Saturday, May 31, 2008

And Here Come the Celtics!

The fact that the Celtics beat the Pistons in six is entirely more surprising than the fact that they could not beat the Cavaliers or Hawks away or in less than seven games. The fact that they won twice on the road in Detroit is less surprising than their inability to put up their best games against lesser opponents. The fact that the Celtics were only a good team when they had to be or that Ray Allen only stepped up when he faced supreme competition is not surprising.

I lived with football players throughout high school. We attended a military academy together, lived in the same rooms and I was the only swimmer. Aside from our difference in sport choice and music tastes (I got enough Korn to feed Kenya), we were mostly friends. On Sundays, a bunch of the nonletes (swimmers, cross-country peoples, etc.-- you know, non-football guys) would get together and play touch football when the weather was nice. These were my favorite games because I was always able to hold my own.

When the football players heard about the game, they began to flood the fields. They convinced us to switch to tackle and the most incredible thing happened. They played horribly. They realized that it was too easy. They weren't cocky. Things came too easily. They won every time they flooded the fields but not convincingly.

The same was true when I raced people in practice. The Freshmen and Sophomores got chances against us at the end of practices and I routinely lost. Pretty much 60 percent of the time. I didn't care about them beating me-- all the bragging rights and glory came when we raced each other in meets. I slaughtered the younger swimmers and did exceedingly well in our division. It didn't matter in practice. It only mattered in crunch-time.

The Celtics cockiness and swagger depended solely on crowd support and necessity when they played the first two series-- the Cavs and Hawks were not worth their time as compared with the singular goal of beating the Pistons. For the first time in the playoffs, the Celtics were not the best team on the floor-- game two proved this. So, in games three through six, they played with a sense of urgency (except game five, what a shitty game all the way around). They played as if they had to win and they won.

The Cavs and Hawks didn't really roll over, they just got beat by a better team. Aside from the inexpilcable second half involving Theo Ratliff playing over Jason Maxiell in game four, the Pistons had a more talented team on the floor at any given moment. It's just that, this time, the Celtics knew it. When the Cavs and Hawks beat them, it seemed like an aberration. When the Pistons beat them, it was a serious challenge.

When I got beat in practice, it was fodder for the showers. When I caught a pass over my roommate, it was worth a little trash-talk back in the barracks. When I went to see him play and he shed blocks for a sack, I knew my place. When I won relays for our team, my teammates knew what the captain on the back of my jersey meant. When the Celtics lost game two, they formed togwether and played two nearly perfect games on the road. They rose to a challenge and put the Pistons in their place-- the third best team in a supremely talented league (this year especially-- and, yes, that means i would have picked the Pistons over the Spurs).

Now, the Celtics meet the exact same task in the Finals. Beat a team that is more talented. Win despite not being the best team on the floor. They'll have to rely on the fact that they haven't failed a challenge yet. We shall see.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Phony Phisits Petco

I’m listening to the game now, just getting onto 805 North. It’s the top of the 16th. Technically, I didn’t see the Padres win that game. It was 9-9 when we left.

Saturday was my first game at Petco. My buddy got tickets from his work - 20 rows back, just to the first-base side of home plate. They were the best seats I’ve ever had at a sporting event that I wasn't working at or reporting on. We sat behind a guy with designer glasses frames, a silk designer shirt, drinking a designer mixed drink. In a small plastic cup. His wife was in her mid-40s. She had had a boob job at some point in her life (probably recently). When I yelled “Bush league” after a play, she made a W joke. She had voted for him.

David Ross flies out to center. Still knotted at nine.

At that point I wished I had some more real people in those expensive, season-ticket-holder seats surrounding me. When Ryan Freel came up, I yelled “Farney” as loud as I could. I explained it to my friend, who’s not that in-tune with things of that nature. Nobody knew what I was talking about. Every time Bronson Arroyo came to bat, I screamed out loud about the horrid, putrid nature of his music, and how it made me want to torture puppies. Again, I explained it to my friend. Some people around me laughed, but they didn’t know what was going on. Ken Griffey Jr. received a "60 16-pound boxes of pennies?!?" cry. I received empty, strange stares.

Aaron Harang just struck out his ninth in relief, Kevin Kouzmonoff on a check-swing. We go to 17.

The Padres looked horrible. There were at least three guys in the starting lineup that should not be paid to hit major-league pitching. Catcher Luke Carlin, recently called up to replace the injured Josh Bard, could not summon anything positive from either his Jedi or comedian namesakes. He made a few bad throws and looked overwhelmed at the plate. Wil Ledezma has a live arm, but it’s a wire that sprays wildly around, electrocuting stray dogs. He grooved one to Joey Votto, who blasted it to the grotto in center. He drove in four. The next day, Sunday, against a right-hander, Votto will not start at first. Dusty Baker was suspended for Friday and Saturday’s games, but he was in charge on Sunday. I think those occurrences are not a coincidence.

If you had told me that I would see a game in which the Padres would hit four homers, and they would still lose, I would punch you in the throat, phone your mother, and call her a whore. But it might happen. Two outs in the top of the 17th, bases loaded, the immortal Paul Bako at the plate. Josh Banks on the bump. He’s young, and already in his fifth inning of work. There is an ominous feeling. The sky is blue, and a few clouds hang over the Pacific Coast. The ocean is infinite. Bako chases a high fastball. We go to the bottom of the seventeeth.

There are no beer or hot dog vendors at Petco. If you want David sunflower seeds, or an ice cream cookie sandwich, or cotton candy (the 40-something-year-old woman in front of me on Sunday happily and eagerly lapped up a stick of blue sugar, getting it disgustingly all over her lips, teeth and fingers. I’m all about doing what you want, but there should be limits, and that’s fucking one of them), or licorice rope, or pizza, or soda, you can get it from the vendor. If you want a $9 Stone or an $8.25 Coors Light or a fish taco, you better get your ass up and walk to the concourse. I do not approve of this. There’s a reason I’m carrying 20 extra pounds around my midsection. I like to sit, and I like to drink beer. Get your shit together, San Diego.

David Ross hits a long shot to left. Caught. We move to Camino Las Ramblas, and the bottom of the eighteenth. Gametime: 5 hours, 36 minutes.

I wanted to get inside the Western Metal Supply Company building, but apparently you must need a ticket. It’s guarded like Fort Knox, or the US-Mexico border. The pictures I take are from a distance - the people there, on the patios, look young. And rich. And drunk. Instead I go beyond the center field fence to the Tony Gwynn statue to take a picture. It is massive. I reach to touch the bat; just out of reach, I bare my pale stomach for all to see. Luckily, the teenage girls laying on the grass not but five feet away are fast asleep. Why pay to get into the game if you're just going to sleep? Or read? Sometimes, kicking people in the temple should be legal, if not encouraged.

The FM station fuzzes out. I search frantically for an AM station, and get it just as Scott Hairston steals second. It’s the first Padre in scoring position since the fourteenth. I wish I had a small bottle of whiskey and a coke.

It is Memorial Day, and nine heterosexual males are roaming slowly through Disneyland. Obviously, we are high. The muffins are good, and the rides are better. We are well represented, baseball-wise: I wear my Padres hat; another wears a Cardinals T-shirt; another a Tigers T-shirt; and finally, another a White Sox 2005 AL Champions T-Shirt. Sometimes we talk about sports, but mostly we walk silently, laugh at funny looking kids, wait in line for a while, then laugh our asses off on the actual rides. After the night is over, we head to the ESPNZone at California Adventure for what turns out to be an enjoyable meal. Fun fact: next to us is a big birthday party, and the final gift is a box of Ram golf clubs (the birthday boy didn't jump out of his chair). We all laugh when the person responsible for the gift reveals how proud they are of that fact.

Adrian Gonzalez, Professional Hitter, crushes a three-run, walkoff home run to center off Edinson Volquez. The Friars win 12-9 in 18, after 5:57 of play. I think, if my friend allows, I will partake in a victory cigarette. I may not have been there for the penultimate blast, but I was there. I saw a split. With this team, this year - I’ll take it.

There were fireworks after the Saturday night game, and I take some poetic license and add them to the end of this game, in my head. It is bright out, and the sun shines. However, I turn on my camera and cue up my favorite picture of center field on fire, retired numbers backlit and booming, and picture the Padres winning one, just for me.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Outside the Aviary: Here Comes the Argument

If I were a savvier interneteer, I could devise a quiz that that harbored all the ideal situations that made you definitively “Chris Paul” or “Deron Williams,” but I’m not, so I’ll have to drop this talking points memo instead. There is more to this debate than Free Darko or any of the other near-perfect basketball sites have hinted at, and, while it is annoying to philosophize the human condition by proxy of sport, I am going to do just that. I apologize in advance.

The Chris Paul Fan has a distinctly whimsical tone. He/she is more likely to say I love Chris Paul-- or even more apt to say he might be the greatest point guard ever. There is self-reflective tone-- a reverence to basketball that understands placing the onus of the Rockets on Tracy McGrady is as absurd as blaming the Suns loss on trading for Shaq halfway through the season. The Chris Paul fan would rather see a half-court set end with an alley-oop while just a few seconds remain on the shot clock because that is sound basketball maneuvering-- reflection before reaction (and something that is typically non-revolutionary as all the fast-break basketball fans would argue).

The Chris Paul fan is a leader and a talker amongst friends. He/she is the one most likely mired below middle-management for acting as if he/she is anti-authoritarian, but he/she is, in reality, is not a leader and will never be one. The choice of Chris Paul is a not a blind decision, but is, still, an easy one. They were the most likely to defend his bad games and point out the 36-12-5 games with text messages like who does that or MVP. He/she is likely a quasi-leader of the group when they are out for birthdays-- the party planner/ambassador of fun.

Deeper than any of that, however, the Chris Paul fan admires Chris Paul; is more likely to lean toward hero-worship. They likely have an absolute favorite singer-songwriter or hip-hop producer in mind that can’t be argued lest heated debate immediately ensue. Often, the Chris Paul fan will lapse into argument without realizing it-- usually on topics that are unnecessarily pride-inducing like the least-regarded authors of the twentieth century or the necessity of instant replay in sports. The Chris Paul fan is likely to avoid commitment unless the pleasure of a significant other is perfect at all times-- even then the idea of a relationship is more escape from the pain of life rather than the betterment their social construct.

On the other hand, the Deron Williams fan may exude alpha-maleness amongst friends-- outright jealousy that a certain person is doing better monetarily or has a pretty girlfriend. They feel picked on despite the opposite likely being true. They skip out on social events solely on mood swing. They are serial monogamists. They could never understand cheating on a lover or significant other. Despite their faults, they are fiercely loyal.

They are apt to use phrases like, Deron Williams is better than Chris Paul, hands down, or Why doesn’t Deron Williams get any MVP talk-- he’s better than 90% of the players in the league. They are genuinely confused by the Jazz’s workmanlike team persona not producing a championship. Watch out for the Jazz this year they might say. They never watch the draft, but analyze afterward. They take easier paths to conversation to avoid arguments because they know everyone else in their generation are stupid. They assume what you will argue beforehand and judge liberally.

Both fans convolute the idea of the point guard at times, and mix the 1 and 2 positions. There’s nothing wrong with that.

If I were technologically savvy, Chris Paul fans would be given Charlie Brown faces, and Deron Williams believers would get Snoopy. (Tony Parker fans would get Franklin and all others would get Lucy-- Franklin because he stands out as a has to be there character due to Tony Parkers brilliance in big games and Lucy due to the Steve Nash and etc. folks that just want to argue against Paul or Williams for no good reason).

The argument itself-- who is better?-- lends to running circles around the main point of these playoffs. The Chris Paul fan was enthralled to see the Suns-Spurs, Jazz-Rockets and Hornets-Mavs come up in the first round despite the fact that all of those series were easy to pick in hindsight. Had any of those been a second-round matchup, they would have improved immediately. The Deron Williams fan licked his/her chops at the prospect of getting and beating McGrady early and having the Hornets face the Spurs as early as the second round. The Deron Williams fan wants Chris Paul to fail against the Champs and have the Jazz slay the dragon that is Kobe. The Chris Paul fan wants the aesthetic that is Deron v. Paul-- Jazz v. Hornets whereas the Williams fan wants the path of least resistance-- the Spurs are the bigger fish. The Jazz need to eat them to prove their worth.

Both men have merit, but they are both dreaming in a world meant to tear them down. It seems likely that the Jazz (who probably won’t win a game in LA) and the Hornets (who have lost their moxie trying to attack the defensive genius that is Popovitch) will fall. It seems likely that, once again, the point guard play will be overshadowed by the necessity of good defense, the perfection of coaching-- as much as I love Byron Scott and cheer for Jerry Sloane for no good reason, Phil Jackson v. Greg Popovitch just seems more fitting-- or Kobe Bryant with a decent cast (despite their sleeping on defense. I mean, come on, how many times did the Jazz score on inbound plays yesterday? Gasol can’t stop anyone, Kobe is hurt and Radmonovich wants to complain more than he wants to actually play defense).

There are the whimsical and the more straightforward. There are the workmanlike risers and the poetic ramblers. There are the arguers for the sake of argument and the pre-existing brilliant. The thing is, their both wrong. There is no right answer and their may not be a championship to prove it for either team in the near future. Neither Charlie Brown nor Snoopy ever really won in Peanuts anyway. That was the twisted brilliance of Charles Schultz-- the cruel heart of competitive sport.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Outside the Aviary: Can't Knock the Hustle

Last night, I read poetry in front of an audience with like-minded individuals and it was good. Really good. All of us read well-- inexperienced voices warbling from time to time, hands shaking, timidity peeking through-- and kept the audience interested.

In fact, it was so good that we were all smiles afterward. There was no need to critique or ask for more work-- everyone handed around their poems or stories and made promises to revive the series sometime soon. It was the kind of night that made you want to stick with writing as a non-lucrative form. Worth it, you know?

I can't help but find myself stuck on the Bissinger-Leitch wretchedness after a night like last night. Unapologetically, I find myself on the side of the bloggers. There are, however numerous good points to be made on the side of the old-school sportswriters as well. To use the crutch of humanizing sports is not correct. To use the crutch of profane bashing of athletes and then pretend it only happens on the internet (or internet-crutching as I call it) is wrong. In fact, the whole debate is wrong.

Fellow writers, this isn't about old-school theory versus new-school aptitude or Ring Lardner rolling in his grave or even John Feinstein's relevance to college-age students. It is about lining the metaphorical pockets of writers. That's it. Leitch does what he does and I like it. I could care less about the Leinart photos. I don't like the blogs he most idolizes. Bissinger does what he does and I have no complaints. I don't like his smarmy demenaor in real-life or his idea of writing in general. At the end of the day, however, the relevance of blogs and newspapers have convoluted the actual argument. I am surprised to have to write it down.

The internet is the only hope we have at a society of voices. The internet is Emma Goldman's dream. The internet is the structural counterbalance to a society of control. Bissinger and Costas are scared, but not because they are less relevant. They are scared because SPORTS are less relevant. Seeing pictures of our sports stars as drunk, half-naked womanizers or car-crashing alcoholics destroys the idea of relevance en total. It's not humanization that strikes fear into the major markets, it's dehumanization. Sportswriters have spent years kneeling at the alter of idolatry. Writers in general have been over-hyping everything under the sun. I'm guilty. I'll do anything to be noticed (I read a poem about tacos last night, for Christ's sake).

If we actually saw the tapes of Ty Cobb's cleats purposefully tearing into flesh, if we actually saw a piece on Babe Ruth drunk driving and spitting at cops, if we actually saw Adolph Rupp laugh at the black applicants to Kentucky-- we would have to start writing about the games again. It's all circular, and at the center of the "blog versus the world" argument is not the dumbing down of America but the education of the unheard voice-- the untrained eye. At the center of the argument is the same principle that drives businesses from multi-national corporations to the corner stores: the greed of attention.

This is writer versus writer-- a battle of contrition for attention. This is the idea of how brilliance and talent are displayed. The argument is whether or not sports matter at all. Blogs (at least the ones being singled out) are pointing out the frivolity of life-- the meatheads run the asylum, but we can still laugh at them behind curtains or foment the inevitable jealousy with a quip or picture of their non-perfect form. The vanity project that is idolatry is dying, not newswriting. Buzz Bissinger isn't mad at foul language or trashy pseudo-journalism. He's mad that the ideas of his father and generations of old white folks are irrelevant. Leitch isn't mad that he's considered a lesser writer by the generation before him. He's mad that sports have become so passionate that being dispassionate is not allowed. Bissinger's not irrelevant and neither is Leitch. They argue their mutual visceral contempt because the readers won't come otherwise.

The readers: the marginalized continue to traverse the divide between fact and fiction. Braylon Edwards isn't a hero, but he catches a ball really well. Buzz Bissinger isn't a hero, but he aggrandizes an otherwise unimportant occurrence well. Will Leitch isn't a hero (though he played one on TV), but he trivializes the already trivial well. All three of them are important, but, quite possibly, they don't know why they are. We do.

Meanwhile, the writers and athletes argue and tear down the rehashed ideas. The hero worship continues. The righteous suffer and etc., etc., etc. Meanwhile, I was there and I participated when four writers defended the faith and co-existed despite the possibility of petty jealousy or spiteful thoughts. We put our pieces out there and left the idealizing and aggrandizing to the small crowd of interested parties-- the readers. That's what our job was and we did it together and, my word, it was beautiful.

Tear down what you will. Argue what you must, but the foundation is shaking and we're all a little afraid of what that might mean. It may never crumble-- their will still be heroes and altars after all. Pretending it is not shaking or trumping up it's eventual destruction will do nothing but exasperate the readers. It will drive to give more voices and less education. Writers are destroying their own foundation. Bissinger v. Leitch will not go down as the critical mass, but it shows the shrinking separation that exists in the minds of the masses; the all-too-important readers.