Friday, May 29, 2009

Rafa & Roger

I feel more or less incapable of capturing exactly how I feel about these two guys, so instead I'm going throw up some links, pictures, and videos, and go on a little tour of their Grand Slam history in the past five years. But first, I'd be remiss without communicating a little bit of my excitement for the start of Slam season in tennis, and what better way than hyperbole? So here we go: I consider the ongoing rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to be the greatest of its kind, in an individual sport, ever.

Before I explain, here's the basic character outline.

Rafael Nadal: 22 years old, almost 23. Spanish. Ranked #1 in the world. Six Grand Slam titles to his credit, four of which are French Opens. In all but one of those six majors, he defeated Roger Federer in the championship. Came up as a clay court specialist, and is still undefeated on that surface in five-set matches. (Please note that, as it's a pretty spectacular fact.) Before ascending to the top spot in the world rankings, he set a record for most consecutive weeks spent at #2, behind Federer. Needs only a US Open title to complete the rare career slam.

Roger Federer: 27. Swiss. Ranked #2 in the world. Thirteen Grand Slam titles to his credit, which is one shy of the all-time record. Considered by some to be the greatest player ever. A grass specialist, if you had to pinpoint, but an expert on all surfaces. Has never lost a Grand Slam final to anyone but Rafael Nadal. Won 5 Wimbledons in a row. Has won 5 US opens in a row. Needs only a French Open title to complete the rare career slam.

Okay. Now for some collective stuff. Since the 2005 French Open, they have won 15 out of 16 Grand Slam titles. Their monopoly on the sport is near-absolute, and doesn't have an analogue in modern history. In head-to-head matches anywhere, Nadal leads Federer 13-7. In Grand Slam tournaments, that tally is 6-2. Nadal is the only player against whom Federer has a losing record.

First link of the day: Roger Federer as Religious Experience. This article, by the late David Foster Wallace, chronicles the extraordinary, ethereal skill of Federer in his prime. It might be the best sportswriting I've ever come across. It was penned in the summer of 2006, when it seemed like he might never lose a non-clay major in his career, and was concomitant with his Wimbledon triumph over Nadal. The tone of the piece is one of studious reverence. It's obvious that Foster Wallace holds Federer in high esteem, and his consideration is somewhat spiritual.

The writing, of course, is gorgeous, even though I don't necessarily agree with the aesthetic: the author is somewhat dismissive of Nadal, painting him as a fierce, one-trick warrior with only strength and intimidation in his arsenal. His preference is made clear in the article's last line: ...even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.

Federer is beauty, Nadal is mere power and aggression. And at that time, maybe the analysis was close to true.

What can I say about the dynamic between the two, the mutualistic relationship that continues to grow and reveal more than we could have guessed? Without Federer, none of it would be possible. He's a genius, and, as Foster Wallace points out, he revealed new subtle possibilities within the power tennis game that people thought had become obsolete. What transpired between he and Nadal, the unpredictable, stunning evolution, starts with him.

Both guys were soccer prodigies as children. At a certain point, Nadal's father made him choose between the two sports so he could focus. One of my favorite facts about Rafa is that he and his family turned down a request from the Spanish national tennis body to leave home and train in Barcelona, and possibly America at a later date. Education was part of it; they thought he'd suffer by leaving. His uncle Toni, who's served as his coach since the beginning, also had this to say: ""I don't want to believe that you have to go to America, or other places to be a good athlete. You can do it from your house." Toni Nadal is a great character all on his own, and I think he spends 98% of his life in this pose:

There's something very strong and inspiring about their attitude, and these independent origins are etched in Nadal's character. It's both visible and hidden, at every stage of his career, and in its absence, he could never have achieved the impossible feat of unseating Roger Federer.

Technical stuff: Nadal hits with enormous topsin. Topsin makes a tennis ball land more quickly than gravity would normally dictate, thus letting a player strike the ball really, really hard. A shot that would normally drop five feet past the baseline will, with extreme topsin, dive into play. Every player hits with topspin, but the rotation on Nadal's ball is at an extreme; measurements have placed it at 3,200 revolutions per minute. By comparison, Federer hits 2,500. Most players hit far less...Agassi and Sampras, at their peak, were at about 1,800. The insane amount of topsin lets Nadal exploit ridiculous angles that seem completely unapproachable. It also makes his ball jump up high when it lands in his opponent's court. Instead of dealing with a waist-high shot, the player is forced to hit a ball that's up near his shoulder, which apparently is a huge pain in the ass.

On clay courts, topspin is most effective, which is why, combined with his amazing speed, Nadal dominates everyone on that surface. Again, he's undefeated for his career in five-setters on clay (in fact, he's never even been taken to a fifth set), and has lost only a handful of three-set matches. Incredible stuff. But for a long time, people thought he could only be great on clay. On the faster surfaces, grass and hardcourt, his speed and topsin are nullified by the speed of the court. Flat, fast forehands and a power serve become more influential, and Nadal lacked both elements early in his career. Federer, meanwhile, had all the skills, and for him it seemed to be only a matter of tailoring his game to a clay surface to finally win his first French Open.

So how, over the last four years, did the discourse change from "when will Federer finally overcome Nadal on clay?" to "when will Nadal overcome Federer on grass/hardcourt?"

Let's hit the important stops along the way.

1) French Open, 2007

After losing in four sets in 2006, many thought this match would be Federer's clay-court breakthrough. Which, in hindsight, seems to ignore the fact that Nadal would also improve on clay, but it's important to remember that Roger was supposed to be the only genius, and Nadal a mere power-thug. But this match was never really in question. Roger took the second set, but otherwise Nadal coasted, winning in four more easily than he had the previous year. The collective attention switched to Wimbledon.

2) Wimbledon, 2007

Nadal had begun to prove that he was capable of adjusting his game, and upgrading weaknesses like his serve, to compete on grass. He advanced to the final for the second straight year, and hoped to improve on his four-set loss from the year before. By the time the match ended, both men won the exact same number of games. Roger won tiebreakers in the first and third, but Rafa took the second set and, more importantly, the fourth. For the first time ever, a chink appeared in Federer's mental armor. I still remember watching it and being totally stunned. During the early part of the fifth set, his facial expression changed into something like an aggrieved whine. When the Cyclops machine called one of his forehand's out, he asked the chair judge to shut the machine off (a ridiculous never happens). "Holy shit," I thought, "Rafa's rattled him and he's actually going to lose." Nadal had kept hitting heavy topspin shots to Federer's backhand, Roger's one supposed weakness, and it looked like it might finally break him down. But it didn't. The champion pulled himself together and won, 6-2, in the fifth.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that immediately after the ceremonies, Rafa went to the locker room, sat alone, and openly wept.

3) French Open, 2008

6-1, 6-3, 6-0. An absolute drubbing by Nadal. Federer looked miserable throughout, like a man who'd come to realize that he could never beat Nadal on clay. That, improbably, a dynamo had emerged to forever deny him the career grand slam. Here's a video with some highlights, not very interesting except for the first eight seconds, showing Nadal's coin-toss ritual which, I admit, is somewhat intimidating:

4) Wimbledon, 2008

As you can imagine, many experts picked this final as the changing of the guards, when Nadal would finally overcome and win his first Grand Slam on a surface other than clay. Others thought that Federer would be in fierce defense mode, like a cornered animal desperately trying to survive. They were both right; it was the greatest tennis match ever played. Over five hours of actual play and numerous weather delays, Nadal triumphed 9-7 in the fifth. It's impossible to describe the feeling of watching that match; two titans at the absolute peak of their game, having ascended to unheard-of heights, past their peers and in their own stratosphere, clashing in a duel that became both epic and timeless.

5) Australian Open, 2009

In the semi-finals, Nadal had played his countryman Fernando Verdasco in an unending, five-set battle that was supposed to have drained his energy completely. The pressure became so intense at one point in the fifth set that Rafa actually started crying before he served. It took every ounce of grit and pressure play to come through. Temperatures over the course of the tournament had reached 110 degrees, and Federer's comparatively easy path made his victory seem inevitable. Plus, the Australian is played on hard courts, a surface even more difficult than grass for Nadal's skill set. And with all that being said, this is where Rafa's mental edge over his rival became clear. In another four-hour match, demonstrating his unbelievable conditioning, he dispatched Federer in five sets.

It was Roger's first loss in a hard court final, and Rafa's first title. And the last set was not pretty; Roger collapsed. The pressure crippled him- an improbable reality for a man known for clutch play. After the match, during the awards ceremony, he began his speech with a sort of stoic disappointment. But he couldn't get very far. "God," he said. "It's killing me." And then his face contorted, and he broke down in tears. He would continue weeping throughout. But after Rafa received his trophy, he stood by Federer and hung his arm around his shoulder, trying to console him. And Roger was able to give his speech. It was one of the most touching things I've ever seen in sports.

And here we are. What's remarkable about these guys, maybe even more than the nonpareil ability, is their class. Neither man has ever said a negative word about the other, to my knowledge, and they're both consummate sportsmen. Which is fine and great, and no big deal, until you consider how much it's influenced what they've accomplished. When Federer rose up to his current status, he met no real challenge to his superiority. He was a once-in-a-lifetime combination of genius, power, and implacable drive. He had every right to expect a spectacular career, with the odd challenge here and there, but without any true obstacles to his legacy. He was the best who ever played.

And then came a young man from Spain, the product of a proud, obstinate family who insisted on self-reliance. And Rafa inherited it all, the fierceness and the pride, the strength of character, and the natural talent. If it had been any different, if that character had been diluted in any manner, he would've lived as a divine clay court specialist, with a brief stranglehold on the French Open, and made no inroads into Federer's realm.

But he wouldn't settle. He challenged, and finally replaced, the king. He made a man who excelled under pressure crack. The two champions brought out the best in each other, and their abilities became superhuman. They became a single entity, in some ways, spiraling around each other on an upward course. Every battle took on profound dimensions.

And they did it all with such grace. Could you pick two better idols?

This whole post has been thrown together hastily amid a ton of interruptions at work. There's a lot more I'd like to say; Federer's history of overcoming rage issues, relating to the death of his first coach, merits exploration. As does Rafa's upbringing. The entire subject obviously deserves better treatment, but I hope this skeleton outline has managed to convey at least some sense of the rivalry's magnitude and history.

The significance, now, is this: can Rafa stay at the top and win Wimbledon again? Can Federer possibly win on clay? Will he even maintain the fortitude to persevere to finals after the recent disappointments? And most compelling, will he get that 14th Grand Slam title and tie Pete Sampras? A couple years ago, that seemed like a foregone conclusion. Now...well, it still seems likely, but it's far from a sure thing.

Both men are through to the third round of the French (update: Rafa just beat Lleyton Hewitt in straight sets to reach the fourth round), which started last Sunday. Next weekend, if history repeats, they'll meet in the finals at Roland Garros. And believe me, we should all be watching. What this whole breathless treatise amounts to is this: we're pretty damn lucky to have them around.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Bryant's Song

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

-T.S. Eliot

Does this quote carry any weight in explaining the circularity of Kobe Bryant? Has the narrative arc of his career been spurred by a compulsion for 'exploration'? Can we say, with a straight face, that here stands an iconic, prodigious figure resembling something out of the bildungsroman genre? That we've been unknowing witnesses to a cathartic coming-of-age?

It's a tough swallow. The irrepressible arrogance can be a bit too lustrous, distracting from what may or may not be the 'real' story. But these playoffs are marked by a heavy atmosphere of fate, and the only character who seems to move with any fluidity inside the gravid climate is number twenty-four. How else to account for his self-effacing turn in game 5, ceding to teammates and functioning as a decoy when the situation seemed to call for complete control? Whence this faith? Wherefore the self-awareness, the intelligent reduction? To say Kobe is different than the young man who found immediate success and won three titles is a bit too obvious; inevitabilities like age, time, and a changing cast ensure that transformation. But it might also be true that he's metamorphosed from the taciturn prima donna who lost sight of the greater scheme just twelve months ago.

The body language makes its own argument. Yes, there have been moments of regression, when the moody superstar becomes a self-contained cyclone of anti-chemistry. But now they seem like an exception; days ago, I called the documentary "Kobe Doin' Work" garbage, a judgment I'm mostly satisfied in upholding. Nothing is that true without being false. But the manufactured reality seems to be approaching a lesser accuracy. Call it self-manipulation if you want; the impromptu strategy sessions, the inclusiveness, the offensive wisdom, the defensive augurs a new day for the Lakers. They stand poised to defeat a superior team, and may have to do it again if they advance. Success will depend on the strength of the premise- has Kobe's exploration led him back to a place of enlightenment, where the arduous process of winning a championship is illuminated, and a path chosen?

To date, the syllogism has borne the dense, precipitous weight of month-long testing, and parsed with a lucid aplomb. Somewhere in the forthcoming stress, a lasting answer will emerge.

Tomorrow, a magnum opus (I hope) on the French Open, and next week it's back to the Yankees. And if you feel like laughing, or just reading something that makes me laugh, please click this.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

No Reprieve in Believe-Land

Some thoughts on the halting, sporadic ascension of the Orlando Magic...

*Despite their thorough dominance of Cleveland for the game's majority, an undermining scheme of the collective variety seemed hellbent on destructing the hometown five. And I'm not just talking about the referees.

But, of course, I am talking about the referees. The phantom foul on Lebron at the end of regulation goes down as one of the most egregious "star-calls" in the NBA's long history of egregious star-calls. I've racked my brain trying to find cause for sympathy, but at this stage there can't be any excuse. Lebron tripped and fell forward, and Pietrus performed the smart maneuver by continuing to backpedal, avoiding all but incidental contact and winning the game for Orlando- until the absurd intervention.

I can recognize the pressure of the moment. I can recognize the trend of Lebron being fouled with some regularity, creating a pattern in the referee's game-view. But none of it justifies the complete lack of professionalism shown on that last play; these men are supposed to be experts, and really, what's the point of having them at all if they can't be counted on when the chips are down. It'd be nice if this was an isolated incident, but that couldn't be further from reality. The general incompetence is staggering, at best, and has a suspicious tendency to favor superstars. I'm not going to stump for a conspiracy theory; I think the truth is foggier, and involves a benefit-of-the-doubt philosophy that invariably benefits the Kobes and Lebrons of the world. But something needs to change. If Cleveland had won that game, the tenor of the entire series would change, and the premise on which the Eastern Conference Finals (and by extension the NBA Playoffs) are based would become invalid.

Incidentally, that's exactly what happened with the Phoenix-San Antonio debacle two years ago. To me, that Spurs title is irredeemably tainted.

*Lost in the end-game hubbub was a small validation of yesterday's post: Lebron is not functioning well as a closer. Orlando stumbled in the last four minutes, missing six shots in a row before Lewis' turn-around with four seconds remaining, but King James couldn't capitalize. In fact, he settled for long threes, turned the ball over with regularity (almost double digits!), missed crucial free throws, and generally showed the same fatigue we've seen in games 1-3. The overtime redemption effort, while impressive, couldn't acquit the earlier performance.

I have to admit, I've begun to take a kind of pleasure, possibly schadenfreudic (not a word), in witnessing this pivotal return to Earth. Call it what you will...when the Cavaliers beat the Pistons to reach the finals two years ago, I bought into the changing-of-the-guards paradigm, and Nike turned believers like me into a cult. I'm not sure when the backlash began, but I realized last night, talking to a couple friends, that I'm not alone. The sad thing is, it's not Lebron's fault. We're reacting more against manipulative market forces (the 'We Are All Witnesses' trope) and manufactured image, but the end result is the same: we're rooting against him. Which doesn't mean we want him to fail forever, I think; instead, there's the urge for a humbling process, a distilling of Lebron to a humanized core, and a build-up from that denuded place into a real champion, instead of a commercial mystic-product with no rings and a paper crown.

*The continued 'closer' woes are a gift to Orlando, who colluded with the refs to woo an unlikely defeat. Their collapse at the end of the first half, conceding a 15-3 run to the Cavs, is inexcusable. Van Gundy's refusal to take a time-out at that juncture is still baffling a day later. In the fourth, they pursued offensive options that seemed totally self-defeating...until they weren't. Why let Rafer Alston shoot threes? Horrible idea...until he made them. Why feed the ball to Dwight Howard in the post, where he's totally useless from a stationary position? Horrible idea...until he got pissed and dominated overtime. Which was awesome. But still.

*Situation developing: Dwight Howard has six technical fouls in the playoffs. By a totally arbitrary rule, a player is suspended for one game when he gets his seventh. Which means: should Superman get T'ed up in game 5, he'll have to miss game 6 in Orlando, when the Magic will have a chance (their best) to clinch on the home court. If anything can rescue the Cavaliers, it's this. If I were Stan Van Gundy, I'd be tempted to sit Howard in game 5. His suspension would be an absolute disaster for Orlando and the NBA, another example of a ridiculous bylaw deciding the outcome of a series. But that's basically the league's modus operandi, so you'll forgive fans if the doomsday scenario feels a little like destiny.

*In the what-might-have-been department, it's worth noting that if Lebron's final foul shot had trickled out of the cylinder, there's about a 95% chance Varejao would have tipped it in for the winning basket. In the direct aftermath of the phantom foul, I think that outcome might have led crazed Magic fans to burn the building. At the very least, it would have been a nice, shiny black eye for the NBA.

*That's all for now. I'm predicting a classic tonight between in the Lakers-Nuggets game 5. One thing is beyond dispute: if Denver falters in the Orlando mode, Kobe won't let the opportunity pass. The sniper only needs a moment...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Of Closers and Poseurs

"I don't want it to sound like we're getting cocky, but after watching the film...I think we have the better team. It's looking that way. They may have the better closer, but we're starting to have the better team."

-George Karl, head coach of the Denver Nuggets

This quote might be the most apt summation of the NBA Conference Finals, both east and west. A situation has developed where a superior team has imposed its will, to varying degrees, in the first week.

In the west, that team is the Denver Nuggets. This didn't come as a shock to me, or to most fans; it was evident in the lead-up that they'd been building to something special, peaking at the perfect moment, while the Lakers took on the personality of a shadow squad, winning when necessary but lacking the substantial, unwavering core we expect from a champion. L.A. was more like a guerrilla army; striking in bursts, conceding ground, avoiding heavy losses, retreating totally at times, and relying on the heroics of a great leader to pull them through the tight spots. It worked well enough in the first two rounds, but did not seem hearty enough to meet the challenge of a swaggering, powerful force like the Nuggets.

Potential historical parallel: despite superior leadership, the Confederate Army finally fell to the relentless push of a more numerous, more relentless force. Sherman marched to the sea, burning everything in his path, Grant waged a war of attrition, and the south weakened and collapsed. By engaging in a strategy that could not be parried with evasion or deception, the Union demanded a direct response. When their terms became mandatory, the outcome was already decided.

The closer George Karl referred to, of course, is Kobe Bryant. And his quote is factual, if not true. Factual because all elements of the sentence can be verified empirically; Denver has become the better team, Kobe is the better closer. Untrue because he left out a crucial clause, a glaring addendum which hangs a huge asterisk on the entire sentiment: the better closer might be enough.

In games 1 and 3, Denver outplayed the Lakers, but it did not suffice; Kobe's typical pressure-cooker performance won out, replete with off-kilter three-point plays, logic-defying fadeaways, precision jumpers, and the closer's greatest weapon- the uncontested, preordained, automatic free throw. In game 2, Denver outplayed the Lakers, and it was barely enough; Kobe came on like a one-man wrecking crew, but he was stymied at the end. In game 4, Denver outplayed the Lakers, and the result was emphatic. Even the game's greatest player couldn't bridge the gap.

In some ways, it's like watching John Henry against the machine (if everyone was rooting against John Henry). The outcome seems as though it should be inevitable, and the efforts of the resident superhuman, while heroic, should be unsustainable. There's no way Kobe should muster the energy to win this series by himself. The Lakers can't get a rebound, they have nobody else who can score with any reliability, and they're consistently outplayed at most positions. But's Kobe. Kobe the unlikeable, the arrogant virtuoso, who has sacrificed championships for his ego, who is supposed to represent a selfish, undesirable side of athletics, and who is the closest thing to a villain in the NBA. But who is also a ruthless winner, and a magician with a limitless repertoire.

One digression, two confessions. First, I hate Kobe Bryant. Second, I'm very grateful for him. Yesterday I watched a documentary called "Kobe Doin' Work," which is basically a game film of a Lakers-Spurs match-up, with Kobe mic'ed up. It's directed by Spike Lee, and it's a semi-hilarious, semi-disturbing piece of unredeemed propaganda. For over an hour, I watched footage of an unrecognizable NBA star unleashing a constant stream of fatherly advice to his teammates, joking in an anachronistic, jolly-old-fellow style with his opponents, and painting himself as a guru-cum-player-coach wreathed in wisdom and good will. Anybody who's watched the NBA over the past five years and seen the same human brooding and sulking on court, openly swearing at referees with something approaching impunity, and isolating or haranguing his teammates, by turns, knows what this film is: phony. fucking. garbage.

It's also a window into the soul. Here stands a singular figure, committed to his image as much as he's committed to winning. In a word, the man is unrepentant. Or ruthless. Or implacable. Whatever you want. But he's the reason the Denver-LA series is so damn good, and why it's essential television, and why the outcome of the series is beyond any prediction. The wild card, in this case, is just too effin' wild. So there's the gratitude.

Over on the country's other side, the Cleveland-Orlando series is finished. The Magic are advancing, and there's no avoiding it. Contrary to their western brethren, this pecking order came out of the blue. We the people were ready to succumb to a near-decade of hype. Give him the title, already.

But that's not how it played out. Instead, on paper, it shaped up somewhat similarly to LA-Denver. Orlando has emerged as the better squad, with match-up advantages across the board that trump the individual brilliance of Lebron. Here's the difference: King James ain't a closer, and he won't be until he develops a reliable jumpshot. Is that heresy? Maybe. I'm trying to pinpoint the exact moment when I came to the epiphany. Paradoxically, it might have been after his buzzer-beater in game 2.

In all aspects, Lebron is the epitome of cool. He's the sui generis purveyor of the non-reaction, the who-dares-doubt-me stare-down after spectacular achievement. Tensed muscles and an emblematic glare bespeak his greatness, which is never in question. So when he launched that arcing, destined three in Cleveland, it gave us an aesthetic delight. We expected it to fall. We did, but the shooter didn't. The shooter turned around, put his hands on his head, crouched, and had a completely unexpected reaction: surprise. Sure, there was triumph, but it wasn't the cocksure triumph of Kobe or Jordan. It was triumph tinged by miraculous witness, augmented (and diminished) by long odds. You understood the meaning of the uncharacteristic feedback in a split second: Lebron got lucky.

Another age-old maxim is proving itself in this series: One man can't win a championship on his own. Orlando is exposing Cleveland's supporting cast, and the process is harsh. They're playing with unbelievable focus, and treating Lebron James like a matador treats a bull. The animal rushes, and rushes, and rushes, but each time a little of his quintessence is stolen. Some of the energy dissipates, some of the verve is drained, and some of the ability wanes. The end of game 1 found Lebron cramping up on center court, inhaling great gulps of air into deprived lungs. Game 2 found him in desperate times, bailed out by the generous Gods. Game 3 found him fatigued, throwing up fadeaway airballs from beyond the arc, making bad passes, missing jumpers, forced into the one strategy that was simultaneously effective and self-defeating- that ceaseless charge to the basket. Without any support, the bull had just one trick, and one trick isn't enough.

Rashard Lewis and Dwight Howard are an absolute nightmare match-up for Cleveland, and the disparity seems obvious in hindsight. Thus, the result isn't entirely unpredictable. Orlando is a tough team, and they deserve endless praise. Their concentration and commitment, which we already saw, is second-to-none, and by this process they've contained Lebron. So why didn't anybody give them credit? Why did I pick Cleveland to win in five games? Why didn't we extrapolate from the gritty wins against Boston?

The lack of respect afforded them falls squarely on our gullible souls. Unlike Kobe, Lebron is very likeable. He's fun, he's a wunderkind, and his personality seems legitimate. We crowned him too soon. Without the Kobe-esque jumper, he's not a closer. Instead, he's young, and he's a work in progress. I'm not even sure he can be lumped in with the greats; any top guard or shooting forward who can be left open from deep at the end of games has a serious vulnerability.

Is that a disappointing conclusion? Yes. The fact that we call him "King James" says a lot. We crave legends, and instead of waiting for one to emerge, we created our own before he won anything. We crowned him before the conquest.

In a strange, contradictory way, Lebron's impending fall is reassuring. It's nice to know that despite the cumulative force of hype, advertising, and image, there exists a deeper truth in sports. This year, it's personified by the Magic. When an elite team plays with consistency, class, extreme focus, and grit, it will take real greatness to defeat them.

Orlando refused to cave to the ravings of Lebron's extensive and intimidating coterie, and their inspiring play has demanded a profound response. Ultimately, that response is not forthcoming in the Eastern Conference Finals. We wanted to believe in a child genius, but at the end of game 3, when the Magic began to feel that unmistakable surge of momentum that signifies the payoff of unyielding effort, you could see the ebullient spike, the momentous infusion of spirit as they realized the bull was staggering and ready to collapse. It's the vision of a team that raised its eyes to the enemy, after a long battle, and saw only weakness. Facts are facts- against our wishes, Lebron isn't ready.

But I heard there's a man out west...

Friday, May 22, 2009

Nine and Counting

Today is a day of frustration, because I just wrote out a whole blog and it got deleted. But I'm putting my nose to the grindstone and starting from the beginning...I am resolute.

*The Yanks won their ninth in a row last night, and they did it the hard way. Joba took a liner off the knee in the first, and had to be pulled post haste. Our bullpen somehow managed to keep the decent Oriole lineup to four runs, and our bats continued to serve. This is a fearsome squad right now. Matsui and Sweet Robbie both homered last night, Melky had a good game, and at the moment none of our hitters are in a real slump. Ironically, A-Rod is the one premier Yankee who's not quite in his groove, but his frequent home runs atone for the poor average.

I'll be at the Stadium tonight when we go for ten in a row against Philly (AJ vs. Myers), and I'm heading up Sunday as well (CC vs. Hamels).

*Another thriller in the Denver-LA series last night, with the Nuggets grinding for 48 minutes and achieving the coveted road win. But man oh man, it did not come easy; Kobe played like a demented monomaniac hellbent on snatching a win. He was so good at the end that, even though I'm not his biggest fan, I eventually had that dopey smile on my face that says "I know this performance is improbable, and it feels like I'm watching a movie instead of real life, and I know the increased expectations that coincide with the increased difficulty are absurd and contradictory, but at this point the ball splashing the net is 100% expected, and I can't help but grin."

Or something to that effect.

Still, when things finally went sour, Kobe's reaction was to sneer in frustration, cover his head with his jersey, and stalk off by himself. A ten foot radius of empty space surrounded him, and you got the feeling that if a teammate ran up with consolation on the mind, he'd be angrily dismissed. The fact that no one even tried says a lot.

Pure and simple, the Lakers are a dictatorship. It remains to be seen whether a championship can be brewed from that formula. Where Jordan was a stern but fair king, and Lebron is a benevolent people's champion, Kobe is a despot. Like Lenin turning his wrath on Trotsky after the Bolshie revolution, he chased Shaq out of town so he could be the undisputed alpha dog (unlike Shaq, Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico). The coup d'etat succeeded, but the promise of utopia has not come to pass; in a tyrannical state, it rarely does.

*I'll be writing an obnoxiously long piece on the French Open next week, but for now, let me state for the record that my excitement is in the lunar phase for the resumption of major season in tennis. Here's hoping we get at least one more Nadal-Federer final this summer.

*I'm now going to plug a new blog I started today. It's a humor joint, completely unrelated to supports, but maybe enjoyable even so. The gist of the blog is that I write bizarre (and hopefully funny) craigslist ads offering rooms for rent here in NYC, and I post the ads and some of the responses. Enjoy it while you can, as I'm not 100% sure of the legality, and the venture might be nipped in the bud. If I go to prison, I'll let you know on this blog. You can find the new stuff here:

Craigslist Capers

*Seth Curry Saves Duke respects national holidays, which is code for "I'm going to sleep until 3pm Monday, and will not be updating against until Tuesday." Have a great long weekend.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Kangaroo Court

Short post today. Just wanted to share this fantastic article on the Yankee Kangaroo Court held yesterday.

It seems that the injured Xavier Nady is the brains behind this operation. He noted every player lapse over a six-week period, no matter how minor, and yesterday the culprits went on trial. Mariano Rivera was the judge, Burnett, Jeter, and Damon were jury, Nady was stenographer, and each defendant had to plead his case in front of the tribunal before Mo levied a fine.

Some of the infractions:

*Phil Coke lost 30 dollars for shooting his hand in the air (indicating a routine pop fly) after Joe Mauer's home run drive Friday.

*Swisher got hit for 20 dollars for doing a shirtless interview in Detroit.

*A-Rod was fined for being late to the season.

"Mo was quite tough on some people," manager Joe Girardi said.

For the first time in a long while, the Yanks really seem to be having fun. I'm not going to go overboard and say that the light-hearted atmosphere is leading directly to wins, but I do think the addition of guys like Swisher and AJ has brought out the goofball in everyone, and that kind of looseness can pay dividends. The layout of the new stadium apparently gives the players some distance from the media, which has also led to a more laid back environment, and credit where it's due: Girardi seems to be actively fostering a relaxed, supportive climate for his guys.

Meanwhile, that's 8 straight wins and counting for the Bombers. You can't argue with the results. Starting with the walk-off win Friday, this has been the best week to be a Yankee fan in years. Winning is one thing, but winning with spirit and a sense of play is the really good stuff.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Black Mamba and the Birdman

Some more bulleted ruminations on last night's sporting landscape.

*Fat Tuesday was a huge success! There were 7s in the stars: CC went 7 innings and struck out 7 batters in his 7th decision of the year. The Yanks scored 7 runs in the 7th inning to earn their 7th win in a row. I called 7 women, got 7 rejections, ate 7 brownies, and contemplated the 7 layers of hell. Just one of those nights! Here's a picture of 7 astronauts to kick things off! Yee-haw!

*Teix and A-Bomb both homered for the third time in four games. That, my friends, is a scorching duo. Lost in their explosive play is the fact that Cano, Matsui, and Melky are in the midst of bad slumps. (Cano is now below .300, which, as his biggest fan, is thoroughly depressing. The only way Sweet Robbie should be batting that low is if he's handcuffed, blindfolded, and wearing Big Papi- post steroids- like a backpack.) Yet we're on our best streak of the year. It's a good indication of how great this team can be; we still don't have all the mechanisms in full-function mode. If our lineup starts to genuinely click, and I think it will in a matter of weeks, the Yanks go from very good to dominant.

*In extremely welcome news, Brian Bruney returned and had a clean inning. The hidden storyline behind our walk-off wins against Minnesota is that the bullpen came inches from blowing it each time. A combination of great defense, helpful calls, and poor RISP hitting by the Twins kept us afloat. If nothing else, having our 8th-inning stopper back should keep Veras buried in the pecking order.

*On to basketball. I got my wish- the Knicks stayed in the 8th spot in the draft lottery, and there's a good chance Stephen Curry will be wearing orange and blue next season. This means, of course, that he needs a nickname, and I have an idea. Ladies and gentleman, I give you: "Problem Child." "Problem" because his precision shooting and preternatural scoring ability will give other teams headaches, and "child" because he looks like he's 11 years old.

*Ahhhhh Denver. Yesterday, I predicted that you'd steal game one in a thriller and go on to win the series in six. You almost made it happen...almost. Things looked good for the bulk of the game, but then you got snakebit by the Black Mamba. (Speaking of nicknames, whoever came up with 'Black Mamba' for Kobe really nailed it...not only is he a quick and deadly scorer (and black), but his whole body dynamic is serpentine, from the snapping-yet-controlled motion of the lithe, whip-like trunk, to the sinister intelligence of the narrow, omniscient eyes, to the sleek, reptilian composition that extends even to those singular ears, narrowing into diabolic points...he's a structural man-viper.)

After yesterday's claptrap about his poor leadership in difficult situations, Kobe managed to simultaneously launch his one-man scoring act and provide a team stimulus with opportunistic passing. However, I stand by my larger point- the amazing three-point shooting of the supporting cast was an anomaly, and Bynum isn't contributing enough in the post. Pao was fantastic on the boards, but the fact is that Denver blew a good number of opportunities to secure the game late, and if Nene hadn't fouled out near the end, and if Kenyon hadn't made that stupid foul, and if Ariza hadn't come away with an easy steal, it was their game to win. At some point, they will take one in LA, and I feel a serene confidence with my Nuggets-in-6 prediction.

*I really, really enjoy watching Denver play. They have two exciting scorers in Chauncey and Carmelo, a downtown dynamo in J.R. Smith who can make it rain at the slightest provocation, a former Dukie with explosive energy, and a fun Brazilian center. Still, as I was watching the game, I couldn't help but feel that something was missing...some crucial piece that kept the Nuggest from total loveability. Where, I found myself asking, was the bat-shit crazy white dude covered in loud tattoos- perhaps dismissed from the league at some point for using a drug that was probably cocaine or heroin- who plays with a limbs-akimbo style that's high-energy, athletic, and constantly on the verge of complete chaos? Oh, and it'd be great if he could also have spiked hair that makes him look like a spastic European raver.

Wait, what's that you say? There's a man fitting that description? Why, it couldn't be...


"Okay," you might think, "that's pretty great, but I wish the nickname was self-appointed, and I wish he had a frightening trademark celebration where he ran around with his arms crossed, flapping his hands like an insane feathered creature, and I wish before the 2005 slam dunk contest he uttered the words 'It's time for the Birdman to fly.'"

Breathe easy, friend. Christmas just came early.

*After Kobe got a technical for slamming the ball, it was pretty revelatory to watch him interact with the referee. During the technical and regular foul shots that followed, he spouted off angrily from a distance of five feet. When the camera first showed him, he scowled and shook his head in that identifying cocky manner and clearly said "it's bullshit" three times in a row. Then he faced the ref and barked something else I couldn't see, but which undoubtedly contained more "provocative" language. The silent victim just stood still, slightly shaking his head, face red and abashed, clenching the whistle in his teeth. There was no way in hell anybody was ejecting Black Mamba, and Kobe knew it. He used his leverage to say whatever he wanted, secure in the knowledge that he'd literally have to assault someone to earn another technical. Fascinating.

*I suppose I should make a Cleveland-Orlando prediction. For this series, it's worth keeping in mind that there's a huge drop-off in the Eastern Conference after the 3-seed. Sure, the Cavs have won eight in a row, but they haven't played anybody. That being said, let's be honest with ourselves: it would take a miracle for Lebron's legionnaires to falter at home. The question is whether Orlando can hold serve and force this one to seven. I admire their toughness, and I don't think we're in for a sweep, but I say Cleveland takes a difficult game 4 and wins in 5.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

CC Says: It's a Fat Tuesday

Due to laziness, today's post will resort to a bullet point list. Due to the rough economy, all bullet points will be replaced by asterisks.

*CC Sabathia throws at the Stadium tonight, making it the year's first 'Fat Tuesday.' When the stars align so perfectly, the Yankees should definitely have some kind of promotion. It'll only happen a handful of times every season, and it's a great excuse for a Mardi Gras/Fried Food theme. I'm thinking the first twenty thousand fans get beads, and every time CC gets a K, everyone in the stadium rattles the beads. And you can exchange them at any point for half off CC's favorite food (chicken) at the concession stand. Maybe some crazy women in the bleachers would start flashing for free beads, just like the real Mardi Gras. Maybe some obese dude would follow suit. Think of the wild party atmosphere! And the whole time, CC's mowing down the opposition to the tune of twenty thousand clacking plastic necklaces. Fat Tuesday!

(This whole thing depends on CC not being too sensitive about his weight, and the Yankee organization adopting a laissez-faire attitude toward lower-middle class partial nudity.)

*Another great win for the Yanks last night. Dandy Andy was pretty bad, actually, giving up twelve hits over 6 2/3, but he somehow limited the Twins to five runs, and our bullpen (barely) managed to avert disaster over the last three innings. Teix went yard twice, which is awesome. His average is already back up to .235, and you have to expect he'll be above .270 by the end of June, latest. In the rearview mirror, those early season doldrums look like a hiccup. Still, objects are always closer than they appear, so here's hoping for a little more distance.

*Funny stat: A-Rod is batting .188. Melky Cabrera is batting .317. A-Rod's on-base percentage is .395. Melky's is .374.

A-Rod: Walking, striking out, and hitting bombs cuz he just don't give a fuck.

*Kobe vs. the Nuggets tonight. I really have no idea what to expect from this series. On one hand, I want to extrapolate from LA's struggles against Houston and predict a surprisingly easy Nugget win. On the other, many, many people fell victim to that line of thinking last year when Boston needed 7 to beat Atlanta and Cleveland in the first two rounds. In reality, I don't think a 7-game series signifies anything profound in this case. When the Lakers absolutely needed a win against Houston, they got it easily, winning by 40 points in game 5, and 19 in game 7. They'll keep homecourt advantage against the Nuggets, and will be less apt to throw away one of the first two games. Also, Battier and Artest are known for their persistent, harassing, and workmanlike defense on Kobe. Can anyone on Denver hope to replicate that?

The flip side of this argument is that Denver has looked like one of the two best teams in the playoffs. Chauncey is being Chauncey, Melo's embracing a new big-game persona, J.R. Smith is an unrepentant sharpshooter, and the mononymic Nene is playing like a premier center. If they can steal a game in LA, it's hard not to take them in 6.

My prediction: in the end, the Laker soft spots exposed by Boston in last year's finals are not solved to satisfaction by the underperforming Bynum. Denver is more physical, and although they don't have the best player, they have better players top to bottom. As for Kobe, I don't care how much propaganda the NBA or Spike Lee or Kobe himself want to circulate; when the going gets tough, he's a bad teammate. His arrogance is his greatest individual strength and his greatest collective weakness. Unlike Jordan or Lebron, Kobe's breed of confidence has a dismissive, exclusive quality. His failures without a co-star are a testament to character flaws that will never be resolved; he's an isolating talent with no magnetism, a bitter, rigid clay from which no championship will be fashioned.

The Call: Denver's got their 'teamsmanship' on: Nuggets steal a thriller in game 1 and win this baby in 6.

*Fun Fact: Nene's name at birth was: Maybyner Rodney Hilario. "Nene" is Brazilian for 'baby.' ('Brazilian' is Idiot for Portugese)

*NBA Draft lottery tonight. I just had a long talk with one of my friends at work, and he brought up a lotttttt of good points about the benefits of the Knicks going after someone like Hasheem Thabeet. As you may remember from a previous post, I'm a tireless proponent of Stephen Curry. But the work pal basically argued me under the table; I was reduced to using words like 'electric' over and over with no real semblance of actual analysis or insight. But in this case, I'm okay with being irrational. I want the Knicks to stay around the 8th spot tonight, miss out on the early prospects, and pick up the Davidson Destroyer. He's a skinny natural, a relentless scorer who will find a way to become a major cog in our future titles...sometimes you just have the feeling.

Have a Fat Tuesday.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Walk-Off Weekend

1) Friday the 15th, bottom 9th, two outs, bases loaded, Yankees trailing the Twins 4-3. Melky the Melk-Man Cabrera at the plate...


2) Saturday the 16th, bottom 11th, no outs, one man on, Yankees and Twins tied 4-4. A-Bomb at the plate...


3) Sunday the 17th, bottom 10th, 1 out, bases empty, Yankees and Twins tied 2-2. Johnny Damonic at the plate...


Sound off, ye trumpets of the Bronx. The dramatics also introduced a new tradition at Yankee Stadium; any time a teammate gets a game-winning hit, AJ Burnett shows his appreciation by smashing a cream pie in their face. I guess it's his "thing." He got his man without fail this weekend, striking like a merry viper in the false calm after the celebration. Kim Jones, the YES Network's post-game correspondent, was standing in the vicinity on all three occasions, prepping for the interview. She was nailed by stray whipped cream every time. Hilarious.

(Logistics question: does he bring a cream pie to every game, just in case?)

This is the kind of moment last year's Yankees never experienced. We fell into the back-and-forth holding pattern, orbiting the .500 mark, never stringing together multiple dramatic wins or establishing an emphatic team character. This weekend might finally signify the systemic shock Yankee fans have been anticipating since Girardi took the helm.

Speaking of the skipper, he showed a keen sense of timing during the 8th inning on Friday when he vigorously confronted Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire, defending his first baseman after Carlos Gomez almost broke his wrist. Girardi, the younger and fitter man, barked at the goateed codger, protecting Teixeira from ejection and sending the crowd into hysterics. It set the table perfectly for Melky's heroics, and instilled a swagger that served us well in the next two wins.

It's also worth mentioning that the bullpen performed beyond what we've come to expect, and the starters held the fort despite a steady barrage of mortar fire from Mauer and Morneau. Joe Mauer might be the best baseball player in the league. He's the type of pure hitter Robinson Cano wishes he could be, and he's not bad behind the plate, either. Until Damon's home run, his diving tag of Brett Gardner on Sunday was the highlight of the year's best game.

As far as I'm concerned, the 2009 season started Friday. We finally have a team with some cohesive personality, and that trait is 100% inseparable from a winning disposition. Once a team knows itself and knows each other, the gravitation of individual talent into a coalescent force impends. The Bombers now own three straight series wins. A-Rod's back, Teix is swinging, CC's hurling, and our top-to-bottom line-up resembles something worthy of the franchise name. A fresh excitement is palpable- all signs forecast the Yankee arrival. The rest of the league is officially on notice.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Motivational Speech for 'Mine That Bird'

(Mine That Bird is the three year-old gelding that won the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago. His starting odds were 50-1, making him the second biggest upset winner in Derby history. Although he's running in this weekend's Preakness, the second of three Triple Crown events, his jockey Calvin Borel made the choice to mount a different horse- Rachel Alexandra, a filly and the pre-race favorite. In a nutshell, Mine That Bird gets no respect. What follows is the motivational speech I plan to give him sometime tomorrow afternoon in Baltimore, if I can get close enough. I love this horse, and he's gonna win.)

Yo, Bird, look at me. Look at me. Here dude, have some oats. Not too many. I don't have a ton of time. Yo, stop turning around in circles for a damn second. I snuck into this stable and I'm pretty sure your crazy hick of a trainer will be up in my shit in like five minutes, cussing me out in that hard western way where it's pretty obvious you're about to get buried neck deep in sand, staring at scorpions and wondering about God. So listen good, alright? Cuz we're gonna do this. We're gonna win this damn race.

Look, I know things ain't so hot right now. Even after you win the Derby, nobody wants to give you any props. And that's not the half. Your jockey, that scrunched up leprechaun acting like he did anything but whip you on the ass for two minutes, ain't even interested in riding you today. Daaaaa-yummmm. Instead he's gonna mount up on Rachel Alexandra, a filly. That means a chick, if you didn't know. Cuz I didn't. I do know this, though: the last time a skirt won this race, it was 1924. That's ancient times. Back then, dudes had to wear a hat even when they went to bed, and if you felt like a nip of the good stuff you had to go through the back door of a closed 'nickelodeon' just for some bleach-based whiskey a lewd Scotsman made in his bathtub that had like a 40% chance of killing you within the hour. I'm just saying.

Don't get your nose in the mud about Calvin Borel, for real. He's making a mistake. People have doubted you since you got foaled, homes, and they always get burned. Think about it. No jockey in history has ever said 'it ain't you, it's me' to a Derby winner, then had the stones to bring his new fling to the Preakness. It just don't happen. You're like Matt Saracen in 'Friday Night Lights.' Homeboy led the Dillon Panthers to a state championship sophomore year, then got benched as a senior. You ever watch that show, Bird? I don't know if that's your thing, but you should check it out.

Dig: when you get out to the starting gates today, I don't want you craning that long neck Borel's way. He'll probably give you a look like 'heyyyyy killer, I'm really sorry about all this but my hands are tied, broseph.' Ignore that pose, you heard? We'll see where that smirking 'tude goes when you're in the winner's circle, making it weird for everyone by shitting like you never been in public before. Cuz that's what a champion does, if he's a horse. God bless. I'm not here to judge.

Anyway, man, being counted out ain't never slowed your roll before. For a while there, it looked like you might be turned into Elmer's glue before your first birthday. Picture some little kid squeezing out your remains to attach one color construction paper to another for his grandma's Flag Day card. Almost happened. Early on, you couldn't get into a racetrack if you showed up in a trenchcoat reeking of brandy, smoking a cheap Dominican cigar, hangin' with an Italian dude called Tokyo, and needing an exacta in the sixth just to pay alimony. Bad times.

Finally someone forked over nine grand for you in '07. Nine grand, Bird. In this country, you can't even get a shitty car whose main feature is catching on fire when it's hotter than 70 degrees for nine grand. Not even in Detroit, and that city will basically give you an entire street if you promise not to spread herpes on purpose. But that's all you fetched. Nine grand. Come on, you remember those days. The nine grand stable. Rough company. Every other horse in the place trying to eat their tail or taking dares to get their head stuck in the water trough. They found out one of them wasn't even a horse, just a big retarded dog with a thyroid problem. But that was the nine grand stable. It was expected.

You took the worst and thrived. When they finally let you run races, probably as a prank, you didn't screw around. You won something called the Silver Deputy Stakes. I ain't gonna sit here and pretend I'm totally up on the more regional races, but it sounds legit. Anyway, you repped yourself well enough to get a bid in this year's Derby. Even then, Bird, 'racing enthusiasts' were pissed off you might be copping a contender's spot. Some experts predicted you'd try to run backward, or get distracted by a tractor and trample a kid on the infield. Like you ain't never run an oval before. Shee-it.

It wasn't a picnic getting to the Derby, either. Those Arabian horses? They have Eyptian voodoo men train doves to air lift them to Kentucky. I'm pretty sure Baffert hired some Canadians to carry Pioneer Of The Nile down on a palanquin. But you had to ride in the back of some piece of shit trailer from New Mexico, driven by a dude who with a smashed foot who was liquored up for most of the trip. You had to sit alone in the heat every eight hours or so while he stopped at a slummy motel to score some crystal meth and maybe a whore if one was around. By the time you got to Churchill Downs, you were thinking of breaking a leg on purpose just to get euthanized.

But you raced. They sent you out at 50-1, which are odds they usually save for pack mules who get entered by a clerical error. Then you stumbled right out of the gate. You got so far back the NBC announcer didn't even say your name for most of the race. When you finally got your giddy-up on and smoked the pack to win by the second biggest margin in the history of the damn Derby, men were ripping tickets and fine women with fake birds on their hats were wondering who they should marry next. Media types gave all the props to Calvin, who got weepy and embarrassed himself. The NBC lady on the horse didn't even ask you for a comment. The next week on PTI, Kornheiser counted you out for the Preakness because "the jockey was the real star of the Derby, not the horse."

You see how it goes. It's just a wicked carousel of haters and strife, this earth, and right now you're ear deep in shitty carnival music. I get it. That's your fate. But I'm here to tell you it ain't an issue. Because right now, at this precise second, you got your mean face showing. They can drop weights on you from the sky, but that don't slow a pissed off, pure sprinter.

Yo Bird, I did a little research. Wikipedia said you were a gelding. I didn't know that one, so I checked it, and I guess it means you had your balls cut off back in the day. Sorry about that. I was gonna end this speech with a little fire and brimstone about how if you won out there, you could spend the rest of your days screwing in a huge pile of the finest oats. That's basically what they tell little terrorist kids while they're strapping on the dynamite, minus the oats part. But I guess it ain't to be.

They took your future just cause you liked to strut and snort some mornings, and now, with all this smack about the Derby being a big fluke, they're taking your past too. But let me tell you something, Mine That Bird. Let me tell you one little fucking thing, you beautiful son of a bitch: they cannot take your present. You came down a hard road, but you were bred to be great. Let the mouths spout their nonsense; you're a force of nature. Now get out there and show an ungrateful world that you can't stop the goddamn wind.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"Keep Your Eye Clear, and Hit 'Em Where They Ain't"

That quote is from a diminutive fellow named Wee Willie Keeler. Standing at 5'7", Willie played from 1892-1910, compiling 2,932 career hits and a lifetime .341 average. In one stretch, he posted two hundred hits or more in eight straight seasons. He played most of his career with the Brooklyn Superbas and New York Highlanders, teams that became the Dodgers and Yankees. Today, his words serve as good advice for Yankee hitters trying to put a new face on the 2009 season.

16-17. Five and a half games out of first place. A chance to get to .500, a chance to move within striking distance against the best team in the AL East. One of our strongest pitchers on the mound. One of their worst.

If a turnaround is in the stars, tonight would be an excellent opening salvo. The diviners among us are not bereft of good omens. After the Red Sox/Rays embarrassment, we've taken two of three from Baltimore, and have a chance to do the same against Toronto. But the schedule doesn't get much easier. The Twin Cities come calling over the weekend, Baltimore steps hot on their heels, and the world champion Phillies bring some inter-league devilry to round out the homestand. There will never be a point this season where we can coast for even a seven-day stretch against weak opponents.

Jeter should be back by Friday. Matsui, Posada, Bruney, Phil Coke, and maybe even Wang will return next week. Is there a possibility of thinning out the massive DL pilgrimmage? Maybe not; we're cursed with age. But the pieces will finally be in place, and the time for excuses is in the rearview. With 20% of the season cashed, it's not early anymore.

Teixeira is finally locked and loaded. Cano's slump is over. CC is pitching like the ace we signed. Even our role players are in the zone. The Yankee season starts this weekend, or it doesn't start at all.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Stephen Curry Saves the Knicks!

New blog title?????

This is a SPECIAL BONUS post (today's real post below): rumors abound that the New York Knicks, assuming their draft pick falls around the predicted 8th spot, are interested in Davidson's Stephen Curry.

Amazing news. Amazing. I've been wishing for this exact scenario since December. The Curry brothers are changing my life for the better, one day at a time. Lebron and Curry, leading the Knickerbockers back to glory? Bring on 2011!

Okay. Deep breath. Today's post is below, a tape delay blog of last night's games. Please read and enjoy.


Tape Delay Blog: The Night in Sports

Today's post is another tape delay blog. Last night's Yankee game featured a great pitching match-up, Boston-Orlando played the early NBA game, and I thought I might catch some hockey too. This post is pretty long, so peruse at your pleasure...I wanted to make up for the skimpy last few posts. As usual with the TD Blogs, all words are as I wrote them last night, aside from minor style edits.

7:18: Alright! Time for the crazy multi-sport all-night live blog! About an hour ago, my general state of being was somewhere between tired and excited. Tired because alcohol and “Friday Night Lights” have kept me from sleeping the past three days, and excited because it’s a great night for sports. Then, at 6:45, my roommate Angela opened her bedroom door. I turned, and the awful sight I beheld in the threshold has really rattled my sense of sanity.

Apparently, she’s dyeing her hair tonight, and I caught her in the preliminary stages. Her normally-blond locks were matted on her head, covered in dark black goop, looking more or less like the top of Adolf Hitler’s dome on a rainy day (I finally understood that Radiohead lyric about a Hitler hairdo making you feel ill). Her eyebrows were also greasy and thick with black dye, slanted downward in a near uni-brow. She sort of resembled that creepy baby from The Simpsons. Her white fuzzy bathrobe was splattered in black, like a crazy person who somehow broke into a newspaper printing press and got weird with the ink.

I tried to look away, but that wasn't happening. Nor could I speak. “It’s that time again,” she said as she walked by, throwing me a hideous smile (for the record, she's normally a nice-looking person). I think the words were meant to assure or self-deprecate or something. But when she met my stare, looking like a demented, possibly violent Serbian peasant from the 1920s, the words sounded more like a threat. So if the rest of this blog sounds oddly traumatized, you know why.

7:28: I have my sandwich and my milk. Time to turn to the YES Network and see if the Yanks have already blown it. Tonight’s game features A.J. Burnett against his old team, the Blue Jays, who are sending the great Roy Halladay to the mound. This could be an old fashioned pitcher’s duel. I’ll be switching back and forth between that and Celtics-Magic game 5. Maybe some hockey, but probably not. Let’s do it.

7:31: The game is on WWOR, apparently, but I’m there. Tuned in just in time to see Toronto’s shitty Skydome turf field cause an error. A-Rod misplays a high artificial hop and there are men on first and second with no out. Scoreless game.

7:33: Ken Singleton and John Flaherty are in the booth. AJ works out of the jam when Ramiro Pena backhands a hard ground ball at short. Where’s Jeter tonight? I hope he’s hurt, or I’ll already have my first Girardi gripe two minutes into the game. Why does he always seem to rest his best hitters against the best pitchers? It’ll be hard enough to hit Halladay as it is, and now we’re throwing Pena into the mix?

7:37: Apparently Jeter’s hurt with a strained oblique. Ugh. They say it’s not serious, but who the hell knows at this point. Everyone on our team gets hurt, it's not even worth marveling at anymore. Meanwhile, the 7-8-9 personnel for the Yankees, who have the highest payroll in major league baseball by a ridiculous margin, goes like this: Melky Cabrera, Kevin Cash (our 4th string catcher), and Ramiro Pena. And guess what? Halladay just retired them in order, using about seven pitches! 0-0 going into the bottom of the third.

7:39: Remember that blog a couple weeks ago, when I ruined A.J.’s no-hitter, and promised I’d never jinx him again? Psych!

A.J. Burnett has a no-hitter through two.

7:41: The YES/WWOR radar gun is hilarious. All of A.J.’s fastballs register at about 64mph tonight. A few games ago, Jon Lester was throwing 105mph pretty consistently.

7:44: Kevin Cash, despite my insult two posts above, makes a hell of a play on a little nubber in front of the plate, nailing the fleet Marco Scutaro by a step. Aaron Hill flies out, and IT’S A NO-HITTER THROUGH 3!!!!! Seriously, though, AJ looks really good.

7:47: I just refilled my milk glass, and saw my lonely green cup sitting in the dish rack. I almost hate to tell this story, but it’s so sad and weird that I'm compelled. That green plastic cup has come with me a long way. I bought it for probably fifty cents sometime in college, and it looks like a "safe" object you’d give a little kid who had a tendency for throwing things. And then, this weekend, a friend of mine was over for a barbecue. While the rest of us were on the roof, he came down to use the bathroom. Apparently it was occupied and he couldn’t wait, so...he fucking used my green cup.

He told me the whole story with a dumb grin when he came back to the roof, I almost killed him, and he hurriedly claimed to have washed it thoroughly. Under normal circumstances, I’d use a giant pair of prongs to throw it out the window, but there’s some sentiment at play here. Say what you will. My current strategy might be worse than my friend’s original crime; I’m waiting for one of my unknowing roommates to use it, and sort of 'eliminate' the urine stigma. I feel like once they have a drink, it might be okay to bring it back in the rotation. So far, no takers. I’ll have to feature it in a more prominent position, or go out of my way to pour someone a glass of water. (Who am I kidding? I can never drink from that cup again.)

7:50: Johnny Damon hits a liner to second, snared nicely by Aaron Hill. Up comes Mark Teixeira, batting .196. If I could read that last sentence before the season, in some kind of future vision, I’d probably have renounced my fandom and you'd be reading a Mets blog. The 'human disappointment' watches a clear third strike without moving a muscle. Halladay is dealing. So far, we’re living up to the pitcher’s duel hype.

7:53: Ha! Ken Singleton barely, and I mean barely, gets done telling us that eight years ago, to the day, AJ threw a no-hitter for the Marlins, when Rios smashes a lead-off double into left-center. “And...there goes the no-hitter for today,” says a despondent Singleton. Now we’re even, Ken.

7:55: The Toronto fans start a mocking, protracted “AAAAAAA-JJJJJJJJJ” chant, and boo the shit out of him when Kevin Cash trots out for a conference. Aren’t they supposed to be polite in Canada?

7:58: A good at-bat by Vernon Wells elicits a walk. So far, I have been thoroughly unimpressed with AJ’s response to trouble. The most obvious example is when the last no-hitter was broken up, and he gave up a couple runs in a classic let-down. Two on, none out, let’s see how he responds.

8:01: Flaherty makes the good point that it would be easy for AJ to press now, since mentally he has to be thinking that Halladay won’t concede much. A run here could mean a loss. Adam Lind walks on a curve that just misses. Hate to say it, but AJ looks frazzled. Bases juiced, still no outs. Scott Rolen up, and the fair-weather Toronto “fans” are in a lather.

8:03: AJ inexplicably throws a curve over the plate on a 1-2 count, and Rolen rips it past A-Rod for a double. 2-0 Blue Jays. Those charming Canucks start up an “AJ Sucks” chant. Almost basketball time...

8:06: With first base unoccupied and one out, Rod Barajas steps up to the plate. I’m going on record and saying I think Girardi is messing up by not walking him. Todd Snider is up next, batting .247, while Barajas is at .316. Snider’s a lefty, but the talent disparity is enough for me.

8:09: NO! Barajas hits a looper to right, Melky catches it on the run and has Lind dead to rights at home. It’s a tough short hop, though, and Cash drops the ball. 3-0 Jays. It’s a long game and all that, but this really feels like a huge, huge deficit against Halladay. AJ makes Snider look silly on an inside curve to end the inning.

8:12: Channel change to Celts-Magic. I had a moment of Disassociative Sporting Adjustment Syndrome (DSAS) when I saw the score. “Wow,” I thought, “the score is already 6-4??” Forgetting, of course, that I’m no longer watching baseball.

8:14: Rafer Alston, aka ‘Skip To My Lou,’ has the greatest nickname in professional sports, bar none. He drives left side for a lay-up, 8-6 Boston early. Former Dukie JJ Redick is getting some PT. Cool? I say yes!

8:15: Back to the Yanks, and there’s already one down. Halladay is not fucking around tonight. Swisher Ks, and Your Boy Roy has thrown only 43 pitches so far, here in the 5th inning. Make that 44, as Robbie Cano chases a terrible first pitch for the second time tonight, and grounds out to first. Inning over, 13 straight batters retired. Remember those Yankee teams from the late 90s who would work the count and frustrate even the best pitchers? That was nice.

8:19: Commercials all around, so I went looking for hockey. Apparently it’s on “Versus,” which I don’t get. I’m really not clamoring to see the Wings game tonight (although tomorrow night’s Pens-Caps game 7 would be nice), but it's kinda sad, from the historical viewpoint, that even ESPN2 won’t pick it up.

8:21: I mistakenly turn to YES, forgetting they aren’t carrying the game, and there’s a Bernie Williams concert on. Bernie Baseball is a classical guitarist, and a pretty good one at that, but it’s still funny to me that a team's network would go out of their way to carry the concert of one of its former players. As though Yankee fans are going to suddenly become huge music aficionados because of Bernie. Did they all start doing crosswords because of Mike Mussina, or masturbating in bullpens because of David Cone?

8:23: Melky makes a running catch that takes him to the stands, where two gorgeous girls hold out their hands for the ball. He can’t oblige, since there are only two outs and a man on base, but he pauses and watches them for a second, considering. I can read his mind: “Maybe it’s worth it...we’re not scoring off Roy anyway...”

8:24: “Every time he throws to first, the crowd boos,” scoffs Singleton, demonstrating the same disdain I’m feeling for the Toronto crowd. Maybe they’re all riled up because the last Canadian hockey team was eliminated from the playoffs last night, making this the 16th year in a row that an American team will win the Stanley Cup. AJ gets a ground-out. 3-0 after 5.

8:27: Basketball. JJ hits a three, and Orlando is leading after one. The Celtics have been tough as hell all post-season, but a loss at home, and facing an elimination game on the road in game 6, might be what finally breaks their old, damaged backs. They need this one to give themselves a shot in an emotional game 7.

8:29: The fearsome trio of Melky, Cash, and Pena are up against Halladay. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say 1-2-3.

8:30: Two minutes later, I’m right, although Pena managed to hit one hard. Sixteen in a row retired by Halladay, and although he gave up a first-inning hit to Johnny Damon, he’s faced the minimum number of batters, since Damon was gunned down trying to stretch his single to a double. Not a no-hitter, not a perfect game, but pretty damn impressive.

8:33: Back to basketball for a second, Brian Scalabrine is hilarious. He looks like the kind of guy who puts a leg up on a chair, Captain Morgan style, when he speaks to women. Is he actually a basketball player, or is it a joke I missed? Did he win a contest after that Will Ferrell basketball movie? He just nailed a three, and his pumped expression is pretty classic.

8:34: Baseball. The difference in this game right now is that AJ lost his cool after he gave up a lead-off double in the 4th. He’s looked great the last two innings, but it doesn’t mean much when you’ve given up three. Against Rolen in that inning, with the bases loaded, it looked like he made it personal and tried to get an intimidation strikeout. He could have wasted a couple pitches and sought the east K, but he went right down the middle, and he paid.

8:37: This is the shit that doesn’t make sense: with Rolen on first taking basically no lead, the Yanks decide on a pitch-out. Surprise surprise, he’s not going.

8:38: WOW! One of the prettiest double plays I’ve seen this year. Robbie Cano darts to his left, fields, spins, and throws in one motion, and Ramiro turns it with style coming across the bag. Fluid, fast, and slick. Defensive gem. Not to hammer too hard on the “Jeter sucks in the field!” talking point, but you could tell that wasn’t Derek on the turn.

8:41: Glass half full approach: at least we don’t have to watch the Yankees fail with runners in scoring position tonight; we haven’t had anyone on second all game.

8:42: Gardner grounds out to first. It’s time to start focusing on every at-bat, because Halladay is freakin’ masterful tonight. Johnny Damon, who has the only base hit, and was robbed in his second at-bat, is in the box.

8:43: A double! This man is really hitting the ball. Come on Yanks, manufacture something here...

8:44: Teixeira at the plate, infuriating me just by appearing on my television. Halladay gets him 0-2 with an inside pitch that no lefty could put in play, and a low cutter that Teix chases. I’m ready to eat my words, but it really seems like Mark is easy prey here. It's like watching Posada vs. Pedro back in the day, before Jorge got the huge hit that helped destroy the Sox in '03.

8:46: Halladay puts a beautiful curve on the outside corner, and Teixeira can only watch. (Well, I guess technically he could have tried swinging, but we could talk semantics all night..)

8:46: A-Rod is 0-for-the-season after his opening home run last Friday. We need him to go yard here. It’s the only way we get back in this game. Smartly, Roy is pitching around him.

8:48: Base hit left side! Damon scores. Halladay hangs a curve, his first real tactical mistake. Swisher steps up as the tying run. By the way, you may have noticed that Swish looks to the sky conspicuously before every pitch. Here’s the story, from the NY Daily News:

Betty Swisher died of brain cancer on Aug. 14, 2005, and Swisher's beloved grandfather, Donald, died last November. Both are a part of his daily life, though, in part through a series of baseball rituals that any Yankee fan has probably noticed.

He has both of their initials scrawled on the bottom of the handle of all his bats and he usually kisses that spot before he goes to the plate. Then he looks upward to recognize them again.

"A lot of people ask me if I'm looking up at the sky, but the one thing that really helped me get through the tough times of losing those two were to give them the best seats in the house," Swisher says. "In my mind, that's the top of the stadium. At Yankee Stadium, it's actually the top of the Megatron (scoreboard screen), so I visualize them sitting there, watching me play. I know they're cheering for me. I just wish they could be here in person to see all this.

He also has his grandmother’s initials tattooed across his chest, and plans to get his grandfather’s on his back in the offseason.

8:50: Swisher works the count like nobody else, but Ks on a pitch that looked high to me. Still, an impressive inside out fastball that utterly confounded the lefty. Where Burnett broke down, Halladay stayed resolute under pressure. 3-1, seventh inning stretch.

8:55: Another hit against AJ, but Robbie turns a neat double play to end the threat. Six more outs for the Yanks to get two runs, and it doesn’t look like we’ll get to see the Blue Jays pen today; Halladay’s pitch count is too low.

8:58: This game is speeding by. Not even the two-hour mark, and we're nearly history. Cano hits a looper that Scutaro gobbles up at shortsop, but Melky slaps a single to center field. Gotta give the Melk-Man credit. I hated him last year, and took at lot of that bad feeling into ‘09, but he’s had some big hits.

9:00: Big fucking surprise, the light-hitting Kevin Cash hits into a 5-4-3 double play, and the 8th is over. Why no pinch hitter, Joe? You’ve got Cervelli ready to catch, so you can basically choose anyone.

9:03: I’ve made a decision: the AL East is too good. We have to leave the division. I’m thinking the West is the best place to go. I miss the old days when Toronto, Tampa Bay, and Baltimore all stunk, and Boston was just kinda good.

9:04: AJ is back for the 8th, and Aaron Hill (batting .353) smokes a home run to left. High fastball with no movement, easy pickins. 4-1 Jays, and that should be more than enough for Doc Halladay. The “AJ Sucks!” chant starts up anew.

9:06: “The Yankee bullpen is getting busy,” says Singleton. Too late as usual, Joe. AJ walks Alex Rios on four pitches. It’s official: the dude is a shrinking violet when things get rough.

9:08: Vernon Wells drills one to deep left, but Melky is on the case. Girardi sits on his hands in the dugout, despite the fact that AJ’s last eight pitches have been a home run followed by seven balls out of the strike zone.

9:10: Rios takes off, and it saves the Jays from another double play. Good call by Cito. Rolen, who has owned AJ all night, is back up, but still we’re not going to the pen. This is getting ridiculous.

9:12: Here’s the thing: I’m an idiot. I love baseball, but I’m pretty damn far from being a master strategist. So when I can identify an obvious move, or two, or three, and the manager can’t? That manager should be fired. Girardi is a moron, precisely because he makes me, of all people, look like a guru. Rolen gets a base hit, Rios scores, and it was just too predictable. I know the bullpen is suffering, but come on, Joe...Rolen has been locked in on AJ all night. That’s his third hit! His third! And AJ was at 109 pitches, struggling all inning! Seriously, what the hell?

9:18: To compound the mistake, Veras, a right-hander, comes in to face the 9th batter, which is obviously a spot to pinch-hit a lefty. He could have faced Rolen, a righty, but instead Girardi Genius brings him in late, and the result is Lyle Overbay. Unreal. And yes, he gives up a single. I call my stepfather, and his take is that Joe G. has that tentative personality where he’s afraid to succeed. “He and our pitching coach are minor league bullshit,” he says. Can’t disagree right now.

9:22: Ramiro Pena gets a lead-off double to right off Halladay.

9:27: Gardner pops out to center. Damon grounds to short. The crowd is on their feet. I have to respect the passion, but I have serious doubts they’ll maintain it for a full season, which is why it’s so aggravating. At least the old Montreal Expos crowds were honest: 5,000 fans, 80% of them American, and the collective energy of a funeral.

9:28: Who better to make the last out than Teixeira? This should cap off a perfect night. At the end of the day, Girardi’s mistakes didn’t cost us this game; Roy was too good. But they certainly didn’t help, and if nothing else, they prove that he’s out of his element with the Yankees.

9:29: Ground out to first, game over. You made us look silly, Roy. Congrats.

9:43: Back. I promised a blog to carry us through the Celts-Magic, and I shall deliver, even though I’m furious at Girardi. FOCUS! Two minutes left in the third, Boston down seven. Very low scoring game.

9:44: Someone named Pietrus makes a three for Orlando. Ray Allen gets to the line on the next trip. My brothers and I have a fantasy playoffs thing going, which I mentioned in an earlier blog. Basically, we drafted one player from every postseason team, and we’re tallying the points throughout the playoffs. My brother Thomas has Lebron, I have Kobe, and my brother Keegan is out of the running. Lately, though, I’m losing too much ground. I need Ray Allen to score a ton, and I need Dallas to lose pronto (Thomas has Dirk, I have Josh Howard, and it’s killing me).

9:47: Pierce with a nice three-point play, but Turkoglu strikes back. Orlando seems to have all the answers tonight, but that could change with fourth quarter road pressure. As the third winds down, House nails a three...but it’s a second too late. 67-59 Magic. Should be a fun ending.

9:52: Call me an old-fashioned fuddy duddy, but it’s still weird for me to watch coaches or managers be interviewed during a game. Doc Rivers gives the usual boring sound bites, but he sure looks dignified. When you have that kind of personal gravity, you can basically say anything and sound respectable.

9:53: A three point play by Dwight Howard, getting mugged by Scalabrine, extends the lead to 11. Do the Cs have a run?

9:54: For the record, even though I normally root against Boston teams on principle, I really, really don’t like Stan Van Gundy. Everything about him annoys me, from his shitty jacket and t-shirt look to his frantic sideline emoting. Also, the most despicable Celtic, Garnett, is out. Also, there’s no championship at stake since Lebron will single-handedly decimate Boston if they make it past this round.

9:57: Boston looks way out of sorts. Their only offense right now is a forced fade-away jumper by Pierce or Allen. 14-point lead for Orlando. Beginning of the end for the defending champs?

10:00: I told my friend Brian today that the Orlando-Boston series bored me, and this game is one long validation. I’m feeling like AJ in the 8th inning; I don’t have the juice to finish, but nobody's arround to relieve me. It’s 10pm, a nice even number, so cue the fat lady. Stephon Marbury hits a couple shots to bring Boston within 9. Check out this hilarious Marbury-related Onion article. Goodnight.

Epilogue: The Celts make an unbelievable comeback, and Orlando proves they have no character. Boston will win this one in 7, but King James might get his 4-4-4 in the east. Girardi should be fired. Happy Wednesday.