Friday, October 14, 2016

Week 7: On Sports Bullshit

The Wildcats return with an extra week to luxuriate in their upset over Iowa and try to carry the momentum toward a bowl berth.  For that, they'll need six wins or five wins and a desperate hope that the exponential increase in shitty bowl games outpaces the number of 6-6 teams and they triumphantly ride into the Famous Potato Bowl. 

No team should be ashamed of taking a five-win Bowl Berth nor 
participating in any sub-NIT basketball tournaments or any other 
postseason tournament so bereft of prestige that it serves as the undercard 
to a mutton busting tournament to get spectators excited about seeing 
children whaled upon by rampaging sheep  

Northwestern hopes to bring the quarterback pressure and offensive spark from the Iowa game to bear on a reeling Michigan State team.  The Spartans have lost three in a row, including last week's 31-14 mauling at the hands of BYU.  They come off a Big Ten championship season, but now stand at 2-3 and have yet to play Big Ten bullies Michigan and Ohio State.  A do-or-die game against a potentially feisty Northwestern team is not what Michigan State fans signed up for this season.  They too are down in the muck fighting for their bowl lives.

The Spartans' troubles this season have matched Northwestern's.  They have trouble moving the ball. Their defensive line has had trouble getting to the quarterback, much like Northwestern until Ifeadi Odenigbo wreaked havoc against Iowa.  Unlike Northwestern, they have become mired in a quarterback controversy, while the 'Cats are coming off of Thorson's best game.  Michigan State fans, as far as I can tell from a brief foray around the internet, have reached a terrifying state of Big Ten depression where they actually believe it is possible to lose to Northwestern in a sanctioned football game.

Faces of the Big Ten

This game has all the makings of a classic Big Ten punt-fest that deteriorates into punting on every down: pooch punts, rugby-style punts, fake punts that turn out to be actual punts, fake field goals turning into punts, flea-flicker punts that involve Hunter Niswander split wide and blasting the ball into the coffin corner after three or four reverses while delighted fans of both teams sing their punt songs into the crisp October air.  

On the one hand, Michigan State has great players from last year's championship team floating around, most notably Malik McDowell.  They desperately need this game to staunch the entire program to be engulfed in panic and they should have a robust homecoming crowd because Big Ten teams only bought Northwestern-related homecoming decorations in the 1970s and state legislatures have been unwilling to release funds to decorate against another opponent.  On the other hand, this is a knock-down drag-out fight for the right to desperately try to fend off Purdue for a slot at the Seasonal Mall Merchandise Store Discount Gorilla Mask Bowl.  Michigan States's players were brought in for Big Ten championships, but this is what Northwestern was built for.


There are ways rational and normal people enjoy the baseball playoffs by analyzing matchups and numbers and getting angry at relief pitchers and there are ways that Cubs catastrophists prepare for the postseason which is to cast oracle bones and devine the most devastating mode of disappointment.  One would think that the Cubs had defied the most ardent depressives by steamrolling through the regular season and handing the Giants an 0-2 hole, but the shamans of baseball misery all knew that this is where San Francisco reforms from a liquid puddle and reassembles into a baseball terminator.

Anything can happen in baseball games, especially in playoff games between very good teams in tiny sample sizes.  Every team that wins the World Series has its share of walkoffs, bloops, and craziness blown up in the mythology of what that old poet Dane Cook reminded us is October.  Most people can accept this.  Yet in baseball there is a split between the even-keeled baseball analysts who know the wisdom gleaned from their carefully sorted VORPs can erode in the playoffs and those who treat the playoffs like a Baseball Fortean Society, and the San Francisco Giants have been their mascot.

The main reason for the Giants' success is their extremely good players: all-everything catcher Buster Posey, twitchy human Q-tip Hunter Pence, and the unflappable lefty Madison Bumgarner who practically willed them to victory in 2014.  Even-Year Bullshit, however, doesn't come from superstars but from incredibly unlikely players like Cody Ross and Travis Ishikawa who hit memorable home runs and then immediately vanished into the baseball ether as if they never existed.  This year, the Giants had Conor Gillaspie, a player who spent several seasons on the White Sox as a science experiment to determine what baseball would be like if you tried to hit with a tennis racket and then in the playoffs emerged from the Bay like a baseball Godzilla to swat baseballs around the park like the ineffective military hardware that governments continually use to attack it despite decades of peer-reviewed Godzilla science that conclusively demonstrates their impotence against Godzillas, Moth Men, alien spaceships, and Kings Kong.

Illustration from "General, Enough With the Tanks," 
Journal of Convincing People About Space Lasers
v. 25 n. 6, p. 2234.

When the Cubs suffered a requisite bullpen meltdown in a potentially clinching Game 3 at the hands of Gillaspie (his inhuman, irradiated cries echoing through the park as he spit crushed BART cars from his cheeks), the Even Year narrative gained steam.  The Cubs went into a potentially series-clinching game up 2-1 against a team that led against them for something like two innings the whole series and yet it seemed like the Giants would reach for their playoff magic and somehow generate obscure baseball players with sub-.600 OPSes to send the game back to Wrigley Field under a palpable cloud of baseball neurosis.

That nearly happened.  The odds of coming back from a three-run deficit in the ninth inning are astronomical.  And, though the Cubs are a great baseball team and the Giants sport a historically bad bullpen, the series seemed twisted towards them.  Then the Cubs rallied and the Giants sent up pitcher after pitcher to fail to get them out in an assembly line of baseball incompetence.  Then the bullshit mojo pendulum swung and suddenly it was the Cubs benefiting from uncharacteristic errors and putting together a historic rally and winning the series in defiance of every narrative of superstition and omen that the baseball's most strident mumbo-jumboists could throw at them.

What remains is baseball.  The Cubs still have a series against a very good Dodgers team that has the best pitcher on the face of the Earth.  It is very possible that the Cubs get steamrolled or lose in a ludicrous series of events that involves birds or blimp interference or a Jon Lester throwing error that knocks out a bullpen catcher and sparks a massive brawl with sunflower seed buckets and gatorade canisters fashioned into makeshift barricades. 

All of these wagon wheels and muskets are still in use by the grounds 
crew at Historic Wrigley Field

But the defeat of Even Year Bullshit has, for me, at least, held the goofy baseball fatalism in check. The Cubs are as good as anyone and seem like they'll be contenders for awhile.  And should they fall apart this year in a particularly heartbreaking way, then we can all manufacture the Curse of Rich Hill and sell merchandise to the type of people who buy goat masks and L flags.


Few Northwestern fans would have guessed the looming road showdown with Michigan State would seem to be a more winnable game than a home test against the suddenly impassible Indiana defense or that the Spartans would be desperate to fight off Northwestern.  Perhaps Michigan State will find its form and take out a season's worth of frustrations against the Wildcats.  Or maybe Northwestern can strike early and suck the air out of Spartan Stadium as the fans tighten up in anticipation of more disappointment.  If they need some discouragement, I have some portents, curses, and general Sports Hokum that I'm not using anymore. 

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