Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Spring Post

The Wildcat basketball season came to an abrupt end at the hands of Rhode Island, ending my plan to fill my home with Northwestern NIT champion merchandise. The Wildcats can now use the summer to get healthy and try to make next year's NCAA tournament in a race with New Hampshire and Bethune-Cookman to avoid being the last Wildcats left without a Dance appearance.

Welsh-Ryan auditorium spends the summers as the site of the
nationally renowned Bill Carmody Youth Gesture Camp

And as we turn slowly towards spring, or at least that teasing week of spring that inevitably ends in one of those freak April blizzards hanging like the cloud of Damocles over the Midwest, football season has begun in earnest, for what better harbinger of spring is more telling than no-necked men with crew-cuts yelling at teenagers to hit immobile objects. In order to get properly motivated for football season, why not head over Nusports.com and read what I am calling Myslenski/Fitzgerald I. The interview is surprisingly subdued and I think that we all agree that in the best of possible worlds it would look something like this:

Myslenski: The gruesome ballet of bloodthirsty brigands; the footwork of fullbacks flustering fearsome linemen; Spartans, Badgers, Commodores, all come pillaging, biting, ruining: What is best in life?

: Our young men are going to compete. We're going to accomplish goals.

Myslenski: But oh ! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover !
A savage place ! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover !

Fitz: One game at a time

Myslenski: On a mountain of skulls in a castle of pain, I sat on a throne of blood. What was will be, what is will be no more. Now is the season of evil! Find me a child that I might live again!

Fitz: Fist pump


Though Fitz might not be the most exciting of interview subjects, he's handicapped by his choice of profession. After all, football coaches are all about diagramming the complex machinery of football plays, molding men, and the other sorts of serious life lessons involving coaxing young people to smash into each other at high speed in order to maintain possession of an oblong ball. They can't match the suit-wearing, modish machinations of the NBA coach or the mustachioed machinations of their counterparts in the NHL.

While the NHL and NBA share a strategy of debonairly
sending in the goon, the NHL is more of a Fop league
whereas the NBA is full of Dapper Dan men

The best interviews, of course, come from baseball managers; unlike their more animated counterparts, baseball managers tend to sit placidly, almost zen-like, amidst the sunflower seeds and spent Gatorade cups and dried saliva piling up around them. But when they spring into action, they are astounding, wobbling up the dugout steps on spindly legs propping up an ample belly made of chicken wings and tobacco juice, getting two inches from the umpire's face and jerking their heads around in an unnatural manner that looks more like a gesture from the mating dance of a tropical bird than anything a human being would ever do. Sure, there are animated coaches in every sport, such as Kansas State's Frank Martin, who looks like he's constantly gunning for a supporting role in this yell-based motion picture. But these coaches tend to look like normal, yet relatively angry men, while baseball managers look like red-faced, tweaking muppets.

The angry coach is part of the heightened theatricality of baseball. Possibly because of the relative lack of action compared to other inferior sports that feature boring concepts like contact, possession changes, and continuous running, baseball managers infuse their meltdowns with an epic level of buffoonery. Infamous minor league meltdowns by Phillip Wellman and the baseballically named Joe Mikulik are what happens in a sport where managers can clumsily charge the field to register their disgust and umpires can toss players with gestures that would be over the top when used by villains in gladiator movies. There's a quixotic grace to the baseball manager attempting to protect players from questionable calls and defend their honor against the opposition, then men in blue, and the dastardly Philly Phanatic.


It is difficult for Cubs fans to get too excited about this year's season after last year's disappointment and few predicting a playoff berth for the Cubs. The NL Central is expected to be dominated by the hated Cardinals, who are difficult to despise with an affable superstar, a group of generally bland players, and a Molina brother. Fortunately, fans can dependably direct their ire against Tony La Russa, who never seemed to disagree with his genius label, best described by the opening to this story by Joe Posnanski from Spring Training in 2009:
La Russa has been the Mozart of overmanagers. There has never been an eighth inning he could not grind into the ground with an endless series of gratuitous pitching changes. There has never been a lineup good enough for La Russa*, and he will use pinch hitters no matter the score. He loves the bunt beyond all reason. He moves runners on the pitch more than any other manager in the game. He likes to say that players win games, but he manages those players like he's their puppeteer.

La Russa in dugout repose

La Russa is a mass of contradictions. He plays up baseball's cerebral elements in a sport fueled by dopiness as evidenced by the prevalence of chin beards, the rather astounding collection of injuries, and the involvement of Jose Canseco, who was transported to and from games via circus train (my favorite injury example is the Jeff Kent truck washing incident, not because the injury itself was anything more fool-hardy than one could expect from other sports, but it's an example of double dopiness where the best excuse he could find for himself involved washing a truck and because no one was nonplussed that a baseball player would be injured while engaged in truck washing. Baseball players have a remarkable relationship to vehicles-- of the myriad tragic deaths that have killed athletes, only baseball has a player who died in a dune buggy accident.)

Roy Oswalt has no chance; that bulldozer is
skulking around his property like claw-wielding

La Russa simultaneously represents the scientific method and feudal concepts of honor. He rationalizes his pitcher use and player substitutions, but he adheres to a complex and ancient
code of honor in pitcher retaliation. This article by King Kaufman for Salon.com looking at Three Nights in August the Buzz Bissinger hagiography of La Russa makes it seem as though La Russa orders a ball throw at Luis Gonzalez only because his henchmen don't have access to a horse's head on the road. Compare that with how Tommy Lasorda manager uses mathematics to trump retaliation:
I have never, ever since I've managed, ever told a pitcher to throw at anybody, nor will I ever. And if I ever did, I certainly wouldn't make them throw at a fucking .130 hitter like [Joe] Lefebvre...or fucking [Kurt] Bevacqua who couldn't hit water if he fell out of a fucking boat. And I guaran-fucking-tee you this, that when I pitched and I was gonna pitch against a fucking team that had guys on it like Bevacqua, I'd send a fucking limousine to get the cocksucker to make sure he was in the motherfucking lineup because I'd kick that cocksucker's ass any fucking day of the week.
The thing that really ties that Lasorda rant together is the fact that he's railing against someone named Kurt Bevacqua, a shitty ballplayer name that could not be dreamed up in the laudanum haze of a thousand baseball poets.

Bring Your Champions, They're Our Meat will return in May.

Monday, March 15, 2010

NIT Bound

Somehow it all came together. It may have taken a train full of spices from the Orient or an incriminating photo of a selection committee member performing deviant sexual acts on illegally harvested organs filled with narcotics and pirated intellectual property or the use of psychotropic drugs and Air Willie or maybe even a combination of all three involving Air Willie illegally harvesting organs while secreting illegal narcotics through its porous plastic tongue and blaring a bootleg Time records-- regardless of how it happened, the Wildcats are in the NIT.

A look at Northwestern's NIT credentials

They face off Wednesday against Rhode Island in their second consecutive NIT road game after last year's dispiriting loss to Tulsa. Northwestern joins fellow Big Tenners the Illinois in the tournament; it also has a chance to potentially avenge itself in Madison Square Garden against the Golden Hurricane and jump-start a rivalry (the only thing more satisfying than a trip to the NCAAA Tournament is surely a fierce annual showdown with Tulsa in the NIT) and is set up for a potential Northwestern-Northeastern game that has fans ordinal directions leaping out of their prescription loafers. Despite disappointment at coming up short of that elusive NCAA bid, Northwestern fans can savor at least one more opportunity to celebrate an improbably exciting season in a tournament where the teams are not expected to show up with their own basketballs, sweat mops, and 24 second clocks, officials, and 2 Unlimited CDs.


No matter how a president is captured, be it a candid photograph, heroic oil painting, or lithographed into a terrifying bejowelled lion/president hybrid that would haunt the nightmares of Skip Myslenski, each only gets one chance to have an official portrait. By custom, presidential portraits are presented after a president gets to leave an imprint on the country, ideally leaving a sort of idiosyncratic footnote to his administration.

For such a tradition, the presidential portraits showcase a surprising amount of variety of poses, props, expressions, and styles. More importantly, they force a decision about which president looks like your favorite Dracula.

Official BYCTOM president to Dracula conversion chart

A common early style focused more on the president's head before shifting to more dynamic scenes that could show the president interacting with bundles of paper or in the vicinity of a globe.

Early portraits focused on the president's expression. To the left, James
Madison gives his best "how are you gentleman" face most commonly
used to demand from some defunct international body like the League
of Augsberg a sum of silver ducats and the Duchy of Warsaw
lest he destroy Europe with the early moderm equivalent of a space
laser which I guess would be a giant wooden rod painted red, whereas
James Monroe demonstrates the sonic power of his stereo equipment

Of all of the many showcasing the standing around with bits of paper motif, none is better than John Tyler, who decided that his legacy is best described as distraught newspaper crumpling.

Tyler looks like he just saw William
Henry Harrison drift ghoulishly into
the Oval Office to punish Tyler for his
coat-disparaging taunts

Washington and Taylor are the only armed presidents, although Washington looks far more prepared to use his sword as he gestures peevishly at some unseen man from Porlock. Other presidents chose to go outside, such as Truman enjoying some sort of veranda and McKinley, demonstrating a high-pressure front moving in on Receda and urging citizens to get out their galoshes in this time of national crisis.

Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur demonstrate the importance of
a dramatic setting, whether it is the middle of the apocalypse or in a
Scarface mansion filled built on a sound combination of pimping and

The whole spread of portraits are available here, along with some helpful anecdotes about why Theodore Roosevelt seems even more pugilistic than normal, although it leaves as a riddle why Buchanan has the only round portrait, why Grover Cleveland did not get two non-consecutive portraits done, and how Taft's portrait artist was left with no choice but to lapse into Impressionism.


Although the NIT is not necessarily a springboard to Big Ten domination in the next season, it is hard to imagine that the success in this tournament will not help build confidence for next year. Though the Wildcats lose Nash, the heart and soul of the Northwestern defense, the experience gained by "Juice" Thompson, Drew Crawford, and the inevitable merging of Shurna and Coble into a spindly mass of limbs that will act as some sort of Vishnu of offensive production builds up expectations for next year. But with the unpredictability of injuries, the grind of a tough Big Ten season, and the fact that Northwestern's basketball team plays for Northwestern, it is best to enjoy the fact that, like the football team, Northwestern is establishing the post-season of any sort as an attainable goal and something to build on for the endless array of next years in the program's future until the Rutherford B. Hayes Apocalypse.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Madness of March III

For Northwestern, NCAA Tournament hopes are unnatural, so it was somewhat surprising to see them galvanized into a living, lurching, monosyllabic monster wreaking havoc against non-conference opponents only to be inevitably caught and subdued by the angry, torch-wielding Big Ten teams. Which is why it was suddenly shocking that Northwestern went from an NCAA bubble hopeful to a team that needed a win over Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament in order to salvage a shot at an NIT berth. This is partly because the NIT is run by a group of fatcats who enjoy dangling prestigious and lucrative NIT spots to athletic directors and no one knows their selection criteria as they walk into an arena knowing that all eyes are on them with their shiny spats and their suspenders, and their gilded canes "you play your cards right, we might have room for you on ESPNU," they say, hooking their thumbs in their suspenders, "heck maybe you can even play at home, get yourself a couple postseason victories, maybe a big ol' banner for those rafters you got there. Be a mighty shame to sit home and watch the NIT on television, yes sir," before laying a meaty paw on a shoulder in an uncomfortable display of false bonhomie and whisking away to a private rail-way car on the Union Pacific that reeks of cigars and broken dreams.

We all enjoy disparaging the NIT and even suggesting ways to spruce it up by playing it in a single day until a team either wins the tournament or fires Richard Dawson into a subterranean billboard, but the NIT is far better than the any alternative. Missing the NIT would qualify Northwestern for a a variety of quasi-underground basketball tournaments such as the CBI and the CIT, which share a bill with the World Series of Cockfighting and some guy in the corner playing a saw.

Oregon State defeats Tulsa in last season's CBI with a strong
showing in the basketball, pie-eating, and mutton-bustin'


Last month was the NBA trading deadline which is the second greatest trading deadline in professional sports. Baseball, of course, has the superior deadline because of the delayed gratification that occurs when some journeyman relief pitcher is offloaded for some minor league offal that might miraculously turn out to be some sort of Roy Hobbsian phenom in a few years. There's nothing more exciting than the mysterious player to be named later who is always somebody that no one, not even the type of scouts that are so grizzled that they actually sleep in a cocoon of tobacco juice and pine tar, have ever heard of. Unfortunately, as the information age has made it possible to instantaneously find someone who has an opinion on pretty much any minor league player that is not an organizational position coach who says things like "he's a good kid, live arm, needs to get that fastball down a little" even while choking to death on a mouthful of sunflower seeds, that random spark of hope dies a little.

NBA trades are great not because of the players actually involved but because the whole system is so convoluted and filled with arcane and mystifying rules that are mainly about shuffling around a proud fraternity of crappy players like the status of Poland at any international treaty negotiation. I enjoy any sport that encourages stockpiling as many overpaid bench-warmers as possible in order to look forward to not paying them, or trading them to other teams that are equally determined to stop paying them in the near future. And despite all of the bizarre baseball rules such as the Rule 5 draft (there's a great post on the Rule 5 draft at Joe Posnanski's blog, the only sportswriter who has published a poem about Kyle Farnsworth in a place other than the walls of a creepy apartment), sandwich picks, and the like, the NBA collective bargaining agreement is so byzantine that the only person who seems to have mastered it is a computer programmer who splits his spare time between his CBA expertise and his Tom Skerritt lookalike society.

The NBA CBA has a little known "Gooden Clause" where Gooden can be
traded to any team regardless of salary cap implications in an effort to get
him on all thirty NBA teams before he eventually becomes more than fifteen
percent beard. While searching for a beard worthy of comparison to Gooden's,
I came across Zach Wilcox, who might qualify for the world's most grizzled
obituary as it contains the phrases "did a great deal of prospecting," "with a
pet parrot seated on the handlebars," and "was called the 'crown prince' of
whiskered gentlemen;" being singled out for having a crazy beard as a civil
war veteran is an astounding achievement in and of itself. My favorite part
about the obituary, however, is the theories about why he grew his beard.
One is that he lost an election bet. The superior theory offered by the article,
however is "exasperated by a dull razor he vowed never to shave again" which
is what I want written on my tombstone

Under these complex machinations, Gar Forman traded away $5.8 million worth of John Salmons for a number of other contracts connected to basketball players, none of whom the Bulls are interested for their ability to play basketball, with the possible exception of future Slamball champion Joe Alexander.

I demand a rule that anyone who wins a Slamball championship
gets to change their name permanently to something Slamball
related such as Titus Slamballicus


The margins of professional sports are filled with athletes that cannot quite measure up to the standards of their leagues, much like Zack Wilcox's beard could not quite measure up to a man in the Dakotas who had one seventeen feet long which I think is ridiculous as no crazy facial hair should be able to reside in a separate room from its wearer. That is why today BYCTOM pays tribute to Lenny Harris, Major League Baseball's Pinch Hit King. In 2001, Lenny Harris replaced Manny Mota as the all-time leader in pinch hits, the same way Mota would regularly replace Pedro Borbón.

Baseball's Pinch Hit Kings in Game Action

Harris's record is one of the most difficult records to reproduce in sports. It required a delicate balancing act of not being quite good enough to play every day, and yet never becoming lousy enough to get sent down to the minors. In an eighteen year career, Harris only garnered more than 400 plate appearances twice, never hit double digit home runs, and achieved a league average OPS+ four times. By 1993, his hands gripped sunflower seeds more than bats and was more likely to slap another player a high five than an opposite field line drive. Yet, Lenny Harris endured. He even has a ring, after being fortuitously traded from the Cubs to the Marlins in 2003, although angry Cub fans can't hold a grudge against him since he only played in Marlins losses and did not get a hit in that series. No one will build a statue of Lenny Harris. No player will ever enter the Big Leagues wanting to break Harris's record. But then again, there's always a longer beard out there somewhere.


Northwestern is of course not out of the NCAA tournament yet. A win in the Big Ten tournament earns an automatic berth to the Dance. Even so, a loss to Purdue on Friday still keeps the 'Cats in good position for the NIT and a lock for one its fly-by-nite freakshow offspring. But if the NIT should prove treacherous, Northwestern shouldn't fall for the CBI's extortion racket. Instead, it should form the rival Northwestern Postseason Tournament of Championship in which qualification is based on the following criteria: being Northwestern, or being a woeful team that Northwestern could almost certainly beat in a sparsely attended, lackluster home game including teams not sanctioned by the NCAA like the Washington Generals, the DePaul Blue Demons, and Fat Albert's Junkyard Gang. The winner of the tournament gets an attractive postcard, two giant foam Wildcat hats for casual and formal occasions, and a tearful One Shining Moment montage of people being embarrassed. That will show the NIT.