Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dog days of summer

The Wildcats are in Kenosha firming up the depth chart and preparing for the fearsome Tigers of Towson. As the 'Cats shape up for the season by running through tires, hitting blocking sleds, doing that running in place really fast and changing direction drill, and coming together through the ageless magic of Motown sing-alongs, why not get in the spirit by heading over to and reading Skip Myslenski's colorful dispatches? Myslenski, who worked previously for the Tribune until he could no longer handle the fact that being a reporter with a colorful nickname like "Skip" generally entails being targeted by inept mobsters who enjoy punching people in the stomach and ineffectually throwing their guns at Superman, has been completely unleashed by the freedom gained by writing about the 'Cats to break out his most appropriately purple prose. For example, in this piece, entitled "The Passion of the Trenches," Skip whips out alliteration and dance metaphors frenzied enough to serve as copy for the late John Facenda:

They toil always in a world called The Trenches. But there, in a maelstrom of mean-spirited behemoths, they must perform with the precision of a prima ballerina...

Little, of course, is easy in The Trenches, where far more than brute strength is needed to thrive and survive. This is often lost in the crescendo of the crashing bodies, in the cacophony of the grunts and groans. But the work done here in the midst of mayhem is choreographed carefully and constantly the lineman must perform a complex dance, a dance that demands constant adaptation, a dance that must be presented with the hot breath of the enemy blowing in his face...

Sixty, 70, 80 times in an afternoon they dance their disco of destruction, their minuet of mayhem, and each time they pit their bodies, their minds, their wills against those toiling across from them. The hand out jolts, accept jolts, trade jolts and, in the midst of this all, they are adjusting, adjusting their hands and their feet and their steps and their angles in a desperate search for an advantage.

The judges, the measurers, the surveyors, focusing on their fervent
foxtrot on the field, a chaotic conga line careening on course to close
calls. These men become the Fates of football, determining plays, games,
seasons, not by the spin of the thread, but by the link of the chain.
Teams are delayed, delivered, delighted, destroyed, damned as downs
are dialed, dialed into corybantic conquest, dialed into cruel capitulation.
I crunch into a peanut shell, dispatching the innards into a moribund
Morris dance across the teeth and tongue to the terrible pulsing
peristalsis that awaits.


A week ago, the United States predictably lost again at Mexico's doom fortress and national stadium Estadio Azteca. The elevation, smog, and crowds that react like Eastern European villagers to the threat of another unholy symbol of man's hubris in the eyes of nature rampaging through the countryside before turning harmlessly into Lon Chaney have all been well-chronicled.

Model of Estadio Azteca. Incidentally, the best Temple of Doom character is the random
Chinese guy with the Tommy Gun at the beginning who cackles with a lunatic glee as he
fires helplessly at a gong shielding Indiana Jones, as if he is discovering for the first
time the joy of uselessly firing automatic weapons at Harrison Ford.

El Tri's astounding home advantage naturally leads to Northwestern and its somewhat tamer environment, where the stands are inundated alternately with belligerent visiting fans during Big Ten games and tumbleweed for the Towsons and directional state opponents. This excellent article by David Ranciman examines the changing nature of home field advantage in the age of professional sports. Naturally, being a British source, the article focuses on soccer, although it also touches on football, hockey (surprisingly little home field/ice advantage), basketball, and baseball (where home field advantage evidently counts the least despite the fact that baseball fields allow for far more variation in their size and shape than in any other major sport). More importantly, he lists his "fortresses of sport" at the end: Old Trafford Stadium, Eden Park (home of the All Blacks), Pakistan National Stadium (a 45 year unbeaten streak in test cricket), and inexplicably Greece Olympic Stadium. This was frankly a disappointment as I was hoping to know Australia's most hostile Aussie Rules oval or where one might as well pack up their hurling sticks or slamballs.

The streets of the Running Man, however, proved an
insufficient home advantage for Dynamo, the Electric Rapist

In college football, the most hostile environments have traditionally been down South where fans allow their blood to be properly angried up by rivalry and pageantry. The mighty information power of the internet, despite providing some speed bumps, reveals that Miami holds the record for consecutive home wins with 58 from 1985 to 1994, taking the crown from Alabama who managed 57 from 1963 to 1982.

Home team advantage in college football is real, as home teams win approximately 59% of home games. I would actually expect a larger advantage looking at FBS schools, not because college football stadiums are more likely than any other sport to house nearly six figures worth of braying drunken maniacs, but because power conference teams traditionally schedule most of their cupcake non-conference games at home. For Northwestern, home field advantage is more palpable than one might think. Take a look at this data set:

Northwestern road wins 1979-1982: 0
Northwestern home wins 1979-1982: 1

With an increase of infinity percent, perhaps I've misjudged Ryan Field's home advantage.


The Cubs seem to be out of the NL Central at six games back and only three left to play against division-leading St. Louis. The difference between the NL and the AL is that the National League clubs spending ludicrous amounts money have apparently been doing so on less talented players, although the Mets have the excuse of suffering through the baseball version of the Battle of Ypres during the course of the season. At least Lou has had the good sense to bench Kevin Gregg, who is either part of an elaborate double cross engineered by rival baseball teams hoping to sabotage the Cubs in a conflagration that will end in a Viennese sewer or a lousy pitcher in the glamor role on a terrible bullpen. Few of the Cub relievers have decent nicknames, so I've decided to pitch in by turning to the colorful world of Chicago's most brutal mobsters. Why not bring in Kevin "The Scourge" Gregg, named for the murdered Capone consigliere Antonio "The Scourge" Lombardo as he allows a veritable tommy gun spray of baseballs launched by opposing hitters into unsuspecting grandstands?

Ozzie Guillen vowed retaliation earlier this month for
hit batsmen, claiming, "If I see somebody hitting my
players and I know it's on purpose, two guys are going
down," Guillen said. "I don't care if I get suspended,"
which demonstrates a thorough understanding of the
Connery Doctrine of the Chicago Way.

Chicago gangster nicknames are pretty much the pinnacle of human nickname innovation. Of course, not all are winners; for every "Scourge," there was a "Momo" or a "Big Jim" or the almost disastrously banal "Milwaukee Phil" which is possibly the least chilling gangster nickname of all time, unless you are dealing with a gangster with a pathological fear of mullets, bratwurst, or people who pronounce the letter O in a comical fashion. I like evocative gangster nicknames that let you guess their role such as "Jackie The Lackie" Cerone or Frank "Tight Lips" Gusenberg, which is like being "The Whammer" of the gangster world. Unfortunately for Gusenberg, he had an unpleasant Valentine's Day in 1929. My favorite of these is Vincent "The Schemer" Drucci who sounds less like a Jazz Age mobster and more like a lesser Batman Villain.

The Schemer would fit right in with Batman's redundant battles against the Riddler
and the Puzzler. The best of the Adam West Batman villains is definitely King Tut,
a fat guy dressed approximately like a Pharaoh whose special ability seemed to
mainly consist of doing the Egyptian walk over to the fridge to see if there were
any more eclairs

Probably the greatest gangster nickname belongs to Murray "The Camel" Humphreys. Humphreys was an adept political fixer who was allegedly able to put the screws to Harry Truman, a feat that few others could claim at the time including Joseph Stalin. He pressured Truman by threatening to reveal the role played by gangsters in elevating Truman through the Kansas City political ranks. Born Llewellyn Morris Humphreys, the Camel is possibly the second most powerful Welsh gangster of all time.

Humphreys was also known as "The Hump." The gangster-looking photo of Lloyd
George and Churchill is one of my favorite photos of anything

The connection of gangster nicknames to sports does not have to be limited to shaky Cubs relief pitchers. What about Pat "The Fitst" Fitzgerald, Ron "The Piece" Santo, Kevin "The Mantis" Coble (that's not really a gangster nickname but it's a reminder that a random mention of "The Mantis" as a nickname for Kevin Coble is going to remain coiled up like a cobra at the bottom of a burlap sack ready to pop out at inconvenient and unpredictable times) and "Brian Urlacher." Of course, other nicknames already have a Chicago sporting legacy.

Paul "the waiter" Ricca and his prodigal, nicknamigal son

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Northwestern Football is Back

With the first week of practice, it's nearly college football season and it cannot come soon enough. After watching the Cubs' inevitable descent back into mediocrity due to untimely injuries (for example, take a look at this Tom Gorzelanny injury where he gets hit in the foot with the ball and then tries to feebly throw a man out at the plate only to wobble backwards like Lee Van Cleef trying to get off a last shot at Clint Eastwood before Eastwood shoots him and then his hat into a convenient open grave), stranding base runners, and incompetent relief pitching, I am more than ready to see purple helmets smashing into things.

A visual representation of the Cubs bullpen this season. The worst whammy in the 'pen
has been Kevin Gregg, who in the month of August has blown leads in 3 of his last five
appearances (including giving up back-to-back home runs for a walkoff in hated
Dolphin Stadium.

The most fascinating pitcher on the Cubs' roster is Carlos Marmol, the ace set-up man whose command apparently evidently got honked out of him at the World Baseball Classic. Since the Cubs seem reluctant to send him down to the farm or buy him some Ricky Vaughn glasses, it's time to reevaluate how they use him. I suggest inventing a new role for him, which I call the Base-Open One-Out Specialist (or BOOOS). Imagine that the Cubs have somehow managed to allow baserunners to score instead of vanishing into the ether of strikeouts, popouts, and poorly-timed double plays, and they are winning a close ballgame in the late innings. Aaron Heilman, fresh from practicing throwing meatballs or accidentally setting forest fires or feeding gremlins after midnight has managed to put runners on second and third with Carlos Lee or Prince Fielder, or Jose Valentin coming up to the plate. This is the time for Marmol.

In this situation, the ideal outcome is a strikeout and the favored strategy is an intentional walk. Carlos Marmol basically only walks or strikes people out. In 249 plate appearances, he's given up only 30 hits with a single home run. On the other hand, he has struck out 64, walked 52, intentionally walked 3, and hit a National League-leading 11 batsmen, comprising a total of 52% of all plate appearances. Of the remaining 119 plate appearances, hitters have only turned them into hits or sacrifices about 26% of the time. Marmol gets batters out a shaky 62% of the time, but in a situation where a walk is not not detrimental, he gets a favorable outcome (an out, walk, or hit batsman) approximately 88% of the time (PA/100-(hits+sacrifices)) by my shoddy, misleading, and irresponsibly extrapolated calculations. The remaining twelve percent chance of disaster, of course, does not include the possibility of wild pitches or massive suspensions resulting from the bench-clearing donnybrook caused by an errant Marmol fastball.

It's called playing the percentages. It's what smart managers
do to win ballgames.


With camp beginning, the Northwestern stories have begun trickling in, including this one about Freshman running back Arby Fields, another small back hoping to follow in the footsteps of Tyrell Sutton. With Arby Fields and Mike Kafka, the Wildcat backfield is among NCAA leaders in terrible headline pun potential as national sports editors cackle over their carefully constructed groaners about sandwiches and existentialist bohemian literary figures.

Hard-Bitten Editor: Run with this: Kafka leads Northwestern metamorphosis into
BCS contender
Brezhnev-eyebrowed news consumer: I cannot wait for mutually-assured nuclear


Northwestern has been playing (and generally flailing helplessly against) its hated Big Ten conference foes for well over a century. I decided to look into the College Football Data Warehouse as well as the excellent NU historical information at Hailtopurple in order to determine the Wildcats' (and, the Fighting Methodists' and The Purple's) greatest foes outside the Big Ten. The University of Chicago, of course, counts as a Big Ten member as they left the conference in 1939 and last played Northwestern in 1926. Perhaps it's best that they're gone, as NU went only 8-26 against the Maroons, a college football power whose onfield prowess vanished with the men's hat.

Northwestern's greatest non-conference enemy remains contempible Notre Dame, who holds an 8-37 record against the Wildcats. Four of the Northwestern wins came in a row, from 1959-62 during the Ara Parseghian era, after which he moved onto Notre Dame, and the Irish took the next 14 in a row. Northwestern were Notre-Dame natural early rivals, competing for the Chicago area and to determine which group has the fiercest "Fighting" mascot after the Fighting Shakers were no longer able to field a competitive side.

The Fighting Shakers intimidate the competition with a fearsome dance known
for its elegant simplicity

Although Northwestern's football past is often maligned by college football pundits and Big Ten opponent fanbases, a look at the schedule reveals some remarkable successes. For example, in terms of academic might, the Wildcats are undfeated against the Ivy League, having defeated Darthmouth, Cornell, and Harvard Prep School. NU has also beaten hated rivals Chicago Dental College twice, with an erroneously-recorded loss rectifed by Hailtopurple detective work. Wins over programs such as Northwestern Dental, Illinois Physicians and Surgeons, and Hahnemann Medical college leaves the 'Cats 11-2 over all medical schools, and undefeated against all dental schools, leading to forgotten nineteenth century fight song "Bring your dentists, they're our meat."

A recreation of nemesis Chicago Dental College's logo based on
the Iron Law of Dental Logos, which requires
anthropomorphic teeth.

The most wins by a Northwestern team over a non-conference opponent is sixteen against Lake Forest College followed closely by twelve over Beloit College, and ten against Evanston High School. For more legitimate wins against opponents that still exist, are colleges in the FBS, and played Northwestern since the fallout from the Teapot Dome scandal had comfortably subsided, Northwestern has eight wins against Duke, seven against Iowa State, and is undefeated at 6-0 against Northern Illinois, who ought to be on the schedule more often so that Husky fans can gear up for the game by ritualistically draping Wildcat effigies in barbed wire.

Joseph F. Glidden looks disdainfully upon
Northern's football performance against the Wildcats

Without Northern Illinois, Northwestern is 7-9 against the MAC, including a heartbreaking Motor City Bowl loss to Bowling Green and an uninspiring 2-6 record against Miami (Ohio), who dealt the 'Cats their only regular season loss in the 1995 season.


The legacy of Turkmenbashi, the late Leader of All Ethinc Turkmen and official BYCTOM post-Soviet Central Asian strongman, lives on in another insane public works project. According to this article by Luke Harding, Turkmenistan president Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov is attempting to build a giant lake in the middle of the Karakum desert. The, project, dubbed the "Golden Age Lake," was dreamed up in 2006 by Turkmenbashi and glorified in state-run newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan. The difference between a run-of-the-mill report of an ill-conceived lake in the middle of nowhere story and one set in Turkmenistan is that other articles don't contain this sentence:

"The president then rode off on a jewellery-bedecked horse, climbed into his helicopter and flew back to the capital, Ashgabat."

Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov only makes an appearance at press
conferences after the audience has satisfactorally unfocused their
eyes and stared at the backdrop long enough to see him or lie about it

In comparison to building a lake in the middle of nowhere without causing a highly expected ecological catastrophe, Northwestern's task of getting to another bowl game seems easy. On the other hand, a careful analysis of the schedule involving a jeweler's eye and a green accounting visor reveals that there are zero dental colleges on the roster. On the other hand, Northwestern can expect a
(hard-bitten editor's note: KAFKA EXPECTS FIRST GAME WILL BE A TRIAL/ARBY FIELDS SAYS HE HAS NO BEEF WITH TOWSON see kid, that's how you sell papers)