Friday, November 17, 2017

A Win Streak

After 15 minutes of game time or approximately Lawrence of Arabia in real time, neither Purdue nor Northwestern had scored.  It was a cold, endless, inexplicable night game so perfunctory that Northwestern did not even bother to break out its Night Game Gothic alternative uniforms but instead paraded around in a ridiculous industrial camouflage.  The game was marred by strange penalties, an unending aerial assault (Purdue asked backup quarterback Elijah Sindelar to throw the ball 60 times).  By the end of the game, Northwestern looked fairly certain to win, but Purdue hung around enough in the fourth quarter to theoretically tie it-- by the end, I was hoping they would, that they would get their 15 points or whatever they needed to even the game and send it to overtime where I am pretty sure the remaining dozen Northwestern fans deranged enough to stay through all 19 hours of this game would have immediately smeared themselves with hot dog condiments, constructed cardboard capes, and chanted as Northwestern ceased being a football team and immediately became a bizarre overtime cult.
 
Remaining Northwestern fans prepare for The Overtime by performing 
their profane ritual of putting their hands in the air, putting their hands up in the air

The Wildcats hung on for their seventh win and fifth straight by maintaining their fearsome run defense, daring Sindelar to beat them.  Purdue, though, refused to allow the 'Cats to bash them with Justin Jackson.  They plugged every running lane, bringing in safeties and linebackers and Purdue fans with the most robust Joe Tiller mustaches to crowd the line of scrimmage.  That seemed to work until Riley Lees unleashed a brilliant punt return only to have the officials call it back-- with no clear footage of the infraction, a confused Ryan Field crowd unleashed a torrent of abuse screaming out SIR YOU WILL HEAR FROM MY LAWYER in disgusted unison.  The Wildcats responded with a quick drive and did not look back; a blistering 94-yard drive after a near goal line stand just before the end of the first half further increased the lead presumably because Pat Fitzgerald was unable to signal in his traditional end of half play to take the ball and tunnel underground.
 
Riley Lees gains a new nickname the Aggrieved Punt Returner

Wisconsin's win over Iowa ended any hope of Big Ten insanity somehow leading the 'Cats to a near-impossible berth in the championship game.  Northwestern will now try to avenge last year's defeat against the Gophers, who spent last Saturday sending the Nebraska Cob Nobblers to the Harsh Realm and extend their win streak.  It's all bowl positioning and hat trophies now, and the possibility of a nine-win season that would have seemed impossible after the Duke game.

ROW ROW ROW

More than any sport, college football nurses cults of personalities around charismatic coaches, none more so than Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, who is charismatic enough to start his own cult.  The Gophers nabbed Fleck from Western Michigan where he led the Broncos to becoming a MAC powerhouse that may have also been no less than the third best team in the Big Ten West last season.  He also invented the greatest football slogan of all time in "Row the Boat," a motivational mantra he developed after the tragic loss of a child.  "Row the Boat" became inextricably linked with Western Michigan football, a horse team that somehow became confusingly adorned with all manner of nautical symbolism.

Western Michigan puts up a hippocamp statue of its Martime 
Horse theme outside Waldo Stadium

Last year, I wrote about Fleck being trapped by his popular catchphrase, tiring of rowing the boat but constantly harangued by those who want to hear about boats and rowing.  But that was a deranged fantasia written on the the world's final blogspot website.  Fleck has gone beyond rowing the boat to a host of ludicrous motivational acronyms.  Here for example is Fleck explaining F.A.M.I.L.Y. (Forget About Me I Love You) and H.Y.P.R.R. which is somehow an acronym for How Yours Process Results Response, which is a completely insane thing for an acronym to stand for.

Fleck is an acronym savant, the kind of person who would blast into a 
room prepared to tell a group of people about A.L.U.M.I.N.U.M. 
(Always Leave Unused Melodicas In Numbered Utility Modules) and then, 
finding himself in Canada, improvising to Actually Lackadaisical Ungulates 
Make Intolerable Neighbors In Unkempt Meadows without blinking

I normally think ludicrous motivational acronymeering is ridiculous and insipid, but it works for Fleck because he comes across as completely sincere, as someone who believes wholeheartedly in whatever HYPRR is and is ready to HYPRR with you and your entire family for months if necessary.  It also works for Fleck because he works in an insane business, the business of asking large young persons to smash into other equally large or sometimes even larger people while literally a 100,000 people scream at them and point at them accusingly with foam #1 fingers. Maybe Fleck hopping around in a rented hotel conference room with a wireless microphone telling his players about the revolutionary SCOMPTT Method (score more points than them) can bring the Gophers back to contention in this hilarious and miserable football conference; maybe his slogans will collapse in on themselves and remain plastered on the walls as ironic icons of football ineptitude like Butch Jones's Champions of Life rhetoric or Tim Beckman's numerous propaganda posters.
 
Illinois locker rooms are dedicated with the
 tattered remains of Beckman's information campaigns

I am not predicting anything about this season because Minnesota and the non-Wisconsin and non-Illinois Big Ten West is completely inscrutable.    

NORTHWESTERN BASKETBALL NO LONGER MAKES SENSE

The single defining fact of Northwestern basketball had been its absence from the NCAA Tournament.  College basketball exists in a strange netherworld where teams play what seems to be like hundreds of games on frozen, anonymous weeknights and flash through on the ESPN score crawl in obscure, indecipherable initials before finally emerging in March as a fully-formed sports product kept aloft by buzzer-beating triumph, crowd-sobbing heartbreak, and a vast and technically illegal gambling apparatus.  There is winning those endless games, rising through the various arcane rating systems, and getting the team's name on one of those brackets and there is nothing, and for the entire history of the NCAA Tournament Northwestern did not exist.
And then there they were.  They appeared to clinch their tournament appearance with a miraculous, last-second heave.  Then, buoyed by the emergence of Northwestern's vast alumni network of sports personalities that have somehow cornered the market on the world's dumbest profession, by Celebrity Moms and Dads, and through a tournament run that included The World's Least Advised Foul, a Goaltending Rules Controversy, and A Child-Meme, Northwestern became ubiquitous and almost instantaneously overexposed and despised.

This year's Northwestern team arrives in a different universe.  For years, every Northwestern team just wanted to make the tournament, to appear on that bracket, and to return to getting dunked through the Earth's core.  Now, the team has expectations to make the tournament.  The transformation of the team from a desperate also-ran to a very good team is welcome but the experience is totally different.  The Wildcats will be favored in several games.  Every win comes with the question of how it affects the Tournament Resume instead of being judged on the traditional Northwestern metric of how angry opposing fans are to lose to Northwestern.  A failure to make the tournament this year would be disappointing instead of a soothing swoon into the embrace of a sports curse.

Northwestern basketball will be unrecognizable because they are playing in an airport-adjacent monster truck and wrestling arena.  The school is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into an awful and bullshit renovation of Welsh-Ryan arena that will have things like seats and lighting and ways for players to enter and exit the court without having to get all fired up and do their IT'S GAME TIME chants and then politely wend their way through the hot dog line, but this is a mistake as grave as the grave digger that plies its trade regularly at the All State Arena.  Welsh-Ryan was a glorious shit dump that turned into a bona fide home court by the end of the season, when Northwestern fans-- more than the other team even-- packed the cramped stands that floated on top of the court and turned it into a raucous thunderdome and now that the school has had like three games of this atmosphere they are off to play in front of a quarter of an arena filled with the skeletons of hardy explorers who attempted to sit in the top deck during a DePaul game and were never seen again.     
 
Northwestern saved money on Welsh-Ryan Arena renovation costs by 
making the NCAA Tournament and therefore opening a hole to other 
dimension from which energy flowed and destroyed the site of this unholy occurrence

The administration is trying to build Northwestern sports into brand that doesn't have anything to do with historical lousiness.  They've got a football team that makes bowl games.  They've got a basketball team in the tournament.  They've got the facilities and arenas from exorbitant amounts of money raised by top-hatted boosters.  And, as befitting a college sports program, there's even a discomfiting scandal complete with a disturbingly inept attempt at a cover up that looks like someone in the athletic department tried to run off a player by framing him for not performing in the bullshit make-work program they invented by forging his signature and repeatedly misspelling his name.

The Wildcats return nearly every key player from last year's run, bring back a few more from injury, and add additional recruits.  But last year's run was on a razor's edge-- McIntosh's dagger against Rutgers saved them, the Mighty Heave of Nate Taphorn got them in, and no one is as aware of the precariousness of NCAA qualification than the team that watched that Juice/Shurna team miss it by a combined total of  like five points spread over several agonizing games.  There's nothing guaranteed this season; they won't take anyone by surprise, they are playing in an arena on Mars, and they still rely on their starters to do nearly everything.  Northwestern basketball has cleared its greatest hurdle, but now, after the ecstatic excitement of filling out a bracket and seeing Northwestern players in One Shining Moment, the question is what can they do to follow up. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

VICTORY RIGHT AFTER THIS GAME GOES TO OVERTIME

We live in overtime now. The strictures of regulation football no longer exist to constrain the Northwestern Wildcats; they start now at the 25 yardline, the clock no longer moves, there is no longer field position or quarters or movement of the sun across the horizon. Here in this dimension beyond time and space and logic and reason the Northwestern Wildcats are unstoppable, indomitable, also receiving votes.

Northwestern has won three consecutive overtime games, a feat that has literally never been done by any other team. This record reminds me of the people who decide that they're going to break the record for skijumping off a mountain into a basejump and then landing on a jetski and that is also on fire in that sure they are doing something unprecedented but it's only because no one else in their right mind would even think to do it.

I just watched the movie McConkey, which details Shane McConkey's
career from extreme skiing to BASE jumping and then combining
them with wingsuit flying after designing a mechanism to release his
skis midair and you learn that like 90% of extreme skiing stunts exist
because of Roger Moore

The Wildcats are 6-3 and ranked #25 in the Playoff Poll even though no rational person has explained to me why the Playoff Committee, which solely exists to pick the top four teams in the country after entire college football season including the Lucrative Conference Championship Games have finished, has a full set of rankings going down to #25 weeks beforehand other than to thrust us further into a chaotic world where we now have three sets of more or less meaningless top-25 ranking systems between warring factions of Playoff Bureaucrats, reporters, and graduate assistant coaches who are all as we speak publishing their own newspapers and pamphlets attacking each other.

Literature sent to discerning college football bloggers by
various rankings including the Playoff Committee's
"Have You Gone Mad?" and the Coach's "A Diffent
Against the Affociated Preff"

Northwestern is bowl eligible. Their previous overtime victories came against teams that spent last Saturday opening a black hole in the Big Ten, creating a swirling vortex that may well suck the entire conference out of the playoff picture and has already destroyed the entire Big Ten East. Michigan State, which fell to Northwestern in an insane three-overtime denouement that ended only when their quarterback panicked after fumbling, grabbed the ball, and Rex Grossmanned it into the ripped and bloody hands of Nate Hall, outlasted Penn State in a seven-hour rain epic where the Spartan Stadium field might as well have turned into quicksand for the Nittany Lions and devoured the entire team. Iowa annihilated Ohio State from the surface of the Earth. No one knows how it happened. The Buckeyes went into Kinnick Stadium and got rampaged upon by a team that had spent the entire season treating the scoring of a twentieth point like Moses searching for the Promised Land. They dropped 55 on them. They did a fake punt, a religious desecration in the House of Ferentz. The result was so baffling that football archaeologists have begun excavating Kinnick stadium in search of proof.

Both of those teams would have prime playoff positioning now, with Michigan State able to seize control of the East with a win against the Buckeyes and Iowa heading into a showdown with Wisconsin except they made the mistake of traveling to Ryan Field to get overtimed and now I want nothing more for them to win out, for them to miss any chance at playoff glory under the triumphant cackle of Northwestern's Generic Wildcat Growl #15 sound effect.

NEBRASKA LOST IN OVERTIME TOO

When Thorson's hail mary got batted down, I relaxed knowing that the game had shifted from hostile Memorial Stadium to the Realm of Overtime, a fissure in time-space where the laws of football no longer exist and Northwestern becomes a dominating football force.
The game featured much of what Northwestern has brought to bear against the Big Ten-- tough run defense, an offense that moves in fits and starts like an old pull-to-start lawnmower, Justin Jackson. This week, the Wildcats got a tremendous performance from Kyle Queiro, who picked off Tanner Lee twice and nearly ended the game on a third that just slipped out of his grasp. Pat Fitzgerald added to his increasing museum of avant-garde clock management by basically running out the clock for no apparent reason at the end of the first half when the team had a decent shot to at least give Charlie Kuhbander a better shot.

Once again Northwestern played well enough to win; a team that does nothing but go to overtime has, in fact, discovered how to be literally the exact amount of better required to beat another team.

when you win three straight games in overtime

Nebraska fans have reached their breaking point. They demand that Mike Riley be fired, removed, and arrested, and 90% of Nebraska football sportswriting is just Scott Frost fanfiction where all Hypothetical Scott Frost dialogue has been hastily repurposed from the 1997 film Batman and Robin.

"I AM HEUH TO RETOOURN NEBRICEKA TO DA COLD
STANDAHDT," says the lede from the Lincoln Journal-Star
in a column entitled "The Ice Man Hiredeth: Eighteen
hypothetical columns about hiring Scott Frost"

It is impossible to tell how good Northwestern is. Part of that is the chaotic nature of college football, where all rankings and formulas are ridiculous because the entire season is 12 games of unpredictable chaos dictated by an oblong ball and dependent on the emotions and consistency of teenagers and grown adults who have decided on a career path that depends a lot on yelling and also blowing whistles at people. The Wildcats, left for dead after a listless victory over a putrid Nevada team and a complete dismantling at the hands of what turned out to be a fairly crappy Duke team, now have six wins and will be favored in their three remaining games. It is not impossible that they could somehow win nine games or for them to lose all three or to play Purdue to so many overtimes that they manage to cross over into Sunday when they are still going for two-point conversions and Ryan Field is converted into an Overtime death cult where fans cut the North stands tarp into robes and demand more overtime periods to slake their overtime lust.

TRAINING DAY

Purdue is here. Purdue under Jeff Brohm, which has transformed itself from the hapless punching bag of the Big Ten with its sinkhole-riddled field and despondent fanbase of train spotters watching a postmodern art installation of football despair to an actual, frisky, scary team that let's not get ahead of ourselves here they still lost to Rutgers.
Purdue and Northwestern is the essence of an 11:00AM Big Ten game, one to be played and forgotten as soon as humanly possible, and the lunatics in charge of college football television have moved it for some reason to a night game. Night football, prime time, national broadcast on ESPN2 no doubt under the strictures of some arcane Big Ten/ESPN contract that prevents them from moving it to ESPN: Handball where all channel descriptions are written in English phonetically but in Cyrillic. Under the lights, where Northwestern and Purdue will inspire millions of college football fans in the Chicago area to stand around anxiously as bar staffs fumble around complicated satellite television systems to get the Notre Dame game while Purdue Pete peers ominously from the preview box.

Purdue actually has to apply for a waiver to allow Purdue
Pete to be used at night. Here is what Purdue Pete originally
looked like before it was destroyed, buried, resurrected,
buried again and burned, resurrected again while taking a
human host who transforms into Purdue Pete when in
proximity to certain brands of train engine, and finally
defeated in combat by Ross and Ade, who trapped it in
a concrete slab from which it has only escaped four times

Purdue comes in with a much-improved defense and a coach who likes to do things like call reverse flea flickers while scanning a playbook taken from NFL Blitz. The Boilermakers, though, will be without one of their quarterbacks after David "That Name Again Is Mister" Blough suffered a gruesome ankle injury against the Illini. Elijah Sindelar will take over as starter, although Brohm had been rotating both this season in order to sow chaos and terror among opponents. Northwestern will hopefully be able to figure out how to beat Brohm's squad instead of the usual method of intimidating Purdue by wearing helmets, repeatedly confusing Purdue's linemen by convincing them of radical changes to the rules of football moments before the snap, and doing nothing and watching the entire Purdue football team walk one by one in to an open manhole.

Northwestern sits as a consensus top-30 or so team in all the rankings and will probably be ranked should they keep on winning through the soft part of their schedule. But there are no guarantees with this team, which has risen to stonewall some bizarrely good teams and struggled against decidedly mediocre ones, with the status of those teams constantly fluctuating through this insane Big Ten season. The Wildcats have been riding a razor's edge for the past three weeks where a single play could have beaten them in all three previous games, and Purdue hasn't rolled over for anyone. They're on their way up. But all I can say to them is that if the Boilermakers want to win this game in Ryan Field under the towers and the weird, emaciated blow-up Wildcat tunnel and night sky they need to do one thing: for their own good, they had better not let the game go into overtime.

Friday, November 3, 2017

EXTRA FOOTBALL

Maybe they should just skip straight to overtime, the pulse-pounding, heart-stopping, thrust and riposte style of maniac football instead of requiring us to sit through an entire Northwestern football game to get there.  Once again, Northwestern played a Big Ten opponent in a Festival of Stereotypical Big Ten Football, an ugly punts-and-fumbles act that exists in a universe where it is impossible to score more than 17 points.  And once again, that game yielded to a lunatic touchdown spree that ended on the world's least necessary hail mary, delivered a fifth win to the 'Cats, dethroned a ranked opponent, and led to all-out delirium among the 58 people at Ryan Field rooting for Northwestern.

In 2004, Northwestern played an unfathomable four overtime games, including the program's only win against Ohio State in the Cenzoic Era and somehow overtime wins against both Indiana and Illinois.  The Wildcats celebrated by unleashing the greatest piece of Northwestern football-related art we've ever seen, a poster where Wildcats players pretend to hold various construction implements like miniature chain saws and toilet plungers.

This is also the box art to the world's grisliest Clue knockoff

Northwestern managed to hang on through solid run defense and through some lucky breaks-- the Spartans turned the ball over, fumbling once deep in Northwestern territory, and their kicker had two bounce off the crossbar as the Spartans learned of Ryan Field's true home advantage, the disguising of Northwestern fans as human goal posts that swat their kicks back onto the field with a resounding thunk.  Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke, meanwhile, caused problems all day, setting a Michigan State record for single-game passing yardage and leading the Spartans on a last minute game, tying drive that involved him somehow evading all of the traps in the Raiders of the Lost Ark temple and heaving the ball downfield to a wide open receiver before falling in overtime by trying to do that again then getting simultaneously getting crushed by the a giant ball, getting impaled by 800,000 poison darts, and watching Alfred Molina scamper away with the rope.

Northwestern salutes Big Ten Special Teams Player of 
the Week An Inanimate Carbon Rod

The Michigan State game provided the Wildcats' third consecutive Big Ten win and has changed the trajectory of the season from despair at the type of bowl game that could happen to them to elation at the quality of crappy bowl game that awaits against the largely crappy teams left on the schedule.  Given Northwestern's dedication to reviving the Cardiac Cats this season and winning in heart-stopping overtime periods. anything is possible.

WHOSE TURN IS IT TO WIN THE NEBRASKA GAME

Nebraska is reeling.  They're 4-4, they just barely eked out a comeback win over surprisingly feisty Purdue, and Nebraska fans are already tracking the flight patterns of coveted Central Florida coach Scott Frost.  They go into a game against a Northwestern team that is streaking through the Big Ten West the way that a loose-wheeled shopping cart can be described as streaking through the produce aisle.  The result should be absolute chaos. 

A screenshot from Nebraska football's official website shows scant information about the upcoming game against the Wildcats

Nebraska and Northwestern have been more or less alternating road victories (Nebraska's lone home win in this series came on a hail mary) and grimly menacing each other.  This is not what Nebraska signed up for.  They came to the Big Ten to meet Wisconsin every year in an unwatchable sumo wrestling match to determine who gets to get annihilated by Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game and not grit their teeth against a Northwestern team that few of them had probably recognized as an actual football program before joining the conference.  

Nebraska may be having a down year, but it still represents a tough matchup.  Only fools and monomaniacs should try to run on Northwestern, a team that has Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall ready to knock over any running back that tries to sneak his way undetected past Tyler Lancaster.  But Nebraska can't really run the ball anyway and have heralded quarterback Tanner Lee and star receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. to torture the Wildcats' injury-riddled secondary.  On defense, Northwestern will be relying on Justin Jackson, who is basically a load-bearing pillar supporting the offense, and hoping that Thorson's overtime heroics and the emergence of receivers like Riley Lees and superback Cameron Green can continue against a defense that should not be as rough as the non-Maryland Big Ten units the Wildcats have faced.

Nebraska is favored but barely.  Nevertheless, I am pretty sure that no Nebraska fan has contemplated for a moment that the Huskers could possibly lose to Northwestern. Based on my own diligent and frankly insane and disappointing life choice to occasionally venture into websites maintained by rival fans, only two Big Ten teams exist whose supporters will ever believe it is possible to lose to Northwestern: Illinois and Purdue (Northwestern has yet to play Rutgers; if you are a Rutgers fan, please feel free to write in or leave a comment and let me know whether you think your team can ever lose to Northwestern).  For every other fanbase, Northwestern lost a bunch of games in the 1970s and 80s and therefore they can never win a Big Ten game again.  I am reasonably confident that nearly every Big Ten team could be destroyed by the NCAA Death Penalty for extremely Big Ten infractions like wooing fullbacks by promising agricultural sabotage that is exposed when a number of Midwestern corn mazes become poisoned and easily solved by disappointed nine-year-olds, fans of the resulting teams now made of frail walk-ons who have been training by practicing cowering will be certain that they will nevertheless crush the full-strength Wildcats and if they lose it will be because the offensive coordinator needs to get fired or because of all the uncalled holding penalties.

BASEBALL'S GRAVE EPISTEMOLOGICAL CRISIS THE "K ZONE"

There's a small crisis brewing in sports that has nothing to do with work stoppages, sports leagues deciding to embrace broad investigative powers, the endless stadium war between those who want us to clap clap clap clap our hands or for everybody to clap ya hands clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap.  It's a division between the naked eye and the camera's eye, the widening gap between observed physical phenomena and sports rules, the unmooring of objective, empirical truth from the authority of sports officials.  It's video replay, and it is making everyone a maniac.

In football, video replay has reduced everything to pixel.  We no longer know what a catch is-- when the Michigan State receiver came down with the ball in the waning seconds of the game, I held onto a fraction of hope because even though he clearly caught the ball in any reasonable definition of the term, football fans have by now trained ourselves to wait for an Official Explanation to celebrate, for some beef-armed referee to come out and get on a microphone and explain in the stilted institutional argot that every person with any modicum of authority now uses whenever addressing more than three people to explain that the receiver did not properly secure the ball through the process of the catch or the League will not at this time comment on the ongoing investigation as per policy or the Team and its sponsors will be reviewing its safety policy in light of the incident in question when the Jacksonville Jaguar drove its pyrotechnic motorcycle device into three or four individuals.

The League understands fans' concern over the expansion of seating 
into the Meineke Wheelie Zone Fan Area and Play Zone and will be 
reviewing its safety policy, pending a full investigation of the incident 
in question

But baseball is the most vulnerable because every single play depends on the judgement call of a single person.  Umpires' strike zones are not perfect-- we know that since the first person bellowed at them you flat brain-panned hog-fellow, that was a striked-pitch and threatened them with nineteenth-century fisticuffs-- and an entire branch of baseball analysis has discovered that the a catchers' most valuable defensive skill may well be his or her ability to fool umpires with various chicaneries in order to bamboozle them into calling more strikes.  Now, though, every single pitch is run through a computer processor to determine the calls' accuracy, pitch tracking technology tracks each pitch, and entire twitter accounts show how often a pitch is called a ball or strike and exist specifically to be quote tweeted with a caption about how that anthropomorphic wattle Cowboy Joe is fucking us over again.

In this way, the "K Zone" or whatever the broadcaster is calling it has quietly undermined the entirety of baseball.  Baseball now exists in a tense battle between parallel realities, between the empirical location of the pitch as determined by technology and presented on an ever-present Umpire Tattling Graphic and the umpire's decision on whether the pitch is or is not a strike.  MLB has long insisted on accepting the umpire's word as law on balls and strikes largely because of baseball's traditional love for postmodern literary theories that accept reality as constructed by the vagaries of language shaped by power structures.  And fans have always protested calls throughout the history of baseball by suggesting that umpires need pince-nez, monocles, glasses, and prescription rec-specs.

Baseball broadcasts have dedicated themselves to unraveling the umpires' already suspect authority by presenting viewers with an alternate reality that runs counter to officials' pronouncements for the entire game.  To watch baseball now is to be asked to parse two simultaneous realities, one of which technology has been telling us is objective fact and one of which is the interpretation of a beleaguered, masked functionary.  Either the strike zone is a term of art subject to interpretation with a flexible structure that smart pitchers and catchers work around or it is a rigid zone established firmly in physical space, but it is odd and disconcerting that baseball presents us with both simultaneously in a way that is designed only to confuse and frustrate viewers and enrage players and managers whose only recourse is to waddle out of the dugout and theatrically yell at the umpires in an unhinged way that is bereft of the dignity we expect from septuagenarians bursting out of their baseball pajamas.

Here, this is what you look like doing a Karloff impression look at me 
look at me I'm the shitty mummy 

Replay has changed baseball's rules.  Now, every close play at a base ends with a three-minute headphone conference.  In the Cubs-Nationals NLDS Game Five fever dream, replay officials provoked the Baseball Online into a frenzy when they ruled that José Lobatón had strayed off of first for a millisecond while still in the clutches of Anthony Rizzo's tag.  That play offered three competing truths-- the evidently veritable physical fact that Lobatón had left the bag for some quantifiable segment of time, the question of whether baseball's slow-motion, high-definition replay cameras injected a bizarre pedantry into rules that originated from a time when it was legal to slide into a base while menacing fielders with a blade concealed in the runner's side-whiskers, and the spiritual truth of the Nationals' propensity to shit themselves in playoff games paired with Dusty Baker's seemingly cosmic attraction to impossible baseball mishap.

Sports leagues have implemented video replay, they say, in order to get calls correct, in order to prevent them from perpetuating egregious sports injustices, but replay has also ushered in an epistemological crisis.  Video replay has undermined and complicated fundamental and basic sports activities: What is a catch? What is a strike?  Was that foul a level one technical or a level two technical with malice and forethought?  What we have now has not necessarily clarified the rules but brought to bear on them competing rules discourses one of which depends on the subjective judgement of people who have chosen to go into a line of work that involves them getting screamed at more or less constantly and one that depends on physical phenomena all but invisible to the human eye without technology and thrown them against each other for fans to argue about.  I don't know what the solution is other than if it involves repeatedly taking touchdowns away from Wisconsin for no apparent reason then it should be allowed because that is extremely funny, to me.     

Friday, October 27, 2017

IOWA AND NORTHWESTERN FIGHT TO THE DEATH OF FOOTBALL

Whatever it is Northwestern and Iowa do, it is not playing football.  It would be more accurate to say that the Big Ten continuously allows them to commit football against each other, the Greater Chicagoland Metropolitan Area, and whatever bar happened to have their TV permanently stuck on ESPN2 after Lenny hit the TV with his pool cue again while demonstrating his Steven Seagal barfight techniques and that son-of-a-bitch never paid for it he didn't. 

Last Saturday, a howling wind from the south led both offenses to perform like they were Napoleonic generals terrified to cross the end zones and move too far from their supplies of gatorade and butt towels.  The game was marked by stymied drives, heroic stands, astonishing punts, and appalling acts of football cowardice; with 90 seconds to go and two timeouts Pat Fitzgerald ran out the clock to play for overtime, unwilling to trust his team to proceed into the gale.  It ended up working out because Justin Jackson is dropping smoke bombs and reappearing ten yards away whenever some jabroni tries to tackle him and because an Iowa player dropped a wide-open fourth-down conversion so egregiously that it appears that Brett Walsh (Northwestern #10) actually goes into a full-on Iowa Fan Surrender Cobra because he can't believe what has happened.
 

Behind every ugly win is a great defensive performance, and the Wildcat defense has quietly become a wall.  Iowa's plan was to once again unleash Akrum Wadley to run through the tracks he dug into the Ryan Field last time he played there.  This time, Northwestern linebackers smashed through the Hawkeye defensive line and brought him down repeatedly.  This time, on fourth and inches late in the game, the Hawkeyes, surely confused by the ferocious home crowd of nearly four dozen Northwestern fans, moved offside and had to settle for a field goal.

In some ways, the loser of this game was the sport of football as two teams more or less shouted at each other for three hours before agreeing to go home in a perfect display of stereotypical Big Ten 11AM anti-football.  But, in a more accurate way, Iowa lost this game, the indomitable Wildcat triumphed once again and greatly improved its odds of making the Old Macbeth's Industrial Iron Shards bowl or even the Repurposed Magic the Gathering Server Dark Internet Cryptocurrency Bowl.

UPDATE ON THE IMPORTANT NORTHWESTERN-IOWA RIVALRY

Iowa fans would never say they have a rivalry with Northwestern.  It is unseemly.  Only one man has ever sunk low enough to court Northwestern as a rival, and he is now in jail.  Yet, Northwestern has been a hilarious thorn in the side of the Iowa Hawkeyes for more than a decade.  Pat Fitzgerald is 7-5 against Iowa with the Hawkeyes favored in nearly all of those games; the average Northwestern victory has been by just about a touchdown.  Over and over, Iowa rigged their boulders, built their rockets, donned their elaborate ACME Bat-Man's Outfit, and then run into a tunnel painted on the side of a cliff after watching Pat Fitzgerald disappear into it in defiance of all known laws of physics and the AP Polls and it is incredibly funny.


Northwestern and Iowa appear to be locked in the same cycle of infuriating losses to one another, grandiose punting exhibitions, and you and me we're not so different monologues because they have the most entrenched, unchanging leadership in the Big Ten.  Ferentz, who has been coaching at Iowa so long that traces of Feretnz molecules from the Big Bang have been found in Iowa City soil, has entrenched his position by appointing his son as offensive coordinator, sending a clear message to any rogue Iowa coordinators who would scheme to depose him or slip reptile poisons into his cream of wheat that a Ferentz will remain on the throne.  Pat Fitzgerald has gone from the young, fistpumping boy coach to a beefy, gray-templed J. Jonah Jameson.
 
I'm very proud of our young men for going out there this week and 
executing and also for not letting that wall-climbing FREAK run amok 
around this city leaving web residue all over the buildings for us, the 
taxpayers, to have to CLEAN UP that FLUID or the DEBRIS from the 
time he got into a fight with a guy dressed like a HUMAN RHINOCEROS go cats

While neither head coach seems to be going anywhere, frustrated fans have turned on the most obvious targets: offensive coordinators.  Iowa fans have been frustrated with Brian Ferentz because if Iowa's offense stagnates then it appears his key value is the ability to pass as a Kirk Ferentz impersonator from a distance when the elder Ferentz is otherwise indisposed.  Northwestern fans (on the internet at least) remain irritated with Mick McCall, who, in the insane business of goatee guys named Skip and Bobby replacing each other every year, has remained in charge of Northwestern's offense and will stay there until he dies and is entombed in Pat Fitzgerald's pyramid so Fitz can have someone call ill-advised speed options in the afterlife.

College football fans love to complain about coordinators and assistant coaches.  In many ways, it makes sense-- teams without flashy recruiting rankings routinely shock better teams with better schemes.  And in many ways it is far more palatable that college football fans' deranged ire is focused on the people actually getting paid.  At the same time, the sense of coordinators and coaches as maestros singlehandedly responsible for magicking their teams points or turnovers can stray into the realm of the ludicrous.  Football is an insane, complicated game based on violence-diagrams ruled by the bounce of an oblong ball and even the greatest football brain genius cannot account for one single slip or mistake or a guy falling down on his ankle weird which means the athletic training staff should probably be fired because they should be preventing injuries, say the maniacs in the stands who are screaming at these behemoths to run into each other for our amusement and maybe it is possible that everyone is not a holy shit he called that inside handoff again.

MICHIGAN STATE

Last year, Michigan State and Northwestern seemed primed for a miserable punt-off.  Instead, we were treated to an insane shootout with Austin Carr rampaging through the secondary and Michigan State bringing in a backup quarterback who just kept bombing the ball down the field. Solomon Vault fielded a weird bounce on the kickoff and ran 95 yards.  A Northwestern team that couldn't get more than seven against Illinois State scored more points than any opponent in Michigan State history.  So it might be prudent to not predict this to be a miserable, cold, low-scoring shitfest.  At the same time, man does this game look like it is going to be a miserable, cold, low-scoring shitfest.

Michigan State appears to be back after last year's nightmare season.  They are 6-1 with their only loss to an unthinkably resurgent Notre Dame team that should have been stopped by the government, they had a trademark ridiculous win against Michigan in a monsoon, and they come into Ryan Field ranked sixteenth in the country.  Yet, Michigan State has not been blowing people out.  Their four Big Ten wins have been by a combined 19 points.  Their approach seems have been to assemble some bludgeonous defenders and occasionally deign to move the ball towards the endzone only when it becomes necessary to score more points than their opponent.  They play like football has some bizarre new Price is Right rule where you can't go over one touchdown more than the opponent.

Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke hopes to impress 
with his offseason tunneling out of Spartan Stadium regimen after this safety

Northwestern seems to want to play the same way.  A resurgent defense has frustrated opponent running games.  The offense will give the Spartans a heavy dose of Justin Jackson and a plan to inch towards their goal line.  Neither team seems that interested in doing much on offense other than not allowing the other team to have the ball.  But maybe the script will flip and in a chilly, windy, possibly rainy Ryan Field, the two teams will throw caution to the wind and ball to hand and not get a one-point lead then spend three plays building an increasingly cozy mud den on their own twenty-five for 120 seconds before punting it to the other team who will get busy passing around trowels and flagons of warm tea.  

Michigan State is very good.  They're ranked, they'll be supported by an invasion of green men and women, and they'll provide the greatest test for the Wildcats yet.  But, the both teams' love of hideous garbage football and the weather conditions mean that this could be anyone's game, that Northwestern could pull the home upset and vault itself back from middling obscurity to slightly less middling obscurity.

THE BARCELONA ART WORLD

I'm reading Robert Hughes's Barcelona, his 1992 tome about the history of art and architecture of Barcelona.  Hughes, an author and art critic whose books on Australia and Rome I've reviewed here in the past was a dyspeptic flamethrower who had never met an early 1990s post-modern building he had not wanted to jackhammer.  He specialized in long histories (both this book and Rome go back to the Roman period) while causally tossing out withering asides about any artist he does not like, which is most of them.  

I do not often like to do this, but I should be upfront and say that I have not finished Barcelona.  This is always a foolish thing to do when writing about a book but especially with Hughes, where there is danger on every unread page-- his book on Rome, for example, ends with a wild, maniacal assertion that Italians cannot be trusted to preserve their art history because they watch soccer on TV, for example, and there is no guessing what sorts of insane early 90s fire takes on Spanish government lurk in upcoming chapters.  The reason for posting this is an excuse to include this passage, not only for him casually name-dropping Dalí, but putting this information into my life and now yours.

Further reports on Barcelona as they develop.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Undefeated All-Time Against Maryland

After back-to-back neck wringings at the hands of the Big Ten's top teams, Northwestern finally had a chance to test its mettle against a Big Ten team that will be scrapping around with them for a berth in the Yelling Fist Generic Flesh Colored Hulk Hands Bowl and they bulldozed through them with the assurance of a team that will get to six wins if they have to infiltrate Big Ten headquarters and rearrange the Big Ten's computerized punch cards.
 
A Big Ten technician adds the statistical
 data from last year's Northwestern-Michigan State 
game into the official database

Maryland seemed to have the Wildcats' number at first.  Star receiver D.J. Moore jetted through the Wildcats' defense, already depleted from injury and suspension for trying to tackle receivers through the inside of their chests.  But then the 'Cats came alive.  Maryland, down to a third-string quarterback named Bort Bortenschlagen could not move the ball, and Northwestern wore down their struggling defense by battering them with Justin Jackson.  What looked like another nail-biting game turned into a solid victory in the yet another chapter in this storied Big Ten football rivalry.

Jackson owned the day.  He broke the all-time school record for rushing, carried Northwestern to the win, and delivered impassioned French monologues about how the French word for touchdown is "touchdown."  Northwestern has had its share of great running backs in recent years, but Jackson may go down as the best.  Jackson is not a big back nor is he blindingly fast.  His specialty is poking and prodding through holes and shimmying away from contact.  Some of his most impressive runs have been in games where the offensive line has struggled against conference behemoths and he has had to dodge three or four tacklers just to get back to the line of scrimmage.  When he gets into the open field, he is shifty enough to bamboozle would-be tacklers into lunging at air.  Yet, Jackson's greatest attribute is probably his resilience.  There have been many games when the entire offensive game plan seems to have been to keep giving Jackson the ball against teams that have moved their entire defense into trenches surrounding the line of scrimmage and hope that it's enough to win the game.  It didn't always work-- that kind of thing can't work unless you're a Wisconsin team that has specifically engineered linemen from the largest and most virulent strains of locker room fungus available on the black market, but it takes a back like Jackson to make it a conceivable strategy.
 
That Pitt safety was absorbed into the grass of Yankee Stadium

OH C'MON IOWA AGAIN?

One of the sad effects of the Big Ten's adoption of conferences has been to see the same teams every year.  In some ways it is a boon, especially since Northwestern plays in the blighted West, which reliably serves up the requisite three jabroni teams that keep Northwestern in low-tier bowl swag.  Conferences, though, have created six annual games, instead of the protected annual games that featured a mix of hated rivalries with trophies named for weaponry and farm implements and matchups generated more or less at random.  The conferences mean that Northwestern has to weather an irritating biennial Invasion of the Nebraska People and getting sat upon by Wisconsin every season.  It also means that the Wildcats are constantly playing Iowa.

I don't know what to make of Northwestern-Iowa matchups anymore.  Northwestern and Iowa should never be playing every year when they're both fighting for mid-tier bowl games.  They should appear like wraiths on the schedule in one of the years when one of the teams is good, waiting as a dangerous three-win team nonetheless hellbent on ruining their opponent's season.  Iowa or Northwestern should forget about each other's existence except when they're on an impossible Rose Bowl hunt and then fall into a trap door into filled with turnovers and overtimes and, to read on the internet the next day, a shameful bounty of uncalled holding penalties. 

Iowa lost CJ Beathard and talismanic cornerback Desmond King.  They still have their star linebacker, the comic book-named Josey Jewell.  And they still have Kirk Ferentz, their Forever Coach.  Ferentz has solidified his power by naming his eldest son Brian to the role of offensive coordinator.  He will supplement his coaching staff with other Ferentz from throughout the Spanish and Low Countries branches of the Ferentz family until college football is, like Europe in the early twentieth century, essentially a deteriorating mass of branches of the Ferentz weakened by generations of inbreeding until they all declare war on each other.
 
Guards come to escort Rolph Ferentz IV from the Sun Belt branch of 
the Ferentz Family to accept ULM's invitation to participate in the 2345 Belk Bowl

Is there a point to trying to predict an Iowa-Northwestern game?  Iowa sure looks like the better team. Northwestern is coming off its best performance of the year against an injury-ravaged Maryland team.  Iowa's only losses have been a near-upset of the same Penn State team that pulverized the Wildcats at Ryan Field and a narrow loss to a resurgent Michigan State.  The Hawkeyes will be looking for revenge after having their homecoming spoiled by Northwestern last year, but this game remains a big one for the Wildcats-- a loss keeps them scratching for three more wins against a putrid conference that might not be putrid enough.  A win might do what last year's game against Iowa did and wake them up from a disastrous non-conference performance that ended in the most famous Pin Stripe Bowl victory.  Either way, the unfortunately annual Iowa-Northwestern undoes the hoary maxim about familiarity breeding contempt.  Contempt grows best from rare meetings that end with recriminations and devastating quarterback injuries.

BYCTOM NBA PREVIEW

NBA analysis has changed from its original barebones boxscore to a cornucopia of fancy statistics, impressions gleaned from the numerous terminator cameras feeding biometric data to teams and to the per synergy sports bloggers, and, most importantly, running updates about the various feuds, social media kerfuffles, and free agency betrayals that pepper the NBA year-round and make it by far the most compelling sports league in this country.

There are, perhaps, basketball purists who sit around longing to root for crew-cutted ciphers who run pick-and-rolls and hoist jumpshots, for basketball broadcasts without allusions to a twitter war between opponents, or try to follow teams without learning which players’ embarrassing sexual peccadilloes have been instantaneously broadcast to a worldwide instagram audience.  For the rest of us, the NBA has become a glorious dunk-adjacent soap opera.

Every sports league has its outsized personalities, but the NBA sells them better than any league.  The NFL is dominated by its owners; every year, the major storylines involve some sort of rules conflict and the NFL meting out its own bizarre brand of football justice.  MLB's players remain in a weirdo Twilight Zone episode where overexuberance at doing things most normal people would find near-impossible is met by a hail of baseballs.  When I think of the culture of American baseball (if anything, the World Baseball Classic demonstrated that literally every other country seems to have way more fun playing baseball than the USA's square-jawed hall monitors), I think of John Lackey, a man who has taken his cues on manful stoicism from 80s action movies and speaks in a weird tough-guy argot that seems to be taken from a disastrous Stephen Seagal-penned Western.  

Imagine Seagal sitting atop a lifeless plastic horse in front of green 
screen wildly whipping the bridle around as he pretends to be chased
 by a ruthless gang of Bulgarian cattle rustlers

The NBA is rife with drama because players have been forming and reforming superteams and appearing to take things extremely personally.  Trust no NBA preview that doesn't feature a list of feuds boiled down like the incomprehensible What's Happening on Your Favorite Soaps columns that used to be in newspapers:

LeBron is feuding with former teammate Kyrie Iriving because Irving's inexplicable decision to wade unbidden into the waters of flat-Earth theories pre-empted LeBron's attempt to troll the media by earnestly speaking about the Mole People.  Chris Paul and Doc Rivers have been trading barbs in the media until they will finally reconcile years from now when they both simultaneously wheel and turn to belittle the same referee.  Tom Thibodeau is attempting to recreate his Bulls teams in Minnesota and is currently building his own Kirk Hinrich out of compression sleeves.  The Lakers drafted a player with a maniacal basketball stage dad who has already provoked a feud with LeBron.  LeBron, who is very busy, is also feuding with Comic Sans mortgage-goblin Dan Gilbert who is going around firing people like a mad emperor.  Carmelo Anthony finally accepted a trade after the Knicks' attempts to alienate him enough to waive his no-trade clause became increasingly indistinguishable from George Costanza's attempts to get fired from Play Now. 
 
Jackson torturing Anthony with his famous Zen koans such as "how 
shitty is Carmelo Anthony? Still here?"  Jackson left the Knicks to 
have several expensive surgeries that will transform him into a human triangle
 
SLEEPING WITH THE FISHES FOR LUKA

At least the Three Alphas had an obvious tragic downfall.  The Bulls surrounded Jimmy Butler with combustible personalities with a poor fit on the court and the entire season was spent waiting for it to combust.  The collapse happened quickly-- Butler was shipped to Minnesota in a trade that immediately made living phrenology exhibit Gar Forman the laughingstock of the NBA, then the Bulls paid both Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo substantial sums of money to prevent them from playing for the Bulls again.
 
I don't think there will ever be a funnier self-inflicted sports
 nickname than the  Three Alphas

Last year's Bulls had infinitely more compelling drama of washed-up stars, a grotesque parody superteam scratching and clawing for the eight seed over the other shambling corpse teams in the Eastern Conference.  This year, they will be bad.  Barely anyone on this team is an NBA player; their best player is somehow still a guy recovering from knee surgery.  All of the Bulls' hopes lay in the spindly arms of Lauri Markkanen, a sweet-shooting Finnish beanpole who will spend the season being wrapped around the stanchion by bruising NBA forwards. The Bulls will likely be the worse team in the league, clobbered night in and night out, trying desperately to turn over a top-three draft pick to a front office so beleaguered that they have literally inspired a protest movement.

And yet!  This team, a team that featured players so anonymous that they were not issued their own jerseys on media day, that has been assembled to be the largest mass of humanity ever collectively dunked upon, is not content to get beaten by opponents.  They are instead beating upon each other.  Niko Mirotic, last seen being pulled from a rut five feet behind the three-point line, had his jaw broken in practice by Bobby Portis.  There is nothing funny about an altercation that lands someone in the hospital.  There is something vaguely amusing about thinking about Fred Hoiberg trying to stop this fight by repeatedly and ineffectively blowing a whistle.

The Bulls will be almost unwatchable this season, as abysmal as their post-Jordan unraveling that featured awful players like Dragan Tarlac, Marcus Fizer, and Fred Hoiberg.  The NBA's draft structure that rewards awful teams with the chance to draft superstars will change after this season to make it slightly harder for teams to guarantee high picks just for sucking.  This change has created a terrifying race to the bottom among the NBA's shittiest teams and has destroyed the entire point of basketball; bad teams are so desperate to be bad, especially this season, that any win that the Bulls get by running into a team ravaged by the flu or coming off a back-to-back or so distracted by Cam Payne repeatedly falling down that they actually start throwing the ball directly to him, will be potentially catastrophic.  It's no revelation that savvy fans should root against their own rebuilding teams-- this is, after all, what has sparked the rules changes.  But in a bleak year where even the Bulls know they have no chance one night, it deprives Bulls fans the ability to enjoy their greatest achievement of making another team's fans really really angry.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Narrative

James Franklin has finally done it.  After losing to Northwestern at Vanderbilt, canceling a game against the Wildcats by ordering a specially designed goblet that said "home and home series against Northwestern," and smashing it against the walls of his palatial Coaching Mansion and then mailing the shards to Northwestern's athletic department, and then moving to Penn State to build them up specifically, one presumes, to defeat Northwestern, Franklin stood triumphant on Ryan Field under a darkening sky with a cloud of crows and ravens and other species ordered off the Foreboding Birds catalog released to terrorize Evanston, and he departed victorious, with nothing left to play for.

Sportswriting exists to invent narratives for events that involve a lot of luck and happenstance. Wisconsin, for example, had failed to win a game at Ryan Field from 1999-2016; this streak comprised of four whole football games, each with its own discrete improbable insanities that had nothing to do with one another but became perfect for inventing a narrative of the Badgers unable to win at this lakeside doom fortress in front of a hostile crowd of nearly 40% Northwestern fans.  I have absolutely no idea if James Franklin cares at all about Northwestern or about his epic three-game losing streak dating back to Vanderbilt, but I also know that in my brain he spends most of his time skyping with Tim Beckman about his cadence in late-night fireplace-lit pacing as he composes angry couplets about Pat Fitzgerald and the yowling Wildcat noise on the PA system and Air Willie, which I am pretty sure has not existed during Franklin's entire Big Ten tenure but is something he could have read about on the internet.

James Franklin, as he always does, pondering how to beat Northwestern, 
a real rivalry that I know for a fact has consumed him

Another misleading narrative would be to look at the final score and assume that a febrile Northwestern squad flailed against a top-five Penn State team.  Northwestern's defense bottled up Penn State's fearsome attack for the first half, and Saquon Barkley, that terrifying running back who trains by leaping canyons and stiff-arming university buildings marked for demolition, could do nothing at all.  The Wildcats' offense, though, bungled a few early opportunities to take the lead, including a sequence of penalties near the goal line where they were called for holding, false starting, conspiracy to false start, and mail fraud and then turned it over.  The defense in the second half, often called upon to stop the Nittany Lions from within Northwestern territory, eventually faltered, Barkley finally unleashed his most terrifying move by psychically moving a referee into the way of a helplessly diving Wildcat, and Penn State romped through the rest of the game.  This is the second time Northwestern has played a top-tier opponent tough through a half of football, which may not count in the standings but does count in the extensive glossy literature that will be sent for the consideration of the people at the Bleedgrowl Bear Trap and Bear Trap Accessories Bowl should the Wildcats successfully win Big Ten games.

MARYLAND

Maryland has been in the Big Ten since 2014, but has been hiding in the conference's weakling East Division the entire time, safe from the Northwestern Wildcats and their onslaught of occasional bowl-caliber football competence.  No longer!  The Terrapins will now face a desperate Northwestern team coming off consecutive losses to two of the Big Ten's best teams while Maryland hopes to build on the momentum of a season featuring wins against the crumbling rot of late Ottoman Empire-era Texas and P.J. Fleck's Order of Rowboatsmanship, both on the road.

What does Maryland look like this season?  This is a blogspot website that is all about integrity, and I will not insult you by pretending to know anything about Maryland football.  I remain in shameful ignorance; the only Maryland football I can recall watching was the end of last year's Quick Lane Bowl, a tedious Goal Line Fumbles Exhibition in front of 47 people, the apotheosis of the Quick Lane Bowl experience, and one I desperately want for the Northwestern Wildcats.  From what I can tell through extensive minutes of research, a runaway combine harvester has mown down all of the Terrapins' quarterbacks, and they hope that third-stringer Max Bortenschlager, who sounds like the video game boss second form of Blake Bortles, will be healthy.

These projections predict the emergence of a third Bort Quarterback by 2025

The narrative here is confusing: either Northwestern has valiantly struggled against two top teams to open Big Ten play or they are bad and the only thing to do is to go on the internet and call for the citizen's arrest of all of the coaches for the crime of calling ill-advised speed options.  Last year, the Wildcats found themselves in a similar place before rallying against the middle of the Big Ten. This game, against a team outside the AP top ten, will let us know which narrative to pursue: a miserable decline that depends on only on holding onto the Hat, or another triumphant march towards bowl eligibility.

CURSES

Sports narratives are part of the atmosphere of the baseball playoffs; they roll in like a ghostly fog carrying the ominous spirits of every baseball fuckup that has ever happened to a team stretching back generations.  Baseball playoffs are the province of snake-bitten managers, dominant pitchers forever labeled as postseason chokers, of grudges and of curses because the events of a baseball playoff game are almost completely random and defy rational explanation.

Last night, the Cubs and Nationals played an operatic 75-hour baseball game, a tortuously long time for anything that is supposed to be entertainment, but especially baseball because playoff baseball is an exercise of prolonged dread.

Every agonizing moment of playoff baseball, of watching the manager turn his roulette wheel to another shaky relief pitcher with guys in scoring position, of grimacing through errors, of knowing the guy coming up with two outs and men on base is the guy who is going to chase balls out of the strike zone every time why would you swing at that it's in the goddamn dirt, of Jon Lester staring at a man who is sitting down cross-legged between first and second, and the human mind is incredible at knitting those anxieties into prophesies of doom.

The Washington Nationals are cursed.  Not in the supernatural vengeful spirit in disguise who is not at all happy about getting sprayed by that chariot sense, but in the sense of the narrative overwhelming the rational, of the ridiculous baseball catastrophes congealing into a palpable wad in the pit of every fan's stomach, and the desperate search for a connection between every misfortune into a larger explanation of why the team cannot win.  

The Washington Nationals are cursed because it is almost impossible to believe the following things happened in the same baseball game: an ace pitcher comes out of the bullpen as a reliever (a tremendous playoff baseball wrinkle*), gets two quick outs, and then the following sequence of events happen: a infield single, bloop hit and RBI double, a controversial dropped third strike involving an arcane baseball rule about hitting the catcher with the follow through that I've literally never heard of, a catcher's interference, a hit batsman, an egregious error, a valiant comeback against a Cubs bullpen that appeared to be throwing the weighted baseballs that pitchers grab to make Pete Townsend windmills motions as they warm up, the ending of an inning against a beleaguered, laboring Wade Davis on a pickoff play where the officials determined that numerous Lobaton Molecules had strayed from the bag for several microseconds as measured by the New York Office's electron microscope.

Javy Baez's controversial and possibly illegal backswing against Matt 
Wieters gives him his A.J. Perizynski Moment. You know that this was 
a rule because if it was not, A.J. Pierzynski probably would have spent 
his career walloping catchers on follow-throughs or kicking them in the 
facemask before loping over to first while already pointing to the section 
in his rulebook that he has taken from his pocket that has numerous 
post-its pointing to where it doesn't say you can't do that

The Washington Nationals are cursed because they are managed by a man who has been engulfed by the narrative.  Dusty Baker has made numerous mistakes in this series, but so does every manager; in a league overtaken by the tenets of La Russism where a manager is expected to use at least a dozen pitchers in every game, where the most radical thing a baseball manager can do at this point is to identify his nine best players and ask them to play an entire game of baseball, there are an infinite number of decisions that will look dumb in retrospect.  Baker's most controversial decision, the bizarre public waffling on the Many Ailments of Stephen Strasburg eventually revealed with the subtlety of Chairman Kaga unleashing the asparagus, worked out when Strasburg heroically struck out 12 Cubs and even allowed the Nationals to survive long enough to invite this debacle.  But Baker has overseen too many catastrophes to avoid having the narrative swallow him, where Baker's various baseball management mistakes have been compounded by the inexplicable and the unholy.

Dusty Baker signals for a relief pitcher and an explanation of why this 
keeps happening

Sports curses exist because we need to make sense of things, because the truth that every single baseball game is its own discrete event and that sometimes fatal flaws intersect with weird luck more than once and sometimes that happens to an entire city's worth of sports teams in the playoffs for decades is cold comfort.  It is because we need stories and explanations beyond sometimes shit happens, in baseball.  It is because people naturally find it much easier to believe that something that has happened before will happen again than to believe that something that has not happened will; the Cubs choked and imploded in every playoff series my entire life and therefore it was easy to believe that they would never win, that there was some bizarre, inexplicable force preventing them from winning anything ever instead of individual events like Lou Piniella deciding to save Carlos Zambrano for a game that will never come one year or the Cubs' bad defensive infield biting them another year or having most reliable bullpen arm be a person named "Joe Borowski" in another.

For the first time, the Cubs are not only the team without the narrative, they appear to have been getting all of the breaks.  They head into the NLCS with a strained, exhausted pitching staff against the best team in baseball.  Their only fresh pitcher is aged prospector John Lackey who seems capable of only giving up home runs and bellowing the word fuck; Lackey has hinted at retirement after this season and there is nothing more terrifying than a Lackey with nothing to lose, a Lackey who could even come in from the bullpen and rip his jersey off to show he has the word FUUCCKKK tattooed on his belly, which he is exposing to the entire world while also bellowing.  

The Cubs this year are not the best team in baseball in a desperate fight against the narrative.  They are a good team going against a better team in a playoff format where being better matters only slightly and where chance and ill-fortune swirl intersect with every move.  I have no idea how to watch baseball without desperately groping for doom, I have no idea how to react when the other team has imploded and are blaming obscure rules infractions and mystic forces beyond our control, but I have to say it's not bad.



---------------------------------------------------------
* MCCARVER (bursting through the studio show set in an MRAP and handcuffing himself to Alex Rodriguez before dramatically swallowing the key) Not a lot of people know this, Joe, but in the movie Major League, Ricky Vaughn was the starter coming out of the bullpen. He was not the closer, Joe. He was clearly a starter coming out of the pen in a Game 163 situation.  Tell them, Joe.  Tell my family not to forget me and also not a lot of people know this but a lot of managers don't like to use their starters in these situations because (he cannot be heard over the grinding sound of from the sawblade cutting through his handcuffs).