Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Spring Pro Football

Northwestern has extended Coach Fitz through 2015 in an effort to extend the fist pump gap against Big Ten opponents. The deal is a no-brainer; Northwestern fans cannot think of anyone else in the country they want in charge of the program, and Fitzgerald says he does not want to go anywhere. That Wildcat fans believe him when most college football coaches are a combination of treacherous snake oil salesman, glad-handing, corrupt good ol' boy state congressperson, and poet/warlord speaks volumes to what he means to the program. Things did get a bit convoluted late last year with swirling Fitz to Notre Dame rumors no doubt cooked up by the Sun-Times and the sort of conniving papist agents that Dan Brown really wants to exist, but those have dissipated.

Coach Fitz gets his ceaseless energy from NU fan enthusiasm and by traveling
around the country decapitating lesser coaches who stand in his way

In other Northwestern news, three former NU players have been drafted by the new USFL league tentatively scheduled to begin play in February 2010 and fold sometime in March. C.J. Bachér has been drafted by the as-yet-unnamed New York team, and Prince Kwateng was chosen by San Francisco. Tim McGarigle has evidently turned in his badge to St. Louis after growing disgusted with the due process involved with their special teams and decided to tackle ball carriers himself after the brutal stiff-arming of his partner just one week from retirement, but failing that, he has been drafted by the Orlando USFL team.

"You're a loose cannon, McGarigle"

Look also for the return of Dennis Green, who coached the Wildcats in the 1980s and has evidently been punching at the microphone to return to coaching. Other notable players include Michigan's Chris Perry, Wisconsin's Brooks Bollinger, and someone named "Fred Bledsoe."


There are few things more prone to a tragic romantic failure than an attempt to start an alternative spring football league. These operations fail for a number of reasons: for one, the sports landscape becomes crowded in the spring, with basketball and hockey playoff races heating up, March Madness, and the childlike joy of the first images of corpulent relief pitchers waddling around some complex in Florida or Arizona practicing a nineteenth century stretching regimen followed by the arrival of new players and the first sweet crack of the bat heralding the beginning of baseball season that will inevitably end with disappointment or searing heartbreak because your team hasn't won anything since the Kaiser menaced Europe and Yugoslavia was born and collapsed and never will for some mystifying cosmic reason.

Planning the next professional spring football league

The other reason is because these spring leagues are inevitably bereft of solid franchise ownership and constantly plagued by teams moving, bad management, and comically bad ideas. For example, the World Football League, as shoddy a fly-by-night sports organization as any that had ever existed, where players feared visits by both the Turk and the repo man, nearly implemented a special color-coded system for players' pants based on position including featuring stars on the pants for quarterbacks. The World Football League did become a pioneer in ridiculous team names including the Birmingham Vulcans, the Memphis Southmen, and the Shreveport Steamer, which will escape further comment.

The original USFL lasted from 1983-1985 and managed to lose $163 million. Few teams lasted from season to season, and at one point Arizona and Chicago somehow traded franchises. According to the widipedia page, the San Antonio Gunslingers simply stopped paying players, some of whom "were forced to move in with sympathetic fans." The UFL did attract NFL-caliber talent including MVPs Jim Kelly and Herschel Walker as well as the venerable Doug Flutie, but, much like the World Football League, it could not remain stable enough get a grip on fans and ended up inevitably pursuing an anti-trust suit against the NFL.

The most spectacular bust in recent memory is Vince McMahon's XFL, that sought to bring the understated sophistication of professional wrestling broadcasts to football.

Vince McMahon

On paper, the XFL had many advantages: it owned all of the franchises, preventing the squirrelly management that hurt the WFL and USFL, it secured the participation of Dick Butkus, snagging him from the set of "Hang Time," and it promised the type of tawdry gimmicks that inevitably come from using the letter X to stand for "extreme."

The X-treme phenomenon taken well past its logical limit. My
review of
xXx: State of the Union can be summed up by the
sentence "Xibit has lines."

The XFL did debut to massive hype and made a number of small contributions to sporting lore: Rod Smart's inexplicably brilliant "He Hate Me" jersey, the return of Rashaan Salaam, the questions raised about the duties and responsibilities of a sitting Minnesota governor, and the possibility that Maniax might be the most inane name of any sports team ever, including the Paraguayan soccer team named after Rutherford B. Hayes.

Even a spring league officially sanctioned by the NFL was destined for failure. Granted, NFL Europa was designed to foster interest in football in Europe as well as develop talent, but American fans largely dismissed it as a curious punchline, and as its existence facilitated a chain of events that led to Jonathan Quinn starting games for the Chicago Bears, I am forced to agree.

NFL Europa employed some minor stylistic differences from NFL
football to make it more palatable in Europe

The financial chaos of the WFL and USFL are actually seductive; that is, owners think that if they can get a business model that does not involve moving teams in the manner of military commanders pushing tanks around those giant table maps with those special tank pushing croupier devices, actually pay players to play, and maintain stable leadership, the leagues could succeed. Instead, the new USFL should consider whether there is a natural saturation point in interest in football and if it is possible to create fan interest in teams after they have already invested so much attention in college football and the NFL. It's impossible to see any spring league rising above the level of niche league beyond appealing to absolute football fanatics and fans of novelty sports leagues.

The odds are against the success of the new USFL, but it is in the hands of Commissioner Michael Huyghue, who boasts an mystifyingly unpronounceable name, but also an uncanny ability to manipulate the shape of his head.

These are two images of Huyghue taken from the USFL site, from his blog index
and then an actual post. I refuse to support the USFL until it resolves this
crucial issue of the exact grade of Mr. Huyghue's head pointiness


Earlier this evening, Cubs closer Kevin Gregg served up a walk-off two run homer after a fantastic shot by Micah Hoffpauir off of Joel Zumaya put the Cubs ahead. Gregg has an above-average ERA+ of 110, a fairly average WHIP of 1.33, and 11 saves, which conventionally means that he's not a terrible pitcher (although Fangraphs calculates a more damning Fielder Independent Pitching stat of 4.59 on an ERA scale). A rational person might argue that it is his tendency to walk batters and occasionally melt down that creates an anti-Gregg furor among Cubs fans; the fact that he replaced Kerry Wood does not hurt although Wood's recent performance has mollified those feelings. Instead, I argue that the invective against Gregg has as much to do with his stupid goggles as his occasional incompetence on the mound.

The Kevin Gregg experience

In fact, I posit that goggled relief pitchers inspire a unique ire in baseball. In other sports, especially basketball, Rec Specs added a certain charm: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Horace Grant, BYCTOM favorite Antoine "Big Dog, damn your eyes Glen Robinson" Carr all were accepted with their goggles. Basketball fans even embrace those face protector masks that Rip Hamilton wore that make it look like they are the only things preventing them from launching into a Lecter-esque cannibal frenzy.

Goggled relief pitchers, however, tend to have sordid reputations-- Francisco Rodriguez, whose wild gesticulations recall the spasmodic reaction to an unexpected encounter with a Portuguese Man o'war or the celebration of a lesser Gramatica, Eric Gagné, the portly department store Santa implicated in the Mitchell Report for all but writing "steroids" on a check memo, and Kyle Farnsworth, baseball's greatest brawling pitcher who started wearing goggles most likely as a way to conceal a shiv and is guaranteed a job in the majors for fear of a Shawn Chacon incident that would turn an executive into a crater and a damp wingtip.

The Legion of Goggled Relievers

By donning the goggles, Kevin Gregg willingly joins this evil legion. I imagine that they gather in a bullpen in a hollowed out volcano, coming up with plots to blackmail the UN into forcing umpires to enforce a looser strike zone, owners to increase the dimensions of their parks, and someone else to give them a card promising a lifetime supply of Chicken McNuggets. Unfortunately, their plan, developed by Farnsworth, involves writing the words "Space Lazer" on a giant sheet of cardboard covered in tissue paper and festive streamers. Gagné prepares the "Good afternoon, gentlemen" speech in front a rasterized portrait of Ricky Vaughn, while Rodriguez practices a series of enraged fistpumps to show the depth of his seriousness and Kevin Gregg, I'd imagine, merely runs back and forth after accidentally setting himself on fire.

The Legion of Goggled Receivers is less
effective than other master criminal legion

The new USFL presumably has a more competent organizational structure behind it than a set of rogue goggled relief pitchers. It, however, faces a long struggle to become a relevant sports institution, stepping over the bloated corpses of myriad failed opportunities to extend the football cash cow into the spring. Even if it does not work out, perhaps it can keep Bachér, Kwateng, and McGarigle in the football limelight long enough for them to catch on with an NFL team. In the meantime, the USFL owners will leave Commissioner Huyghue tilting at the windmills, dreaming the impossible dream, and somehow adjusting his head.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Interleague Baseball

Interleague play between the Cubs and White Sox begins this week providing the city with playoff intensity, bragging rights, and an excuse for local face-punching enthusiasts to practice their art on unsuspecting drunks. All great sports rivalries are at root inconsequential, but the Cubs/Sox rivalry remains one of the most nonsensical rivalries in all of sports. Between 1906 and 1997, the Cubs and Sox did not play a single meaningful game against each other, yet the two fanbases share a pathological antipathy. In theory, the Cubs and Sox play in separate leagues and share a startling history of futility and a fanbase of mustard enthusiasts-- there is basically no logical reason not to root for both teams or at least maintain a benign indifference to the neighboring club instead the kind of searing, fist-shaking hatred practiced by French mobs against anyone in a powdered wig or a chocolate-guzzling monseignor. Then again, by this logic the Hatfields and McCoys should have realized their similarities as moonshine drinking, possum gobbling, rifle toting, buckskin wearing, toothless shitkickers and combined into a massive jugband, doubling up on knee-slappers, washbin scrapers, and gutbucket experts.

While the washtub is possibly more emblematic of the
classic hobo jug band, the gutbucket is a vastly
superior hobo instrument in terms of versatility,
required skill, potential stew earning power, and
ability to ward off railroad bulls

Like most great sports rivalries, however, the Cubs/Sox rivalry comes from some sort of primordial place that defies logic. Part of being a Cubs fan is taking shots at U.S. Cellular Field (which has evolved into an underrated ballpark) as bland and corporate while Sox fans follow Ozzie's lead by decrying Wrigley's monuments to failure, propensity to attack passersby with unexpected masonry assaults, and incubation of a swaggering vermin population. Therefore, Chicago baseball fans should choose a side and deal with opposing fans by puffing out their chests and displaying eye spots in the threatening manner.

BYCTOM fully supports the "when you're a jet, you're a jet all the way"
school of sports fandom, gangland activity, and grandes jetes.
On a
somewhat related note, a shark is so much better than a jet as a
gang mascot (are jets a killing machine made of nothing but
cartilage, teeth, and malevolence?) that it is not even worth discussing


The greatest interleague series between the Cubs and Sox was the 1906 World Series, the first and only postseason meeting between the teams. The "Hitless Wonder" Sox upset the Cubs with Hall of Famer Ed Walsh winning games three and five.

The 1906 White Sox (above) and Cubs. Both teams showcase an extremely
disappointing lack of facial hair, with the main difference coming from the
pictured executives' haberdasherment. The Cubs' C.G. Williams (mentioned here
as a club treasurer) prefers the Jack the Ripper suspect look while "The Old Roman"
Comiskey has the bowtie and more sporting hat allowing him greater mobility for
foreclosing on the dozen existing Spanish-American war widows and stabbing at
Dickensian orphans with a sharpened pince-nez

The modern interleague series has a more festive air. City officials celebrate the ballparks' connection by putting the game ball on the Red Line to be carried by a handpicked malodorous wino or a confidence man with an elborate rhyme taunting fellow patrons into challenging him at three card monte. The most recently indicted city official gets to throw out the first pitch to a mafioso-turned-state's witness.

Wednesday night is "Grand Jury Night" where a lucky fan will
be able to pull a crooked alderman's corruption case off stet, and
the verdict will be decided by fanometer, as the founding fathers

While the 1906 series featured Hall of Famers like Mordecai "Three Finger Brown," Tinker, Evers, Chance, Ed Walsh, and George Davis, the modern interleague series has been marked by mediocre players tormenting the Cubs, like Twins irritant and high priest of the unnecessary head-first slide into first base in blatant defiance of the physical laws of the universe Nick Punto. It's one thing for Carlos Lee to clobber the Cubs; the gelatinous devotee to the sloppy chin beard who loves waddling around the basepaths at Wrigley Field after inevitably assailing Waveland Avenue with grand slams so much that he now only plays for NL Central teams is an all-star caliber player. Surely the greatest White Sox player in this category is former shortstop Jose Valentin, the only batter who demanded a batting cape and was banned from Minute Made Field due to fears that he would tie helpless women to the railroad tracks in front of the orange train before escaping with a cackle and demanding that fans pay the rent.

Only British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald could use his mustache more
effectively to cast aspersions upon his enemies

I cannot currently find a website that publishes hitters' stats against a specific team, and I am unwilling to manually sift through Valentin's game-by-game stats only to have my anecdotal assertions disproved by inconvenient data, but I clearly remember Valentin as a constant thorn in the side of the Cubs despite his slightly below average career 96 OPS+.


A recent article that caught my attention is David Kushner's piece for the Times about the use of semi-submersible submarine crafts to smuggle drugs. The vessels are assembled deep in Colombian jungles and are capable of traveling hundreds of miles with a cargo of thousands of tons of cocaine shrouded from military radar, a safer and more efficient way to haul a large amount of cargo than with go-fast boats or massive condom-swallowing operations. Kushner notes that the crews refer to the vessel as el ataúd (the coffin) for its cramped conditions and rickety construction reflecting what one naval officer described as a Mad Max style, although the tight quarters dissuade a Road Warrior wardrobe as crew members are reluctant to inadvertently stab each other with unnecessary sadomasochistic spikes jutting out from leather chaps.

Lord Humungous demonstrates submersible fashion faux-pas with
studded vests and chain-link gimp tethering

The submersible technology has improved, with crews using lead and piping cool water to reduce the engine's heat signature. The Bigfoot II, presumably named to echo the creatures' impossibility to detect without the aid of moonshine or a Fox camera crew, remains the only semi-submersible captured intact by the U.S. This video shows the seizing of the vessel and gives a shaky tour of the inside of the boat.

The use of these crude yet sophisticated vehicles recalls the development of submersibles and submarines. The first working submarine dates all the way back to 1620 when Cornelius Jacobszoon Drebbel built an oar-powered sub for England's Royal Navy, a remarkable feat considering the alchemical scientific climate, where, according to his Wikipedia page, Boyle claimed that "Drebbel had a chemical liquor that would replace that quintessence of air that was able to cherish the vital flame residing in the heart."

Drebbel's submarine could travel for three hours submerged at 12-15
feet in an age of leech-driven medical technology

The American Civil War provided the first military testing ground for submarines. The first U.S. Navy sub was the Alligator, which did not actually undertake any military missions but was commanded by Samuel Eakins, who, even by lofty Civil War standards, sported an excellent combat beard.

Samuel Eakins oversaw the
Alligator's glorious puttering around
in Navy experiments before it was
scuttled in a storm or engulfed
in a mislaid pair of Civil War

The Confederate H.L. Hunley did successfully destroy the Union Housatonic with a spar torpedo as a punishment for naming a ship or any object not endorsed by Billy Mays"Housatonic," but the experiment was a mixed bag as its crews tended to drown. The H.L. Hunley sent 32 soliders to a watery grave during its career. The Hunley showed that submarines that did not kill crew members could be useful in combat, and submarines did eventually become the infernal tools of the hated Kaiser.

The Kaiser sends one six-footer Allied
shipping couldn't handle ladies let's have
a party

The Cubs and White Sox meet in this first series to torpedo each others' tenuous playoff hopes. Let us hope that the teams display the quintessence of air and the fans challenge the vital flame of competition residing in the heart but their reliance on chemical liquors could result in watery deaths or overly aggressive pas de basque.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Baseball Draft

Tuesday is baseball's draft, which tends to function as a minor event in the baseball world. It certainly has less flash than the NFL and NBA drafts; Major League Baseball got the draft televised this year by taking control of its own network, taking a page out of the Silvio Berlusconi playbook.

Selig's Forza Baseball policy hinges on retroactively changing baseball rules that effect
him, but has been hampered by the publication of nude photos of aged Czechs taken at
his villa, an ugly public feud with his wife over the appointment of former beauty
queens and television personalities to European Parliament (over which Major League
Baseball evidently has no authority), and a photo posing strategy based on a complete
misunderstanding of the Jowellgate scandal.

Interest in the MLB draft eludes all but the most hardcore baseball fans for several reasons: the relative unpopularity of college baseball coupled with the fact that so many prospects come from high school, the concept of "sandwich picks" and other vagaries resulting from the loss of different types of free agents graded by a shadowy cabal of of Freemasons, the fact that few ever make the majors, and the fact that the draft is restricted to American and Canadian players while the teams stock their foreign talent through some sort of shady process spinning a web of treachery and deceit across Latin America.

A strategic meeting of baseball scouts in Santo Domingo

The success of a player rarely has anything to do with his position in the draft, with first rounders floundering about in the minors unable to deal with tougher opponents, or succombing to injuries or gunshot wounds from mysterious women in black who follow them onto trains, an injury that accounts for a startling 14% of prematurely ended careers. Northwestern's own J.A. Happ avoided this fate after going in the third round to the Phillies in 2004 and is enjoying his first season as a full-time starter.

J.A. Happ joins Northwestern alums Joe Girardi and Mark Loretta in
the Bigs


The exception to the rule is the few highly hyped prospects at the top of the draft, expected to charge through the minor leagues and serve as cornerstones of the franchise. This year, San Diego State ace Steven Strasburg is touted as the can't-miss prospect that could help change the fortunes of the Washington Nationals who have been afflicted by the "Curse of the Youppi" caused by their hasty departure from Montreal as well as the team's brazen taunting of all of the city's soothsayers, monkey skull retailers, crusty old hermits, and Indian grave yards.

Talk of a can't-miss pitcher coming out of college naturally engenders painful comparisons to Mark Prior, whose brilliant 2003 season gave way to an improbable series of shoulder injuries and the occasional freak injury such as when he took a line drive to the elbow, collided with Marcus Giles, and rented an apartment in Chicago's hanging piano district. None of these skeptics have thought about the improbability of a pitcher repeating Prior's career cycle of brilliance matched by an alternating series of freak accidents and the replacement of his shoulder with a cylinder of Cream of Wheat. After speculation of a comeback with the Padres, Prior has been unable to return to the mound; take a look at this list of his recent activity and take a shot every time you see the phrase "Dr. James Andrews."

The classic Prior injury cycle in which Prior reports to camp, claims that he is
feeling better than ever and ready to pitch, and then falls into unforeseen tragedy

The 2001 draft was seen as a symbol of baseball's financial inequity, as Minnesota passed up drafting Prior because they could not afford all of the marriageable daughters and spices from the Orient demanded by Prior's representation of agents and traveling Khanate administration. Instead, the Twins had to get by with Joe Mauer and his batting titles. Who else was available in the first round in 2001 instead of Prior? Mark Teixeira, for one, as well as a surprising number of serviceable major leaguers. The Cubs' roster includes the eighteenth and nineteenth picks of that draft, although Aaron Heilman may still be on the payroll of a competing team in an effort to sabotage the club with his shoddy relief pitching and attempts to convince Cubs that the umpires plan on seizing their children through the aid of an apparatus hidden in the gatorade dispenser.

Other drafts do not seem to have as fruitful of a first round. For example, the 2004 first round seems to lack many bona fide major leaguers, although it does reveal that the St. Louis Cardinals spent the nineteenth pick on Christopher Lambert.

Christopher Lambert's epic rise from the
Quad Cities River Bandits to AA
Springfield to player to be named later in a
trade for Mike Maroth


Christopher Lambert, best known as Connor Macleod in the Highlander movies where he would chop off enemies' heads before being showered in sparks as opposed to when he was in the Mortal Kombat movie and shot showers of sparks at his enemies, also starred in Druids about the life of Gaul leader Vercingétorix. The trailer for the movie covers the requisite Roman war movie motif, alternating shots of clanking soldiers marching across a field and hairy men shouting in slow motion while tantalizing potential viewers with two snippets of dialogue ("You wanna fight? You wanna live forever? Then I will lead you!" and "We have made an enemy. And it would have been much better to have him as a friend.") in French accents so comical that at special screenings, the movie would pause occasionally to batter the audience with baguettes.

Vercingétorix rose from the Gallic province of Gergovia in the middle of present-day France and led an army against Caesar's invading legions. Unfortunately for Vercingétorix, he came down on the wrong side of a besiegement, a common barbarian ailment along with haunch rot, goblet rash, and battleaxe elbow. Though Vercingétorix lost and was subsequently paraded around as a trophy by the victorious Caesar while his land was enslaved to the Romans and then subsequently executed, he became a nationalist symbol under Napoleon III who commissioned a suitably violent statue of him trampling a hapless Roman as he rides to his death. Napoleon III emulated his hero a bit too closely as he discovered that Kaiser was German for Caesa. The Emperor led Frenchmen to glorious surrender as well, although luckily for him, by nineteenth century, captured heads of state merely spent time waxing their Van Dyke beard and getting deposed by unruly French mobs eager to declare another republic.

An illustration from Guizot's 1883 History
of France depicts Vercingetorix either
surrendering to Caesar or accepting a quest
to find the Sword of Foreboding that he will
use to destroy Ceasar when he turns into a
giant snake

The Cubs have the 23rd pick in the draft. Whoever they end up selecting, let's hope that Hendry offers each selection the proper words of encouragement: You wanna play forever? Then I will draft you!