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'
REANIMATING DECEASED SPORTS STORIES
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
BASEBALL'S UNBREAKABLE RECORD
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.
MAKING THE POSTSEASON SAFE FOR DEMOCRACY
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.