We’re already at the quarter pole for 2011?! Wow… this year just keeps sneaking past me, days turning into weeks and barreling through the months before I even realize it. At least some semblance of normalcy is on the horizon for me now, as spring arrives with my residential situation in focus and the ability to really hunker down to some work.
Which means it’s time for another edition of this week’s column. It was a weird week for me, but then… which weeks aren’t weird in this day and age? Perhaps the time will soon come where I can lock in and really focus on getting some of the bigger projects in life toward their fruition, but for now I couldn’t help but be engaged by the sports world throughout this week. So journey along as I recount some of the big moments and topics which captivated me most throughout this week in that grand, grand globe full of sports action…
SATURDAY/26 MARCH 2011/02:31
RIDING THE HIGH…
So I don’t get out to basketball games much. I find my remote gravitating toward things like soccer or hockey or tennis this time of year before it ever seems to stop on hoops action. But when the opportunity to enjoy free tickets to a sporting event — any sporting event — I’m apt to take the offer without the slightest hesitation. My wife called me while we were both at work last week after Brad, her uncle with season tickets to the Blazers, invited us to see Portland take on the Spurs at the Rose Garden. Given that I was about to be off all week with the campus on spring break here in Eugene I was quick to tell her to accept.
Better yet, we would be able to surprise our friend and spend the weekend in town for his birthday party. With my wife driving our car I rode shotgun alongside Brad in his vehicle, a long discussion about technology and sports ensuing between us as the I-5 ribboned out across the Willamette Valley and melted away behind us. It is one of those topics near and dear to my heart, how technology has helped this fan diversify his portfolio of interests over the years as well as how they have made things better for athletes.
Along the way we sat there talking about the record books in sports and how they will always carry that element of subjectivity. The most obvious technological advancement throughout the ages of modern sports have been the growth in performance-enhancing pharmaceutical technology. Not until the drugs started getting potent enough to have an obvious skew on the records did fans really start to decry the use of drugs amongst their athletic heroes. Yet even then they lambasted the effect of but one facet of sports technology while neglecting all the other ways legal technologies have altered the way our heroes compete.
Think about it — doping is, if anything, the one thing that has changed the least over the years in sports. Every athlete has used the best available technology available in the moment. Lance Armstrong didn’t have to ride a bicycle half as heavy as the one Eddy Merckx propelled to all his victories, nor was he subjected to the archaic rules that hindered Eugene Christophe as he bid for victory in the early days of the sport. Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy pursued Terry Sawchuk’s wins and shutouts records wearing equipment both vastly larger and vastly lighter than the bulky, misshapen leather pads that the old Red Wing would wear as they waterlogged and weighted down throughout the contest. The lightweight, moisture-wicking microfiber uniforms employed by athletes in sports of all stripes give them an automatic leg up on their ancestral competitors who were bedecked in woolen monstrosities that had the same disadvantages as Sawchuk’s pads.
I could rant all day about these disadvantages. We had two hours. And so rant along we both did, throwing everything around, until we arrived for an amazing Cuban dinner at Pambiche. After gorging on ox tails and pineapple mimosas, we headed for the Rose Garden. Thank goodness I was sufficiently fueled with such a good meal, because I needed the caloric sustinence to keep me upright after we were in the audience for what ended as the greatest basketball finish I’ve ever witnessed in person.
The game stayed close throughout. The Spurs, playing without Tim Duncan, would rely on Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili for their spark throughout the evening. Andre Miller was playing his usual steady game for Portland, and Gerald Wallace was in a rhythm early in this game. The lead never floated heavily in either direction, but then before we knew it the Blazers had found themselves down eight with two minutes left to play after having led most of the second half. The run started, and Portland found themselves down two with less than a minute left as Nicolas Batum went to the foul line.
The French shooter proved clutch, draining both free throws and tying the game at 96-96 with 0.9 seconds all that were showing on the scoreboard. An errant San Antonio inbounds pass went in the direction of dead air, sailing across the corner of the court and right back out of bounds for the turnover. Nine-tenths of a second were left now, and Brad turned to my wife and I. “If they manage to do something with this in the final second, it will be a miracle and this place will erupt.”
Coming out of the timeout, Andre Miller lined up with the ball along the sideline to the right of the basket. Lobbing up the pinpoint inbounds pass as the antithesis of the ineptitude executed by the league’s purported best team, Miller found Batum under the basket and fed the man who had just tied the game for the winning bucket as time expired. Batum, on this evening, was destined to keep the scoreboard operator working right to the buzzer.
wAfter the game we bid Brad goodbye as he headed alone back to Eugene, and it was time for some pre-partying. We went straight for the locale of our weekend escapades, letting the birthday boy get his rest for his 3 a.m. awakening to start his slow-smoking escapades for the evening meat-fest. The libations went down smooth before we got back here, and now here I sit under a pop-up tent after pulling out the barrel smokers and getting this place set up with the rest of the crew before they headed for bed. Now all that is left is to wait for Rob to tap the alarm clock and head downstairs so that we can get these fires started. Fifty or sixty pounds of meat, brisket and pork butt and ribs and trout, await the heat treatment. At this point little remains on the television conveniently located in the open garage except highlights, and as Batum tips in the winning bucket once more I can’t help but smile. There’s nothing like the giddy buzz of post-victory libations and the anticipation of all the delicacies to come to keep a fellow ready for his guest gig as a good friend’s sous-chef for the day…
MONDAY/28 MARCH 2011/09:17
VETTEL STARTS 2011 WHERE HE LEFT OFF LAST YEAR…
I was in the midst of gorging myself into a meat coma when the first Formula 1 race of the 2011 season was going off in real time across the Pacific Ocean in Melbourne, so it wasn’t until I returned home and had some free time earlier today that I was able to witness some highlights and get a feel for how the Australian Grand Prix unfolded in its 76th edition overall and 27th straight year as a stop on the FIA Formula One World Championship season calendar.
Basically, what it comes down to is this: KERS or no KERS? KERS — a Kinetic Energy Recovery System, for those unfamiliar with the acronym — is essentially a storage system that holds the transfers the power dissipated during braking and saves it for acceleration at the driver’s discretion. To simplify things, think of a nitrous booster built on Prius technology. As an environmental measure, it helps manufacturers conserve fuel usage fractionally but its advantages are often offset by the added weight of the system. In races with long straightaways the team with the best KERS system in its arsenal could prove to have a mighty advantage. But as Melbourne proved, it does not hold all the answers.
On raw technology alone the Red Bull Racing team has proven throughout this first weekend that they will be the team to beat in the garage. Cheif engineer Adrian Newey has created another gem in the RB7 chassis, one which helped both defending world champion Sebastian Vettel and teammate Mark Webber post some of the fastest times of the weekend throughout practice, qualifying and the race itself. Starting in pole position, Vettel made short work of the field in the inaugural race of 2011 to fire a warning mark across the bow of his competitors.
But after the race it was revealed that Vettel had won despite Red Bull’s decision to scrap the use of their still-in-development KERS for both qualifying — in which Vettel finished first for all three sessions and Webber worked his way into the top three in the grid — and during the race itself. It mattered little if at all that the two Red Bull drivers were without the extra boost that a KERS can offer to the expert driver. The young German took swift advantage of his pole position to build an early lead on Lewis Hamilton and ultimately took the victory with twenty-plus seconds to spare. His teammate, Webber, would end up fifth at 38 seconds off the pace on the lead lap.
After Vettel and Hamilton came the first big surprise on the leaderboard, as Renault’s Vitaly Petrov fended off the late challenge of Fernando Alonso and Webber to claim the first podium of the 26-year-old Russian’s career. Petrov, who has long lived in the shadow of Robert Kubica and now Nick Heidfeld, was superb Down Under, managing his pace early and his tire wear late to work up from sixth in the start grid. Renault nearly let the Russian go in the offseason prior to the injury that kept Kubica out of the Australian GP; they must be counting their blessings at this point that they disobeyed their gut instincts.
And one team’s demise was another’s bonus. Sauber, riding with electric rookie Sergio Perez, looked to have a phenomenal day sealed up when the young Mexican driver finished seventh after using just one pit stop during the entire 58-lap race. Instead, after a technical infringement was discovered in the rear wing of both Sauber cars of Perez and teammate Kamui Kobayashi, the two drivers’ results were struck from the record. In the process both Force India drivers were vaulted up into the top ten, with Adrian Sutil moving up to ninth and rookie teammate Paul Di Resta rounding out the tenth spot in his first-ever Formula 1 outing. Sauber is appealing the decision, so the points might still flip-flop ownership. But in both cases impressive feats ensued from the mid-major hopefuls in the pack.
Next we look forward to Malaysia in two weeks. Newey and the Red Bull crew go back to the drawing board for their KERS, McLaren hopes they can continue improving their car in time to challenge the leader, and Ferrari find themselves with plenty of ground to make up on the top two. Williams and Mercedes increasingly look like the teams that time passed by in the evolving world of open-wheel racing after failing to get even one driver to the finish between them. Renault could very well threaten throughout the season, Force India might finally be a force with their youngsters, and Sauber will certainly be back with or without a successful appeal. Things should stay quite interesting as teams work out the kinks throughout the spring season on tracks throughout Asia…
TUESDAY/29 MARCH 2011/11:09
THAT STICKBALL COUSIN ON THE OVAL…
We’re bearing down on the start of the 2011 Major League Baseball season, that one sports league in North America that seems to be without any discussion of labor struggles between players and management, and yet as Opening Day looms this Thursday my mind has drifted far away from the diamonds of this continent. As I sat here this morning, it wasn’t baseball but another bat-and-ball sport that was captivating my focus.
On the Subcontinent, they would probably laugh about the perceived rivalry between the Red Sox and Yankees… if they even bothered to think about it in the first place. Because starting in about, oh, fifteen hours, a rivalry with true geopolitical implications is about to bowl out its first ball in Mohali as India takes on Pakistan with a spot in the ICC Cricket World Cup final on the line. For these two cricket-mad brother nations, rendered from the territories of the British Empire in India during the Great Partition of 1949, tomorrow’s test against their greatest rivals comes with the greatest stakes possible.
Pakistan has waited 19 years to hoist the Cup again after winning their only world title in 1992 against England in Melbourne. India has been left to suffer even longer, their drought extending back 28 years to its lone championship in London in 1983. Both have had missed opportunities to win a second crown in recent years, with Pakistan losing the 1999 edition to Australia and India serving as their victim for the repeat in 2003. Four years ago in the West Indies both nations were inceremoniously out of the tournament in the group stage, India ceding a spot in the knockout stage to their tiny neighbor Bangladesh and the Pakistani side tumbling out against the hosts and then the Irish. Pakistan was left with even more to suffer when, in the aftermath of the upset to Ireland that mathematically eliminated them from the quarterfinals with one match left to play, their coach Bob Woolmer was found allegedly murdered in his room at the Pegasus Hotel in Kingston, Jamaica.
Few Americans can fathom ever mustering this level of passion for any of their national teams. Few recognize just how exciting — and how very similar to baseball — cricket really is if a fan just gives himself the chance to watch and learn how the game is played. Hell, few within these borders probably even had an inkling that the sport’s World Cup was even taking place at this moment. Yet having just finished following Sri Lanka’s return to the finals for the second straight edition of the tournament, my attention turns not toward baseball’s opening day but the closing stages of this amazing tournament. After eliminating New Zealand with an awesome late display of batting form from Thilan Samaraweera and Angelo Mathews that paced the hosts to victory, one of the final slots is now locked up for Sri Lanka to try to send veteran spin-bowler Muttiah Muralitharan off into retirement with a fairy-tale world championship finale.
But that is hardly a guarantee. While Sri Lanka is a certifiable juggernaut and will undoubtedly come into the championship match as the prohibitive favorite, both India and Pakistan present their own problems. Mahendra Singh Dhoni captains an Indian side that will have the home advantage in this semifinal and a high-powered offense that has five batsmen — Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli — who have all scored more runs than their opponent’s top scorer this tournament. Of course, Pakistan has emerged phoenix-like from the ashes of the betting scandals that have decimated its squad since before that fateful 2007 World Cup. Emerging from shadows cast by the spotlight illuminating their three host neighbors and the domino rally of scandals that decimated the team’s confidence, Pakistan has rallied all the way to the semifinals on the shoulders of captain Shahid Afridi, the top bowler in the tournament with 21 wickets taken and an astounding 3.48 economy rate over 64.3 overs.
Just as it has so often in the past between these two countries, it all comes down to the bats of the Indians versus the bowling prowess of the Pakistanis. This will be a classic battle of offense versus defense when the two brothers on either side of the Partition meet in mere hours in the border province of Punjab that was such a contentious part of that divide. And while it will be personal, the fissure of brother versus brother still alive six decades after what seemed like an irreparable split, both sides have proven that cordiality is still possible in the rivalry. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, to view the match with him in the PCA Stadium in Mohali – and Gilani accepted.
All the while, Sri Lanka and the hottest bats of the tournament will be sitting on the sidelines, awaiting the winner of the showdown. Cordiality aside, this guarantees to be a fitting South Asian battle of attrition all the way through Saturday’s championship match in Mumbai. For the first time since 1996 somebody other than Australia is going to win this trophy — and regardless of which of the three remaining teams win it all, we’re going to see that winner finally hoist that trophy for a second time in cricket history…
WEDNESDAY/30 MARCH 2011/20:39
So I was riding the bus home from work this afternoon, reading an article via the mobile portal for ESPN.com about the Maloof brothers’ purported plans to move the Sacramento Kings to Anaheim, and it got my wheels spinning. This, of course, fell on the heels of yet another article I’d read the day before about Phoenix sympathizing with Winnepeg’s desire to get a team back and Coyotes fans wishing them any franchise with which to reconstitute the legend of the Jets… any franchise, that is, except the one that stole away from Winnepeg in the first place and relocated to the desert in 1996.
It is one of those things with which fans are forced to grapple all the time. Pockets of Los Angeles yearn for NFL football after both the Raiders and the Rams bolted for new environs. Six hours north of where I sit in Eugene, fans still weep in Seattle at the loss of the SuperSonics. Hell, just two hours north of here in Portland, there are elements of the community that rue the rise of the Timbers to MLS status and the subsequent choking out of Beavers minor-league baseball in the city. Name a sport here in the United States, and chances are spectacular that more than two franchises have relocated in the history of whichever league or leagues govern that sport.
Rare are the occasions when it is a fan base openly hollering for their franchise to get the hell out of Dodge. When fans turn on a franchise, when they fail to come to the arena in droves and choke out that team’s potential for survival in said community, it more often than not is because that franchise has already turned on them plenty. Sometimes it is shedding payroll in a fire sale that proves it is all about the Benjamins and the bottom line. Sometimes it is strong-arming a city with overreaching demands for money, for loans, for stadiums that will reap that municipality little if any revenue and provide windfalls merely for the franchises which inhabit them. The sometimes could continue all day, but suffice it to say there are plenty of sometimes out there that lead to fan disenfranchisement.
Loyalty is a fickle thing these days. Fans have long known that their hold on even the most historic of franchises is nebulous at best, a vacuous attempt to cling to the ephemeral. The records may show a team’s past, but a future is never guaranteed. When even the most entrenched of superstars is disposable, when even the palaces of our pastimes become transitory, a team’s grip on an audience is only as strong as the effort put into engaging and building that core base of fanatics. In a world in which borders technologically melt away, no team holds its locality as a captive audience. The best recognize their greater potential to captivate beyond their traditional region. The worst fail to effectively engage even those closest and most apt to follow along.
So usually it is those most loyal fans who suffer the greatest double-whammy from a team’s departure. First they are alienated by that which they love most. Then they are ostracized from the inner circle. And the worst part is that there is no denouement for the displaced fan. He or she must still watch as the team they came to love and understand over the years becomes somebody else’s team. There is no vacuum to hide any of us.
And it doesn’t matter where a fan is located. If Los Angeles can lose teams, anybody can lose teams. If it hits Seattle, it can hit anyone. So beware, all you Kings fans, just as the Coyotes should fear the groundswell emanating from Winnipeg just as Jets fans feared the groundswell of support for NHL hockey in Arizona a decade and a half ago. We have our memories, but nobody ever promised that you’d always just be guaranteed the possibility of writing new memories locally for a lifetime. So caveat emptor, becaues the salesmen that are the ownership and management of franchises can say all they want about fans — in the end the only reason they care about butts in the seats is because of the wallet tucked against each cheek…
And just like that another week and another month come to a close. Baseball is in the air, and we now know it will be India squaring off against Sri Lanka for all the marbles at the Cricket World Cup. Just like some franchises, some athletes’ careers hang in the balance — just ask Alberto Contador, who now awaits the ruling of the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne on the UCI appeal of the Spanish cycling federation’s exoneration of his clenbuterol positive from last year’s Tour de France.
But then, there will always be somebody else who can grab our attention if one hero falls off the radar. For every Federer that begins fading back into the field, there is a Djokovic to rise up and reinvigorate our imaginations with win after intoxicating win. For every lap we have to see Michael Schumacher look immensely mortal in his return to Formula 1 racing, we also get to witness the rise of his German successor in the ranks of the elite.
Everything is cyclical, and malleable, and just like the seasons they are ever-changing. So don’t blink too much, or you might miss something. Celebrate as often as you can, even if it does mean staying up way past even an insomniac’s bedtime to get the party started. And if you do miss something along the way, don’t fret too much — for in this technological age we always have the chance to catch up if we’re willing to invest the time to find what we’re looking for…