '70s and '80s, a player in the crease wasn't "in the paint". He was in the damnable crease and fair game to be mugged, hacked, and skewered until he decided to leave. Players "in the paint" are wearing baggy shorts and trying to dunk. After three seconds they either move on or are whistled for a three-second violation. Basketball players move in and out of the paint like pedestrians on a crosswalk. Why should Engblom take something so important and unique to hockey--the goalie's crease--and recast it into something found on a basketball court? The painted area, as Hubie Brown so tediously refers to it.
....Of course, Engblom can say most anything and get away with it, viewers are so morbidly fascinated by what's going on above his ears. If you Google "Brian Engblom's hair", this is the sort of thing that comes up: Brian Engblom's hair still the most ridiculous thing the world has ever seen.

Entire blogs are devoted to his hair's evolution, whether it's his own or the rare "mullet toupee"!

My favorite picture and photo caption of him is this one: Engblom Catches Self in Reflection!

....The funny thing is, he looks perfectly normal to a Canadian male, a group notorious for displaying bad hair. I roomed with a bunch of them in college, and I never saw one use a comb or brush. Tangled, matted, long, shockingly horrid locks were treasured as high-style by my Canadian friends, whose beautiful high school sweethearts somehow never noticed. Because everyone back home must have looked even worse. Look at Barry Melrose, for heaven's sake. The ESPN analyst and former coach, may have invented the mullet.

So why can't ESPN and Versus hire some nice American boys, who speak without saying "oot" for "out" and "agane" for again, and, most importantly, style their hair in a way that doesn't scream: "I don't own a mirror!" We play hockey in the States, too. Versus and ESPN are American stations, right?
....But nooo. They hire Canadians to analyze the game. But here's the thing about our brothers north of the border. They have chips on their shoulder when it comes to hockey, which is the only thing they really care about in life. They are desperate for hockey to be loved and understood in the American television market. So they try to "speak our language". Hence they use phrases and expressions from popular American sports like baseball and basketball, abandoning hockey's traditions. Assists are now trendily referred to as "helpers". What the hell is a "helper"? Sounds like one of Santa's elves. An assist is an assist. And the boards? They're boards, not walls. Not half-walls. A puck does not go "along the wall", as Canadian announcer Gary Thorne is fond of saying. A baseball goes along the wall. A puck goes along the boards, as it has since Lord Stanley donated his Cup.

....Mike "Doc" Emrick isn't Canadian. He's from upstate New York. But he's guilty of the same sort of loose verbiage that ignores hockey's unique lexicon. Emrick will see someone kick a puck, or pass it with his skate, and say "he made a soccer move". No he didn't. He kicked the puck. Players have been kicking pucks forever. Hockey didn't need soccer to invent that. When a penalty killer ices the puck, Emrick will sometimes say "he spikes it out of the zone" as if it were a football. The goalie's equipment is his "paraphernalia". As in, the puck goes into Osgood's paraphernalia. Huh? Can't we just say "pads"? The goalie's blocker is, ridiculously, a "waffleboard," which Emrick then turns into a verb when it's used to make a save: "He waffleboarded it into the corner." Here, for example, is a photo of former Red Wings goalie Roger Crozier "waffleboarding" a puck away.

....I played goalie. I covered the sport for thirty years. I have never, ever heard the blocker referred to as a "waffleboard" by anyone but Emrick. What IS a waffleboard? It's not in the dictionary. Is it a breakfast appliance? Something you ski on? I don't know. It's in Emrick's imagination. But now the sport of hockey is in danger of accepting the waffleboard into its vocabulary, because Emrick, who is generally quite a fine announcer, uses it on both NBC and Versus every time a goalie makes a blocker save. Kids will repeat it. Why wouldn't they? It's a funny word. Like gonad. Only a waffleboard doesn't happen to be real.

...Then again, I've never heard of anyone "shuffleboarding" the puck to a teammate, another Emrick original. Or "ladling" a pass in front. Or having a puck "go off a player's wallet." He has fun with the language, I'll grant him that.

....Speaking of funny hockey words that can be turned into verbs, I refer you to a fine piece written by John Branch on the Zamboni
machine that appeared in Friday's New York Times. You can click on the highlighted blue "Zamboni" above to read the entire article, but the best part of the piece is the final two paragraphs, which I've copied below. I like to tell young writers to "save a bullet" when they're putting together their stories. That is to say: Spend a lot of time and care on a good, enticing lead paragraph; but also save a great quote, fact, or image for the last paragraph. Don't just sort of run out of gas. Mr. Branch saves a wonderful bullet in this cheeky, amusing, and informative closer.

...."All the off-hand familiarity makes Zamboni a bit nervous. It has trademarked its name (and the block shape of its machines) but fears the name becoming a lowercase zamboni, suffering the same fate as Aspirin, Escalator, Zipper and other brand names that lost trademark protections.

The company also asks that Zamboni not be used as a noun (as it has been throughout this article) or a verb. The ice does not get Zambonied, then, and the vehicle is a Zamboni brand ice-resurfacing machine. Good luck with that."

That last line is a classic use of slang. In an otherwise straight piece of journalism Branch drops in an informal zinger that succinctly sums up the impossible request made by the company. You can almost see the author smile and wink. A perfect ending.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Pete Carril and me, and the nature of competition

I met Pete Carril, Princeton's legendary--and legendarily curmudgeonly--basketball coach once, in the winter of 1991. I'd been an undergraduate at Princeton when Carril was near the beginning of his Hall of Fame coaching career, which lasted from 1967 to 1996 and included 13 Ivy League titles. His lifetime record was 514-261, and Carril's 1989 Tigers, seeded 16th at the NCAA tourney, nearly beat top-ranked Georgetown, losing 50-49 after leading most of the game--the closest any 16th-seed has ever come to knocking of a #1. Famous for his back-door offense and his yoda-like appearance, Carril died a thousand deaths on the sidelines every game. He'd emerge afterwards looking like he'd been put through a washing machine and then forgotten after the spin cycle. He was a character, and a man of imposing intellect.
....So I was absolutely amazed to learn that, during a speech in Princeton attended by my father-in-law in January, 1991, Carril quoted several times from an article I'd written recently in Sports Illustrated that was called: The Heart of a Kid. The assignment had been to write about the one sports event of 1990 I wouldn't have missed. Here's what I wrote:

...."If there was one sports event I would not have missed in 1990, one that both amused and uplifted me, yet prodded me to think, it was my six-year-old son's first hockey game.
.....I don't mean to imply that the Nasty Boys of the Cincinnati Reds weren't thought-provoking or that James (Buster) Douglas wasn't amusing in his way. It's just that every once in a while, after a steady diet of professional sports, you find yourself singing the old Peggy Lee tune: Is That All There Is? You question the energy and resources expended on sports and ask yourself what, if any, values do they teach? You wonder if there is anything about games and competitions, beyond the pure escapism of entertainment, that actually matters.
.....I think there is. I think I saw the seeds of it last February.
.....I'm not going to numb you with the details of the game, except to say that from a spectating viewpoint, it was cute: introductions, the national anthem, referees. Everyone played. My son Nate's team got killed, but neither he nor his teammates seemed to mind. Just skating and swatting a puck is a small victory for a six-year-old, and small victories, regularly attained, are what those kids require from sports.
....I can only speculate on what the game looked like from Nate's skates. His senses must have been on overload. He wore a uniform. There was a real scoreboard. He fell down and blocked a shot. Adults were cheering him. Once, while staggering through a turn, he caught sight of a video game through the Plexiglas. This was noteworthy. The arena he usually skated in didn't have any rinkside video games, and Nate's head swiveled 180 degrees in a double take. As he slowed, you could sense the temptation: Climb over the boards, or continue skating? But he pulled himself together and resumed chasing the other 11 kids on the ice, who, ratlike, were following the pied piper of a puck.
....Six-year-olds just want to play. At that age they aren't picky about what they're playing--hockey, soccer, tag, checkers, video games, it's all the same, except that as a general rule the more equipment they must wear, the better.
...I am told that by the time kids turn eight or nine, winning becomes the thought for the game, every game. That's a discouraging prospect for a lot of parents, but it's all right with me. It's a natural enough instinct, and it is then that Nate will begin to learn some of the more vivid lessons that organized sport has to offer. He will no longer merely be playing, he will be competing and growing up. He will learn to follow rules, to be dependable, to practice. He will learn that sports teams are meritocracies--the better one plays, the more playing time one gets--and that meritocracies hurt feelings. He will learn that a will does not always find a way, but that it sometimes does. He will start to learn about teamwork. He will learn about sportsmanship, good and bad. With luck, he will learn what it is like to play for a great coach with a gravelly voice, whom he trusts and fears utterly, whom he will remember for the rest of his life.
...."Swiiift! You move like a lighthouse! Take a lap!"
....I envy Nate all those lessons and discoveries, even the painful ones.
....I am looking forward to watching him put on his game face; to interrupting him when he starts to complain about the referee. I am even looking forward to the first time Nate comes home from a loss and goes into a deep and silent funk. It will come, sure as winter. His mother will put up with it for a while, then will attempt to put an end to this nonsense by telling him, kindly, "It's only a game." If he responds at all, it will be in a rude tone of voice: "I know it's only a game," and he will give her a look as if she could not possibly understand. I can predict these things because, well, we are related, and it is possible I shot such a look at my mother once or twice. I can already tell that he's a competitor.
....A competitor may or may not be talented. But a competitor cares and tries like hell, because he or she is someone who faces up to the fundamental truth that it may be only a game, but the purpose of the game is to win.
....Any game, any level. The purpose is to win. Which is not to say that winning is the only thing, as Vince Lombardi did, for winning is merely the goal. It is the means of reaching that goal that's important to a young person, the athletic equivalent to analytical thinking. How you practice, how you prepare, how you conduct yourself in the head of competition. That's what I would like Nate to learn through sports. Still, the amateur, even the young one, must be committed to winning. Because if the effort to win is missing, then none of the rest of it matters. Obeying the rules doesn't matter. Being a reliable teammate doesn't matter. Practicing hard doesn't matter. Having a good coach doesn't matter. All these matter only if the players attach importance to winning. If no one really cared, if everyone were just out there for a lark, well, where would be the value in that? We learn something from winning and something different from losing. But what do we learn from not caring?
....It is possible, of course, I am wrong. It is possible that we already take organized sports too seriously in this country and that our school systems are right when they cut their athletic budgets in times of fiscal crunch. Fewer sports. Fewer teams. Fewer coaches. Fewer playing fields to maintain. Fewer participants. They're only games, after all.
....I don't know, though. I keep thinking about something Mike Reid, the pro golfer, tearfully observed after losing his lead in the 1989 PGA Championship. "Sports are like life with the volume turned up." The disappointments are keener. The successes more tangible. The lessons more lasting. The friendships more memorable. It all makes for a pretty rich stew.
....Nine months later, a lifetime at the age of six, I asked Nate what he remembered best about his first hockey game. Not much, was his initial response. When I pressed him, he came up with two things. He remembered crashing into the "bulletproof glass" with his helmet, sprawling to the ice in a daze before bravely continuing. And he remembered scoring a goal. Heroic memories, both. I ran those by my wife, Sally, and we are in agreement that neither incident actually happened. I don't quite know what that means, except that obviously organized sports do not stifle the imagination. I suppose he willed those things to happen and, over time, his memory came up with a way.
....The important thing is that he already aspires to be more than he is. That's the precious nugget that lies at the heart of every kid chasing a puck or swinging a bat or shooting a ball. When a young person starts trying to be the best he or she can possibly be because of a game, then the game matters--enough to make a father want to watch the passing years through bulletproof glass, and cheer."

That was the story Pete Carril, I'd been told, had quoted from extensively during his speech. So in February, when Princeton basketball played a road game against Harvard, I decided to attend and try to meet the legendary coach. I brought Nate, too, now seven. As it happened, Sports Illustrated's superb college basketball writer, Alex Wolff, was doing a story on the Tigers, and he was also at the game. He offered to arrange the introduction.

....So it was that, after an easy Princeton win, Alex brought Coach Carril and me together on the court. He introduced us, and Carril, after making a special effort to say something nice to Nate, turned to me and looked me in the eye. "I carry that article you wrote in my wallet," he said. He started to reach for it.
...."You're kidding!" I said with a smile.
....Carril suddenly stopped and gave me a funny look. I don't know if what I'd said--a meaningless exclamation like, 'Wow!' in my mind--came out wrong, or if he was just playing a mind game with me. But he put the wallet back in his pocket and said, "I was going to show you, but I don't think I will. Now you'll never know if I was telling the truth or not, will you?" He turned back to Nate. "Nice to meet you young man. Good luck with your hockey." He nodded to me, not without a look of mild disappointment, then spun on his heels and was gone.
...."He's like that," Alex said to me. "You never know what he's going to do. He loves to mess with people's heads."
....All these years later, Pete Carril is still messing with mine.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

All about Kate's bees

Bruins-'Canes Game 7 is tonight; so is Game 7 between the Wings and Ducks. Celts play Game 6 vs. the Magic. Red Sox are facing the A' god, what to watch? It's an embarrassment of sporting riches here in Boston this spring!
...It's also close to overload. So let's take a break from the sporting world and talk about Kate's bees.

...This is Kate McCandless, one of my neighbors, examining her very first queen. She became involved in beekeeping this year the same way I did a few years back, through a charity auction. Kate was the winning bidder on a new hive box, hive, beekeeper's suit, tools, smoker, and anything else she would need to get started. All she needed to provide was the yard.
DAY ONE The most exciting day for any new beekeeper: the day you pick up your hive. These honeybees came from Georgia, and this is a picture of Kate spraying water through the screen of their cage, which calms them, so you can open the cage without a swarm of them flying away. Note Kate's steady demeanor, her pristine white suit. She looks a physicist in a nuclear power plant-- nerveless and cool. What bee would want to leave the care of such a woman? No bee in its right mind. They were home now, and they knew it.
...And if they didn't know it then, they would in a moment, because the next step is a jarring one. First, Kate firmly slammed the bottom of the cage against the ground, knocking the bees to the bottom. Then she took a screwdriver and pried the top of the cage off so she could remove the queen, who was in her own cage. She quickly replaced the top, so all but a few of the 10,000 or so bees remained inside, still slightly stunned. In a previous blog, I covered how the queen cage is plugged with a sugar cube, and how it's necessary to poke a hole in the cube with a nail to facilitate the queen's release. Kate did that now. Then we suspended the queen cage between two frames and prepared for the fun part.

That's when the top to the cage is removed and the bees are literally shaken into the freshly prepared hive body. Note that most of the frames have been removed so they'll have a place to fall into. You'd think bees, who, after all, have wings and can fly, would be difficult to shake through a hole the size baseball. But most of them come out in a big glop, as if you were shaking out jelly beans. You have to tip the cage aggressively, back and forth, to slide the mass of bees over the hole. Some, of course, land and fly out, so the air slowly becomes alive with buzzing bees. But most lay in the bottom of the cage, dazed and confused, shocked and awed, as more and more bees are dumped on top of and beside them.

It is impossible to shake all the bees out of the cage, but when the bulk of the hive has been dumped into its new home, the frames that have been removed must be carefully replaced to crush as few bees as possible. The nearly empty cage should be placed, with the top open, near the front of the hive, so those bees that remain can crawl out and rejoin their buddies at their leisure. The bees flying crazily around will eventually settle down and return to the hive, because what they're really doing is trying to find their queen. And the queen, who emits a powerful scent (well, powerful to the bees), is in her little cage in the hive. This is she, the one marked with a green dot:

Finally, before closing everything up for the night, Kate put in her feeder, a yellow container filled with sugar water mixed in a 1:1 ratio.
Kate will need to keep feeding her new hive most of the summer, until they completely build out their comb. Here Kate is after her first hive was closed up for the first night. That, my friends, is a look of accomplishment and deep contentment.

All that work is for naught if the queen doesn't do her job. And her job is to lay eggs. Thousands of eggs. Worker bees only live about five to six weeks, so she has to get going and keep going the rest of her life. A new hive--those 10,000 bees that arrive from Georgia in the spring--will completely die off in the first month and a half. The queen alone will survive. The queen and her offspring.
....So yesterday was the day of reckoning. The most important inspection any new beekeeper can have: the one that will tell you whether the queen has been doing her job. If she hasn't, if there's little evidence of egg laying, or if the eggs have been laid in a random, sporadic fashion, a new queen must be purchased and installed post haste, and the future of the hive is in question.
...Since by now the bees have claimed their new home as their own, and are understandably territorial, we decided to blow a little smoke into the entrance before going in. This, for reasons unknown to me, settles the bees down and makes them docile for awhile. I think it has something to do with a fear of burning to death.

After giving the smoke a few seconds to work its magic, we opened the hive and gently removed the centermost frame, which is where the queen usually starts laying. For comparison purposes, here is a picture of a frame from one of my hives where there is no evidence of egg laying: only bees, a little pollen (the yellow) and the glint of some freshly stored honey.

In the early stages, the brood looks liquid and milky, a little like there's dishwasher detergent in the bottom of the cell. That's what Kate and I were looking for in her hive, and that's what we found. Check out this frame.

It is loaded with the milky evidence of young, uncapped larvae. Clearly, the queen had been doing her job. But just to make sure, I pulled out the frame beside the centermost one and hit the mother lode. A perfect pattern of capped brood, which is basically an incubation chamber for bee larvae to develop into baby bees, like a thousand butterfly cocoons. This photo is as good an example of a queen that knows what she's doing as I've ever seen, nearly every cell utilized for maximum efficiency. She dropped an egg into every one of those cells that are capped, and barely missed one.

Our work here was done. There was absolutely nothing else we needed to see. Kate's queen was clearly a star, the Alexander Ovechkin of queens. But before I put the frame back, I asked her to snap a picture of me with it. For a beekeeper, it's like holding the Stanley Cup. It's what we dream of, what we work for: a perfect frame of capped brood that, before the summer is out, will have provided us with honey, sweet drizzling honey, the nectar of the Gods!!!
Go Wings! Go Bruins! Go B's!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Tiger lurking; a 100 foot snake; and more adventures in Bad Sportswriting

Have you noticed? If Tiger Woods is within eight shots of the lead in any golf tournament--and he nearly always is--he's "lurking".
...Headline writers love to use the word. TV announcers love to say it, in hushed tones, always with a sense of drama. "Tiger's lurking! Just four back!" Golf writers haul it out with numbing regularity: After two rounds Woods was lurking two back...blah, blah, blah...
...And all of them have it wrong.
...It was on display again this weekend at the Tournament Players Championship, when, after three rounds, Woods stood five shots behind leader Alex Cejka. Woods lurking as Cejka leads TPC read the headline in The San Diego Union Tribune. Then there was this from the San Francisco Post-Chronicle, which has morphed into a digital paper: Alex Cejka Five Ahead In Florida But Tiger Woods Lurking

It got me wondering just how often Tiger lurks in the mind of newspaper editors, so I googled Tiger Woods lurking. Here is a sampling of what came up: Woods lurking in a familiar place (at the 2007 BMW championship)....Garcia shoots 65 at 'Car-Nicely,' Tiger lurking (at the 2007 British Open at Carnoustie)....Tiger Woods lurking is good news to the Golf Channel and NBC for the weekend (at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, 2009) There was even an entire article devoted to the lurking of Tiger. Scott Fowler of the Charlotte News and Observor, began his story on the TPC this way: "This is what you want when Tiger comes to town.
You want him to be lurking on Sunday, his stripes blending in with the pine trees. Ready to pounce."...
...That sure sounds like Tiger, doesn't it? Blending into the pine trees. Going unnoticed. Stealthily, ominously sneaking up on the leader from behind when no one, no one, expects it...
...Because that's what lurking means. And there is an implication of malice or evil to the word. Thugs lurk in the shadows. Monsters lurk in the deep. Here's how my American Heritage Dictionary defines lurk: 1) To lie in wait, as in ambush. 2)To move furtively; to sneak; to slink 3)To exist unobserved or unsuspected; be concealed....
...So why, oh why, all this stuff about Tiger lurking? It's a shocking example of how carelessly sportswriters and sports announcers mangle the language. Tiger Woods has not been able to lurk on a golf course since he was three years old, when he'd already appeared on the Mike Douglas Show hitting golf balls. He has been the center of the golf world since he was a teenager. All eyes are on him all the time.

He could not ambush a fellow PGA player if he were swathed head to toe in bandages, like a mummy. They would recognize him by his biceps, by his swing, by his snarl. He does not sneak on a golf course except when trying to dodge the press for his practice rounds; he certainly does not slink during a tournament. He does not even slouch. And even when he is not entered in an event, his absence becomes bigger than the tournament itself. Woods is always at the center of all conversation relating to modern golf. Trust me on this: Tiger Woods does not now, has never, and never shall lurk on a golf course.

...I'll show you the proper use of the word "lurking." This is an actual headline from London's Daily Telegraph:

Photograph shows 'giant snake' lurking in Borneo river
Villagers living along the Baleh river in Borneo fear a 100-foot snake could be lurking in the murky waters.

...No one really knows if the snake is real, or if the aerial photograph above has been doctored. It's like the Loch Ness monster: another classic lurker. Mysterious, darkly frightening, and hidden: these are the qualities of those who lurk. So what should the headliners write, and the announcers say, when Tiger is four strokes back? He is stalking; he is tracking; he is shadowing; he is hunting; he is chasing; he is dogging; he is shadowing; he is in hot, naked pursuit. Not lurking. Got it?

....Okay, the winner of this week's Bad Sportswriting contest is...drumroll please...Michael Whitmer, a golf writer for the Boston Globe. This was his lead after Saturday's round, the day that Tiger was lurking: "Scores were tumbling so far and so fast yesterday, The Players Championship morphed into the U.S. Open, with players struggling to grab hold of anything that could stop an avalanche that spared few and made pars as coveted as a winning lottery ticket."
...Phew! The New Yorker used to run paragraphs like that as little nuggets to fill the blank space at the end of some of their articles under the headline: Block That Metaphor! Let's see: we have an avalanche and a winning lottery ticket in the opening sentence of a golf story. Not easy to do. We also have the curious suggestion that "scores were tumbling so far and so fast" is a bad thing in golf. I would love my golf scores to go tumbling. Unfortunately, they always seem to go up. Michael Whitmer was clearly suffering so badly from the heat he couldn't tell up from down.
...How do I know that? Well, from his lead on Monday, after the conclusion of the tournament. Sunday's lead may have been a little worse, but for really bad writing in back to back news stories, these two leads are tough to beat. "With an obscure European leading Tiger Woods and the rest of The Players Championship field by five shots heading into yesterday's final round, the possibility of late-hole drama this tournament frequently delivers seemed as guaranteed as the weeklong heat that hugged the grounds at TPC Sawgrass."
...I hardly know where to begin, except to say if there are any students out there, pretend you never read the mangled syntax of that sentence. The only way to save it is to blow it up. It seems to me Mr. Whitmer is trying to tell us a little too much in his opening sentence: 1) that the overnight leader is obscure; 2) that Tiger Woods was in pursuit; 3) that the tournament often provides a dramatic finish 4)that it was hot all week; 5) that it was played at TPC Sawgrass. My suggestion to him, and to any students who might be reading this: prioritize. Tell us one or two things per sentence, and tell us clearly. Stick to one subject per sentence. The weather. The leader. The pursuer. The location. Tell us as if every word were precious. Be precise.
....Don't let your prose lurk in the muddy waters of Borneo. Be a Tiger.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

How the Pens-Caps series reminds me of Reagan, Tretiak, and the last years of the Soviet Union

It's been billed as the battle of the two best young players in hockey, Alex Ovechkin and Sydney Crosby, and through three games it's lived up to the hype. The two young stars are impassioned leaders who are playing at the top of their game, and the
quality of play has been mind-boggling. If you love hockey and have access to Versus, do yourself a favor and watch the rest of the Washington Capitals-Pittsburgh Penguins series, which the Caps now lead two games to one. It's a classic.
....But the guy who's emerged out of nowhere in this series isn't Ovechkin or Crosby--we knew about them.

It's Caps goalie Simeon Varlamov, the 21-year-old Russian who nearly stole game 3 for the Caps--a 3-2 overtime loss--by making 39 saves, many of them spectacular. His diving stop in Game two against Crosby is the save of the playoffs so far.

With only six games of NHL experience, Varlamov is giving Washington the kind of goaltending a team needs to win a Stanley Cup. He's the real deal, and he makes the Caps a real threat to go all the way.

.....He reminds me of another Russian goaltender who, at age 20, appeared out of nowhere and shocked the NHL by nearly leading the Soviet Central Red Army team to an upset of the NHL all-stars in the inaugural Summit Series back in 1972. I was a junior in college at the time, a goalie, playing with a bunch of Canadians who viewed hockey as Canada's sport. They believed, like most North Americans, the NHL all-stars would sweep the 8-game series. If they lost one game to the Soviets it would be an embarrassment. Instead, the NHL had to win the final three games in Moscow to eke out a 4-3-1 series win, one of the most exciting hockey events of all time and one that ushered in a decade of NHL-Soviet battles. There were a lot of reasons the Red Army team gave the NHL fits--better conditioned athletes who were better coached and superior passers. But reason #1 was the 20-year-old Tretiak, who outplayed Ken Dryden and Tony Esposito during the Summit Series, and time and again robbed the NHL's best. For the next 12 years, until his retirement, a lot of people--myself included--considered him the best goaltender in the world.
....In 1983, Sports Illustrated sent me to Moscow to do a feature on him. It was quite a process back then to get the Soviets to cooperate on such a project--they were wary that a star athlete like Tretiak might defect--but Time, Inc.'s Moscow bureau made all the arrangements, and photographer Jerry Cooke, who'd been born in Russia before the Revolution and spoke the language fluidly, and I set aside ten days for the trip.
...We both brought our wives, knowing we'd have quite a bit of down time, and stayed in The National Hotel, directly across from the Kremlin. The room the hotel clerk gave my wife and I was rather dingy, facing an interior courtyard, and when Jerry saw it he took it upon himself to complain. He asked the lady at the desk if she understood I was a famous American journalist who had come to Moscow to do a story on the great Tretiak, and how could she put me in such a room. I should add the hotel was practically empty. So she upgraded us without charge. The room we were moved into was the one Moscow used for the cover of its visitors brochure. It was an immense suite, with painted ceilings, floor to ceiling French windows overlooking Red Square, antique furniture, and a grand piano--the most elegant hotel room I've stayed at in my life.
....We got a call late our first afternoon that Tretiak would be happy to see us at his apartment that evening. This was sooner than we had anticipated, but we quickly got organized, and Jerry and I packed up our things and took a taxi to his apartment building. Tretiak and his wife lived in a modest, one-bedroom apartment by American standards, but for someone living in the dreary USSR back then, it was top-drawer. We left our shoes at the entryway. I'd brought him some Vermont maple syrup as a gift, and he proudly showed me a bottle of Frangelico liqueur given to him by Bobby Clarke. There was a translator there, someone from the government who would report back every word to the authorities, and Tretiak was polite, reasonably forthcoming (he was still angry he'd been pulled after the first period of the 1980 Olympic upset), and a gracious, proud host. Every once in awhile Jerry would tell me, after the translator had translated something: "That's not what he [Tretiak] said. I'll tell you what he really said later." But basically it was an uncontentious, pleasant interview.
...After a couple of hours, we bade Tretiak goodnight, and said we'd arrange to take him and his wife out to dinner later in the week at Moscow's finest restaurant. We were also going to see a couple of Central Red Army games, and would talk to him after those. He was totally agreeable.
....That was the last access we had to the great Vladislav Tretiak. During the night President Ronald Reagan, back in the States, gave his famous speech in which he referred to the Soviet Union as "an evil empire." Bye-bye cooperation with the Soviet authorities. We were now on the outside looking in.
....Still, we were allowed to complete our ten-day stay and do the usual tourist things--ballet, opera, Lenin's tomb. A train trip to St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and a visit to the fantastic Hermitage Museum. And we were allowed to go to Tretiak's Central Red Army league games, if not interview him afterward. At one of these Jerry wanted to take a photograph of the team bench, which required getting to a restricted area. A guard was there to prevent fans access. But Jerry understood the Russian psyche. He understood that most ordinary Russians, even those in a position of authority, saw their system as broken, and their laws and rules as non-sensical. "Why can't I go back there?" he asked the guard. "I just want to take a picture. I have a press pass. You see?"
....The guard pointed to the sign that said: Authorized persons only.
....Jerry was undeterred. In a measured tone, he kept explaining what our assignment was, and how he wasn't going to interfere with the players in any way, and how the press pass made him an authorized person. Finally the guard said something to him that made Jerry laugh, and let him pass. I asked Jerry afterwards what he'd said. "He was quite an amusing man," Jerry said, his eyes crinkling. "He said there were laws in this country about taking off your pants in public, and yet any given day in Moscow you can find people walking around without their pants on. So I could go ahead."
....Jerry was a marvelous storyteller. He knew and explained to me how hard it was to live in the Soviet Union for an ordinary citizen. Goods were scarce, and the lines to purchase them were long. We went to Gums Department store, and he pointed to a long line at a bin of shoes. They were only right shoes. Why, I asked, would someone wait an hour in line to buy only one right shoe? Because, he told me, next week there might be a special on left shoes...
....Often these disparate items, purchased on the black market, were sold out of someone's apartment. Jerry told me the story of the man who leaned over to tie his shoe in a doorway. When he stood back up, someone was standing behind him, as in a line. Pretty soon a third and fourth person showed up. Before long there were dozens of people in line. The second man finally tapped the first man on the shoulder. "What are we waiting for?" he asked.
....The man who'd stopped to tie his shoe shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. But I've never been first in line for anything. I'm not moving."
....Meanwhile, Jerry kept trying to get us further access to Tretiak. He met with one official at the man's office in one of those drab, Stalin-esque buildings. During their conversation the phone started ringing. The official just let it ring. "Don't you want to get that?" Jerry asked.
...The man looked at the phone impassively. "No."
...."Why not? I don't mind."
...."It will just be someone who wants me to do something," the official said.
....Listening to these stories, it became so clear to me that Communism was doomed in the Soviet Union, and it would die a death by a thousand cuts. Not because of a speech by Reagan. But because the people hated it. They hated their lives. They wanted a change. That's the difference between the USSR before the fall of the Wall and today's Communist China, which is really sort of an authoritarian government espousing state-sponsored Capitalism. The Chinese people like their lives, which are improving every year. In the Soviet Union, for decades the people's lives were miserable and getting worse...
....Back then you could buy very fine caviar for a few rubles almost anywhere in Moscow. But you were only allowed to bring three jars, or tins of it, through customs. Jerry had twelve tins of caviar in his luggage as we passed through customs on our way home, and the agent pointed to the sign that said: Only three tins of caviar per person. Jerry read the sign and patiently explained to the customs agent that he had legally purchased all twelve of his tins of caviar, that he was not an exporter, that he had every intention of consuming them all himself, of sharing them with friends back in New York who did not have access to fine Russian caviar. He loved Russian caviar. Why should he leave any behind? Stoically, the guard listened and pointed again to the sign. Meanwhile, the line of passengers trying to clear customs was growing longer behind Jerry. But he would not be swayed. "Can I speak with your supervisor?" Jerry asked the customs agent.
....To my surprise, the customs agent went to get his supervisor. By this time the line behind Jerry was quite long, and passengers were checking their watches and grumbling audibly. The supervisor arrived, and Jerry went through his spiel about how he'd bought the caviar legally, etc. etc. The supervisor paused, put his arm around Jerry, and said something in his ear. Then he let him pass, 12 tins of caviar and all.
...."What the hell did he say to you?" I asked Jerry after I, too, had cleared customs.
....Eyes crinkled in delight, Jerry responded: "He asked if I spoke French." I gave him a quizzical look...."I told the man, 'Mais, oui.' Then he leaned forward and whispered: 'Bon appetite!'"

Monday, May 4, 2009

Bad Sportswriting, but a damn good omelet

Like a lot of journalists, I worry about the future of newspapers. But as a writer and a reader, I've also begun to worry about the present of newspapers. Layoffs, buyouts, and editorial cut backs have decimated the ranks of skilled, careful editors, fact-checkers, and writers at every newspaper and magazine in the country, and, trust me, it shows. I offer as evidence two pieces from a reputable source: this Sunday's New York Times sports section.
...The first was the story on the Kentucky Derby upset, which was written by Joe Drape. I don't know Mr. Drape. Depressingly, his story now ranks as the "most e-mailed" sports story of the week from the Times--no doubt because of the sudden popularity of the gelding that won, Mine That Bird. Some of these emails, I'm sure, are being read by young, impressionable students, who will presume, quite reasonably, that Mr. Drape is a good writer who should be emulated. Just as frightening: maybe some of their teachers are thinking that this is what they should be teaching, since Mr. Drape writes for the New York Times. I sincerely hope not. This is what Drape wrote as part of his lead:
"Chip Wooley, Calvin Borel, and Mine That Bird, an improbable--no, impossible--50-1 long shot, did just that Saturday, running away with the 135th running of America's greatest race, The Kentucky Derby."
A competent editor takes that sentence and makes one simple change to save it: he removes the "no, impossible" parenthetical. Not only is it not impossible that a 50-1 long shot might win, it is so possible that people were betting on it to happen. And it did happen. Drape should have stuck with "improbable". That is precisely the right word.
....I wouldn't try to embarrass the man if he'd stopped there. But a couple of paragraphs later, Mr. Drape unleashes this beauty: "As soon as Mine That Bird" crossed the finish line, 6 1/4 lengths ahead of eighteen others, Borel's tears flowed with the warmth and power of Niagara Falls."
[Italics mine].
...Did they now? Has Drape ever dipped his toe in Niagara Falls in early May? The water would shrivel the balls on a polar bear. Plus, why the Niagara Falls cliche? The race was in Kentucky. And was the jockey really blubbering, his tears streaming down his face uncontrollably, waterfall-like, as he crossed the finish line? It sure didn't look that way as he was pumping his crop in joy and then giving his amusing and joyful interview while cooling the gelding down after the race. Yes, there were tears of joy. But Niagara Falls? Puh-leeze! I have a 16-year-old son, and if he wrote that drivel I would shake my head and demand a rewrite. That, my friends, is crappy writing in high school, never mind in the once-estimable New York Times.
....I moved on to another story to erase Mr. Drape from my memory: to a golf story written by Karen Crouse. I don't know Ms. Crouse, either. The tournament she was covering, Quail Hollow, was being played in Charlotte, North Carolina. This was her lead:
"Tiger Woods launched his approach shot on the 18th hole into an angry sky. His well-struck 7-iron was in flight for seemingly longer than Orville Wright on his first lift-off at Kitty Hawk." [italics: mine] I'm going to give her the "angry sky" cliche, though as we will soon see, it's not a very good choice of words. But Orville Wright? on his first lift-off at Kitty Hawk? Where does that come from? It's not like it was a theme that she returned to. Or as if Woods is a big Orville Wright buff. Nor does it fit geographically: Quail Hollow is in Charlotte, which must be 150 miles away from the Outer Banks and Kitty Hawk.

She continued: "Woods admired the ball. But at the last second, the wind, which had brushed the blue sky a slate color as the day went on, swept the ball up and deposited it in the right rough, 33 yards from the pin. [italics: mine]
...Okay, now we've got some real problems. First of all, call me picky, but "a slate color" does not convey an angry sky to me. Slate is cool, it is commonly gray, though there is also red and green slate. But the sky that day was cloudy, so I think Ms. Crouse was looking at a gray sky. The word she was looking for, I think, was "threatening." Then we have some problems with her verb tense: the wind "had brushed the blue sky a slate color as the day went on." "Had brushed" means it's already happened. "As the day went on" means it's a continuing process. Again, a skilled editor makes it all go away with this simple change: eliminate the crap about brushing the blue sky a slate color. So the sentence should read: "But at the last second the wind swept the ball up and deposited it in the right rough 33 yards from the pin." Accurate, clear, direct. Good sports writing, like all good writing, should be precise.
...It was enough to make me lose my appetite. Fortunately, I know how to make a damn good omelet, and I always have an appetite for a damn good omelet. You cannot find one, by the way, at any breakfast buffet in the country. In fact, I've never had a good one that I didn't make myself. At hotels, or diners, they're always overcooked, almost dry, and often are browned. They are to the delicate, finely prepared omelet what Joe Drape is to Red Smith. At the Marriot breakfast buffet, some guy in a chef's hat ladles some kind of egg goo onto heaps of peppers, mushrooms, ham, scallions--the more bountiful, the merrier--and cooks it to a fare-thee-well, smothering it with gobs of grated American cheese. Then just when you think it's done, he gives it a flip, cooks it another minute, then slides the cement concoction onto your plate. Hold on with both hands: it's thick enough to choke a cow.
....No thank you. An omelet should be as light as a crepe. It should be feathery. The vegetables should still have a nice little crunch.
...You need a good teflon pan and a good spatula to start. There's no substitute for those two utensils. If you don't have them, buy them. William Sonoma carries omelet pans for about $100. Here's what mine look like:
Prepare your vegetables by finely slicing scallions, red peppers, mushrooms, spinach, ham, tomatoes, green peppers, chives...whatever you happen to like and have in the fridge. My favorite omelet is made from red peppers, scallions and mushrooms. Put one or two eggs in a bowl--you don't need three, for god's sake--plus one tablespoon of water for every egg used. Beat till a uniform color with a fork. (Water makes them fluffy; milk or cream makes them creamy. I like fluffy.) Put a couple of tablespoons of butter in the omelet pan and melt over low heat.
....That is the key. Low heat. Do not cook an omelet over high heat, or even medium heat, or it will brown. We don't like brown. We like nice, fluffy, light, yellow, moist omelets. When the butter has melted, add the finely sliced vegetables and cook over low heat for a couple of minutes. Then add the eggs. Let them firm up at the bottom, at least one minute, then use the spatula to raise one side of the omelet. By tilting the pan, the uncooked egg batter at the top and center of the omelet can be poured to the open area of the pan, where it will cook. Continue lifting the cooked edges and tilting the pan until the egg no longer runs. If you want to add cheese-- and I love to add half a slice of Applegate Farms Monterey Jack with jalapeno flakes to my omelet--now is the time to do it. Use the spatula to fold the edges in, to form a cylinder-like shape. The cheese will melt in thirty seconds or so. If you want to show off, you can now flip the omelet with a flick of the wrist. (Do it over away from the stove, so if you have to dip to catch it, you have room.) But, frankly, if the omelet is properly cooked, meaning that it's not overcooked, it will sort of splatter when it lands in the pan. So don't flip. Rather, slide it onto a plate beside a couple of pieces of bacon, add some fresh cilantro if you have it, and Bon Appetit!