Friday, March 31, 2017


Those maniacs did it.  And now, after more than a century of ineptitude, a litany of specific playoff humiliations, an angry, mustard-flecked mob that has driven a nebbishy-looking baseball fan to the underground, an intentional reduction of the team to baseball molecules where fans were invited to pay exorbitant prices to watch Junior Lake strike out hundreds of times, and a mythical World Series run that involved the Rebirth of That Beefy Lad Kyle Schwarber from a sausage chrysalis and an impossible Game Seven where the Cubs, in prime Cub position and ready to implode in front of the only other team that can live in their baseball misery zip code had the heavens themselves open up and refuse to allow the Cubs to do what I had predicted they would do for hours in a number of increasingly frenzied and embarrassing text messages.  They won. They had the parade and everything.  And then baseball had to go and continue to exist.

What happens now?  There are rapacious Baseball Alexanders and Yankees fans for whom a single title is not enough and demand them with their unrelenting bobbling the ball gestures while a large, angry man screams fuck you fuck you fuck you behind them.  Sure, the Cubs should be really good this season.  They've got as good of a shot as anyone.  But after a postseason where every single pitch carried with it the portent of doom, where the echo of death so shrouded the team that Wrigley Field itself was turned into an impromptu chalk memorial for fallen Cubs fans unable to wait out a championship drought literally decades longer than the entire existence of the Soviet Union, it's hard to be upset when John Lackey gets knocked around in the 2017 Division Series.

The Cubs have long made hay from romanticizing their failure.  But there's no nobility in watching a profoundly wretched baseball team.  If there's anything that can be taken from the Cubs' century of failure it's that it was incredibly funny-- a wealthy team, boasting a national fanbase from early cable television, bolstered by a charming historical ballpark teeming with tourists indifferent to the often putrid play on the field manages only to perpetuate a remarkable run of baseball ineptitude where the team's rare appearances in the playoffs more often than not culminate in grandiose, impossible choke jobs and then everyone blames the whole thing on a literal goat. 

One of the dumbest legacies of the contrived billy goat curse is 
the fact that the goat was ever there in the first place. It should 
have been called the "curse of the reasonable stadium barnyard 
animal policy"

The 2017 Cubs face an impossible task of following up last season.  They face another long, grinding schedule, a host of reinforced rivals, and the unhinged lunacy of playoff bullshit that has made it rare for teams to repeat as champions.  And they do so after getting over America's greatest sports hump and in the face of inevitable backlash and overexposure that has already involved an absurd article naming Theo Epstein the world's greatest leader and David Ross dueling Mr. T on some sort of geriatric dancing program.

Mr. T is no stranger to televised competition, as 
shown by his entry in the Toughest Man In The 
World contest in the film The Toughest Man 
in the World where he plays the Toughest 
Man in the World, a bouncer who according to 
IMDB was "conned into taking over a youth 
center" also Mr. T performed the theme song 
called The Toughest Man In The World

The 2017 Cubs will not be able to break the longest championship drought in American sports, inspire a montage of crying grandmothers, or feature World Series games that start with ten minutes of Joe Buck cackling over footage of crypts and graveyards.  They will merely be an excellent baseball team, and watching them will still be the same pleasant waste of time that comes from watching any other baseball.  And from a person who wasted hundreds of hours citing Jake Fox's AAA numbers and watching Tony Campana desperately attempt to reach first base more than once a week, it's a welcome change.


The Cubs, fueled by their young bats, bring back the vast majority of last year's team.  They still have Rizzo and Bryant and Russell in their infield along with World Series MVP Ben Zobrist.  They can, at any time and without warning, deploy Javier Baez, who was scientifically designed to always do the most delightfully reckless thing possible on a baseball field. Baez will take extra bases and try insane, physics-defying slides.  He will always make that ill-advised throw or barehand play and somehow make it work a shocking number of times.  He is incredibly good at tagging, which I had no idea was something someone could be good at.  He will try to hit every ball he sees into the Upper Peninsula enough times that baseball's cold water pouring statistics brigade can toss out their well actually Javy Baez is not really that great of a baseball player articles because he strikes out so much that he might qualify for a federal wind farm tax break to which I say to this straw man have you seen him do the no-look tag.

Baseball's greatest feat of derring-do

At some point, it is possible the Baez magic will wear off.  Baez gained a cult following because of his playoff hot streak, most notably his solo, game-winning home run against a seemingly-unhittable Johnny Cueto at Wrigley, but that's not his typical hitting profile. He will likely remain frustrated by his greatest nemesis, the breaking ball so far outside that it's practically in the on-deck circle that nevertheless compels him to swing.  I'm willing to live with that.  Baez dwells in baseball chaos, and if his irrepressible desire to do the coolest thing possible turns him into an Infield Kingman, that's all well and good.

The Cubs will not have my other favorite player from the Cubs farm system, Jorge Soler. They traded Soler to the Royals for closer Wade Davis.  Soler, along with Baez, embodied the era of Shadow Cubs, where tales of their feats against hapless future insurance adjustors served as the happy counterpoint to whatever sad spectacle was happening to the actual Cubs on a daily basis.   Baez had footage of moon tower home runs; Soler came with reports of attempting to singlehandedly charge an entire opposing dugout.  Soler arrived on a tear in 2014 with a homer in his first at-bat, and the rhapsodies continued from there.  Joe Maddon referred to him as "like Vladimir [Guerrero] with plate discipline;" this came coupled with some delightful Maddon nonsense. "The fact that he doesn't really understand or speak English very well could work in his favor right now," Maddon said, Maddonically. "He's a beautiful man. I really, really enjoy the way he is."

Soler instead had trouble with plate discipline and spent a large amount of time lingering on the disabled list.  His greatest asset, to me, was his greatest drawback-- the fact that he is built like the Colossus of Rhodes and it seems stunning when he doesn't launch every single pitch back to the nearest Spaulding manufacturing plant as a warning to future baseballs. To watch Soler hulk in the batter's box, his ominous shadow lurking towards the dugout in the afternoon sun and then whiff feebly on the low and outside slider that we all knew was coming or stab ineffectively at balls in the outfield, or spend all of his free time nursing soft-tissue injuries made his struggles as a kind of OK baseball player harder to take.  Soler is still only 25 and escaped from an impossible logjam of prospect prodigies that have passed him by.  I hope he can put it together and mash some enormous moonshots out of Kaufman Field when he gets healthy.  He'll begin the season on the disabled list.

Farewell to Jorge Soler, whose throw to third after a league-wide shame campaign peer-pressured
Jon Lester into throwing to first is one of my favorite recent Cubs plays

The Cubs' most damaging departure is Dexter Fowler.  Fowler came in and did what almost no Cub did during Theo Epstein's years-long purge of competent baseball players for rebuilding purposes by getting on base a ton.  He became so integral to the Cubs' offense that he got his own catchphrase ("you go, we go"), and became one of the most likable Cubs of my lifetime.  Last year, Fowler had apparently signed with the Orioles and then dramatically popped up in Cubs' spring training to save the day. Now he is gone-- not safely ensconced in the American League, but on the hated Cardinals to torture the Cubs 19 times a season.  It's a testament to Fowler's popularity and the general, hazy euphoria that now accompanies all things Cub, that few Cubs fans harbor any hostility toward him (most of the Fowler TRADER references I could find on twitter were either sarcastic or referencing what appears to be a British soap opera), but we'll see how that progresses when he starts slapping hits all over Wrigley Field the Right Way in a pennant race.

The 2016 Cubs hit and pitched well, but they also owed their success to a historically great defense. They will certainly not be that good again partly because that sort of blip is unsustainable, but also because they will start a lumbering moose in left field.  Kyle Schwarber may be the most popular Cub because of his world series heroics, his propensity for mashing enormous home runs, and because he is a beefy, genial man in a city of genial, beefy people.  The question is not whether Schwarber can acquit himself well in left, but it's how much his prodigious bat can offset his oafish outfield stumbling and occasional inevitably-disastrous catching cameos.  As long as he is a Cub, loud, nasal calls will echo across sports radio for him to be traded to the American League, where he can whack moonshots in peace without having to ineffectually flail at baseballs in front of the entire country on a nightly basis.  That is unfathomable to me. 

Jason Heyward remains a mystery.  Heyward, last year's prized free agent signing, spent last season futilely gesturing with his bat in the general direction of a pitch and hit something like 15,000 soft grounders directly at the second baseman.  Still, he remained a valuable fielder and baserunner, and evidently a master of locker room rain delay oratory as evidenced by his World Series rain delay speech the Cleveland Urinal Address. Heyward's batting woes remain a fascinating look at how, even for an athlete as gifted as Heyward, his mind can be at war with his body.  His every plate appearance featured a series of ticks and timing gestures of a guy who floundered and kept adding mechanisms and hitches to the point that his swing resembled a Rube Goldberg machine of limbs and tendonsThis offseason, he has gone on a baseball vision quest to try to find a new swing, tinkering for months until he came up with something that has been roughly as terrible in spring training than whatever he was doing last year. 
Heyward's swing enters its Mark IV prototype phase using top baseball science  

The Cubs have an old, creaking pitching staff.  They have inexplicable ERA leader Kyle Hendricks, who somehow dominated Major League players with an 88 mile per hour fastball and a mound presence that can best be described as impending visit with the vice principal.  Every one of Hendricks's pitches last season felt like watching an increasingly elaborate con, waiting for someone somewhere to figure out that he was not throwing hard and exposing the ruse with a series of blistering line drives.  Baseball analysts don't know what to do with a guy like him. especially when he looks like a social media intern.  They give them nicknames like "The Professor" or "Dr. Brainzo" or "Chest Concave, Doctor of Baseball Flim-Flammery" while he beguiles people by winning the pennant and the World Series.  I have no idea if Hendricks will continue to contend for a Cy Young this season, but his mere existence in a baseball system that demands nothing but musclebound giants who break radar guns is a minor miracle.

Kyle Hendricks's theme music is "Sweet Emotion" 

There are few things in baseball less fun than rooting for a team with John Lackey.  Lackey, a grizzled, anthropomorphic swear word, has managed to gnaw his leg off from whatever bear trap that's ensnared him for the offseason and crawled into another spring training.  Lackey started off as a fat young guy who bellowed the word FUCK and has evolved his game to become a skinny old guy who yells FUUUCCCCKKK while hitting himself in the head with a baseball.  He's a mean ol' cuss who not only throws at guys who have the temerity to smile after hitting one his ineffective fastballs to Tucumcari, but stalks them in the offseason while doing pullups with the words "BAT FLIP" tattooed on his knuckles. Lackey was a good pitcher last year during the regular season and a not insubstantial part of their success, but he's also the least enjoyable Cub whose starts promise hours of peevish irascibility seethed through clenched, enormous teeth.

Jon Lester was great last season.  He does not throw to first.

Leaked footage of Joe Buck's intro to the Cubs-Cardinals game


I didn't think I'd ever see the Cubs win the World Series or Northwestern play in the NCAA Tournament, and they both happened within months.  I would say that this will change how I view sports, but then again the vast majority of teams don't carry with them impossibly long, mythical droughts that make it impossible to watch them on television without a graphic showing the price of bread and at least one old-timey vehicle.  

Here's an Old-Timey Base Ball Image to remind you of the many years that the Cubs 
afflicted their Fans with Substandard Base Ball-manship

The end of these absurd droughts has taken away single dominant narrative that surrounds everything they do.  It has also liberated them to exist as sports and not, in the case of the Cubs, a vaguely baseball-related doomsday cult.  The Cubs' 2017 season has no end other than baseball itself.  There will be questions about Jason Heyward's revamped swing whether Baez should be starting and whether Willson Contreras can catch Jon Lester.  These are normal baseball concerns, not a haunting Joe Buckmanship or invocation of the occult. 

No one wants to hear about long-suffering Cubs fans anymoreThe television networks and newspapers and, hell, even the Cubs themselves hauled it out to make their dollar and bludgeon every other baseball fan into oblivion with it every time the Cubs so much as threatened to finish over .500 for as long as anyone has been alive.  The baseball world has had enough of them and the inevitable Red Sox-like descent into sports villainy will begin on Opening Day.  That is when the World Champion Cubs will open on Sunday to defend their World Championship that they won in the World Series. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

NCAA Tournament Review: Five Stars, Would Dance Again

The lingering image of Northwestern's second NCAA Tournament game will forever be a hand reaching up from below the basket in a swashbuckling act of goaltending, Chris Collins's berserker rage and then series of press conference De Niro faces. 

These are silent film-caliber facial expressions

The controversy, though, followed a spirited second-half comeback after the Wildcats had been completely outclassed to begin the game. The first half started as all analysts had predicted: Northwestern couldn't stop Gonzaga's Nigel Williams-Goss, and the Gonzaga defense stifled Northwestern as the Bulldogs brought all of their KenPoms to bear against an overmatched Northwestern team.  Northwestern had managed to keep Gonzaga's enormous center Przmek Karnowski from rampaging against them, although he seemed primed to take over at any time with an array of nineteenth-century weightlifting maneuvers.

Karnowski's landmark case against the NCAA to allow him to wear a 
single-strap basketball jersey enters its fifth year

Northwestern's run had appeared to come to an end. The parade of ridiculous finishes and good feelings that began with Dererk Pardon's game-winning layup, continued through the NCAA selection show broadcast and the twitter feeds of approximately 75% of ESPN's Department of Sports Yelling, and climaxed with an insane and emotional win over Vanderbilt that hinged on an avant-garde dance piece subverting our hidebound, bourgeois notions of late-game fouling situations, finally ran into a top-tier opponent, effortlessly clobbering the Wildcats en route to the Sweet Sixteen. 
But then, as the game deepened into the second half, Gonzaga's lead began to shrink. The threes that bounced off the rim in the first half began going down, Gonzaga possessions ended on bricks and turnovers, Vic Law threw down a putback dunk, and all of a sudden the Wildcats found themselves in striking distance. 
I don't know enough about Gonzaga to know if its fans have developed insane curses and instinctive senses warning of impending catastrophe, but Northwestern's comeback began to take on that feeling. For all of Gonzaga's basketball heroics in the twenty-first century, they could never manage to break through and make a Final Four, and this team, touted as their best yet, and in a seemingly insurmountable position against a team that had spent the past week telling every single media outlet on the face of the Earth that they were happy to be there began to feel pressure. The contorted, grief-ridden face of Adam Morrison began hovering over Spokane. 
You all know what happened next. 
Dererk Pardon rebounded a Bryant McIntosh floater and a Gonzaga player reached through the basket like a reanimated hand bursting forth from a grave. Chris Collins lost his mind and assailed the referees with a series of misguided vertical karate chops, got a technical foul, and saw the Gonzaga lead balloon to seven.

Collins busts out his signature move, the Muppet Ruiner, where he terrorizes toddlers with
the terrible truth about Elmo

The NCAA Tournament is designed for this: for a team to desperately survive a seemingly endless regular season, endure various bracket-related prediction sorceries, play in a conference tournament for which I have yet to determine a point, and then play in a series of high-stakes win or go home games that all end in errant fouls and missed calls and everyone yelling about them for two weeks until one of the four teams that everyone assumed would win the national championship in October wins the championship. How did we live for so many years without this?


For decades, the single distinguishing fact about Northwestern's basketball team was that it had not made the NCAA Tournament. Every single announcer at every game mentioned it.  Every year, the newspapers printed the same article about how they hadn't made it, to the point where I speculated that the same article got republished over and over again and years after the original author's death.  Every time the Wildcats gained some momentum, the single overarching question about whether it was The Year seemed to hang in the arena, just short of the Athletic Department hanging an "Is This The Year?" banner after a strong round of non-conference games. 

For Northwestern, One More Year (That's [obscene number] Straight) Without a Bid
By [Change to Guy Who's Alive]

The pressure on the team must have been enormous.  Collins and the Athletic Department leaned into it by adopting the slogan "it's time", a message that for normal people signaled the goal of reaching the Tournament, but to my mind, poisoned by unfathomable wasted hours caring about college sports on the internet, will forever be linked to a video entitled "BigVOLdaddy pisses on kiffin shirt." Collins also adopted the hashtaggable homily "pound the rock" about Northwestern's slow and steady attempt to make the Tournament in contrast to its previous slogan "push the rock up the hill for dozens and dozens of years only to have Jared Sullinger grab it and roll it right down upon you and your loved ones."

The qualification procedure for the NCAA Tournament in the Big Ten remains an arduous and impossible slog.  There are top-tier teams waiting to clobber all opposition, and the seemingly easier games against weaker opponents only provide opportunities for devastating, bracket-killing losses, and it seems like there are fifteen of these games a week. Every time Northwestern stepped up with a big win over a top opponent, the University of Illinois would crawl up from the bottom of the standings to drag Northwestern back to the NIT in a grotesque, carnivalesque parody of the relationship between the Northwestern and Illinois basketball programs. It makes sense that it took an absurd miracle play to finally convince me that they would make it; it wasn't until the Wildcats were in the middle of their 31-0 rampage against Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament that I had fully convinced myself that they were safe, that a tough Rutgers team wouldn't bludgeon them in the tournament and then hack their own computers to add in fictional losses to dental colleges and New York-area improv comedy schools to destroy their own RPI ratings and keep Northwestern out of the tournament, thus preventing the Scarlet Knights from owning the longest power conference tourney drought.

Rutgers AD Patrick Hobbs chugs a beer and announces that Rutgers is 
forfeiting all of its wins out of spite and then puts an incredulous Jim Delany 
in a series of wrestling holds

Northwestern's basketball season came wrapped in novelty.  The quest for the first tournament bid brought out a rare, raucous atmosphere at Welsh-Ryan-- the arena sold out and the team played primarily for home fans.  No one knows whether they'll be able to carry that energy over to the Allstate Arena next season which, as Wikipedia notes "was featured in many music videos, including the 1985 music video 'Big City Nights' by Scorpions" but "has yet to host a Royal Rumble."

Northwestern's success also brought out scandal and backlash.  The entire season played out over a lawsuit by a former player alleging he was forced off the team.  Northwestern's large and loud network of media alums, particularly in sports, took to the airwaves and began going door-to-door yelling at people about the tournament.  CBS's cameras focused so much on Doug Collins and Julia Louis-Dreyfus that I'm not sure that Louis-Dreyfus didn't start closing out Vanderbilt shooters in the second half.  The Wildcats learned that if they want to do the the hire the Duke coach and Duke up the program dance they are going to have to pay the piper.


The excitement and relief of Northwestern's actual qualification for the tournament took the terror out of most of the games.  The team played in actual NCAA tournament games with the patches on the uniforms and everything.  So it didn't bother me much when Vanderbilt fought back from a large deficit and Northwestern needed a complete breakdown of communication between the Vanderbilt coach and player and an unprecedented bonehead foul to win their first game.
When I tap my belt not once, not twice, but thrice, I mean do not foul him under any 

Similarly, the Gonzaga game registers much less rancor than I'd normally attach to an atrocious referee debacle in the biggest game in the history of Northwestern basketball.  It would have been great to see them in the Sweet 16 or even to lose a game that didn't hinge on a terrible call and the coach sealing their fate by going completely berserk and then making hilarious mime faces after the game.  But it's also hard to get upset that the greatest Northwestern team we've ever seen that did the one thing we all wanted them to do while in the midst of a cacophony of news reporters and TV and alumni and ridiculous bloggers that chronicled their every move for months didn't become slightly greater.    

Northwestern sports are in their golden age.  It is a silly golden age, a pinnacle of winning two mid-tier bowl games and qualifying for a 68-team tournament like literally every single major-conference team in the entirety of college sports, but it is also a golden age of throwing off the last vestiges of Northwestern's sports history of unfathomable acts of futility.  It comes with a price-- the vast and obscene monies that Northwestern will spend on athletic facilities in the coming years to compete in the Big Ten that are large enough to quantify by using the word monies, the questions about how Collins runs the program, and the queasy expectations that come with any sort of success.  For now, though, whenever some announcer wants to dig out some grim statistic about some gruesome Northwestern streak, the answer is probably one year. 

Friday, March 17, 2017


Every other year, that ludicrous 35-foot Vanderbilt three would have gone in.  Or that last second halfcourt heave would have banked high off the backboard and through in a grotesque parody of Northwestern's tournament-saving pass, and the Wildcats' first-ever NCAA Tournament game would go into the giant pile of gut-wrenching blown leads, buzzer-beaters, complete bamboozlement in the face of a press, or times when the games seemed to end with the court itself snaring Northwestern players and dragging them into underground service areas and zamboni antechambers.  Instead, the Wildcats held on, took advantage of the most delightfully ill-conceived foul in the history of college basketball, and booked themselves into a clash with top-seeded Gonzaga because it is 2017 and Northwestern basketball has become immune to even the most obvious and inopportune Northwesterning situations.

There was no panic in this one.  Even as Vanderbilt rained threes upon the Wildcats and the NBA Jam announcer guy elbowed his way through dozens of security guards to try to seize the mic and scream HE'S ON FIRE at America, the comeback didn't hit the impending Northwestern sports catastrophe area of my brain because they had already made the tournament.  The never-ending and at times impossible attempt for them just to get there had already wrung everything out-- a blown tournament game lead has nothing on sweating out a home win against Rutgers under the ever-watchful eye of the Selection Committee. 

The Wildcats welcomed a national audience of people who had never been subjected to Northwestern sports with a traditional game where nothing makes sense and the play-by-play can be just as easily replaced with maniacal cackling; Northwestern games are not watched much as they happen to people.  In the last minute and a half, the two teams swapped leads half a dozen times.  Dererk Pardon iced clutch free throw after clutch free throw.  Then, just as the Commodores managed to grab another lead and Northwestern prepared to set up the inevitable Bryant McIntosh isolation play, Vanderbilt's Matthew Fisher-Davis, possibly subliminally programmed by years of Northwestern alums screaming at him about sports through his television and then activated by seeing Doug Collins's face turn a particular strain of magenta, inexplicably lunged at McIntosh and sent him to the line.

This is the most Dorothea Lange sports photo since the miserable woman clutching her child 
bravely in the face of Browns football

What an absolute bummer for Fisher-Davis, who had heroically shot Vanderbilt back into contention and picked the absolute worst time to blunder-- on the first day of the Tournament, in front of a national TV audience, against a school whose alumni are allowed to crash like an army of Kool-Aid men and women through the walls of ESPN studio shows and bloviate about the Wildcats, and in a situation that features the largest percentage of dudes watching the game who are alarmingly eager to explain to a neophyte why actually it is a bad strategy to foul there.

Northwestern fans showed up at the tournament.  A school that has played the vast majority of its home games in front of jeering visiting fans in their variegated Big Ten hoodies managed to take over Salt Lake City's arena with a raucous purple mob.

I can't see the Salt Lake City arena without immediately humming the bridge for Roundball 
Rock and waiting for Marv Albert to futilely ask whether or not Karl Malone would be able to 
come through in the clutch

The Wildcats' reward for their first win in the NCAA tournament is a dragon from the end of the map.  Tournament mainstay Gonzaga has its own tournament burden because the team has repeatedly fallen victim to disappointing tournament exits.  This year, expectations are at their loftiest.  They've only lost a single game the entire season and they've spent time as the top-ranked team in the nation.  Northwestern managed its top rank of 25 for one week where a panicking Associated Press graphics department was unable to locate a Wildcat logo for their poll.  Gonzaga will be heavily favored and motivated to break their own, much more ambitious barrier and qualify for their first Final Four. 


There's that scene in Moneyball where all the crusty old scouts are sitting around chewing tobacco and they start evaluating talent based on whether a baseball player is handsome.  This is held up as the acme of Old Scout luddism, old leathery men whose decades spent squatting behind radar guns in the sun and shriveling up in budget hotel rooms can be obliterated at once by knowledge of onbase percentage.  Their methods are primitive, outmoded, and absurd and we're supposed to laugh at them and their inability to number-munch. Who thinks like that anymore?  Every day, as I sit around descending into the muck of sports takes on the internet and occasionally get dumb enough to listen to the angry, nasal men of Chicago sports radio it becomes clearer and clearer that the majority of NFL fans judge quarterback play almost exclusively by their face.

Football fans demand square-jawed quarterbacks.  The steely-eyed guy who can look at the huddle and tell his team they are winning the game and also do the same to issue non-answers about getting caught texting pictures of their penis to people.  Sure there are exceptions, but some-- like the Manning Brothers with their grotesque interception faces and Andrew Luck who looks like a spittle-flecked forest troll-- carried such a high pedigree that they were able to blunt criticism immediately. Otherwise, the freak shows like a bloated, waddling JaMarcus Russell or the Super Mario Koopa Troopa lookalike Jimmy Clausen always lead to fans despising them.

Jimmy Clausen takes questions at Halas Hall 

That is, I think, the central problem with Jay Cutler.  Cutler will go down as the Bears' best quarterback they will likely ever have, which honestly says more about the Bears and their moribund quarterback death-spiral than anything about him.  I don't know if I will ever see a more locally despised athlete and it all comes down to his face. Cutler has a leering, scoffing, face, a mug that is so openly contemptuous of everyone and everything around it that he doesn't even seem to have the energy to bother bullying people.  The most popular and possibly apocryphal story about Cutler is that he dealt with a fawning fan in a bathroom by leaning his head back and braying DOOOOOOOOOOOON'T CARE to the ceiling and for most Bears fans, that is how he spent his time in Chicago, leaning his head back in indifference and urinating more or less continuously for eight years.

Bears fans would have been able to forgive Cutler, or at the least watch him while suppressing the apparently universal human urge to strangle him, if he had managed to lead them to a championship. And there were glimmers!  His greatest run to the 2010 NFC Championship Game ended with an injury.  He spend most of his time dealing with incompetent offensive lines and eventually desiccated defenses.  At the same time, Cutler was never good enough to rise beyond the Bears' general, inbred incompetence enabled by a swarm of coaches, coordinators, and nincompoop front office personnel. He threw a ton of interceptions so profoundly dumb that they seemed spiteful.  It didn't help that the Cutler era paired with the rise of Aaron Rodgers, his opposite in every way, who is so infuriatingly good at playing quarterback that he demands only ten functioning human beings to score a zillion touchdowns.

There have been a ton of really shitty Bears quarterbacks, all of whom were way worse than Cutler but are far more fondly remembered because they were scrappy try-hards.  The irony of Cutler is that he was that way on the field, a guy who threw linebackers around with his throwing shoulder, a guy whose greatest weakness came from trying desperately to squeeze a throw into vanishingly tight windows, a guy who got pummeled more or less continuously to the point where the phrase "nine sacks in the fist half" became a reliable Chicago accent shibboleth, yet remains despised because 99 percent of humans who see a picture of his face immediately want to see him karate kicked in the scrotum.

Cutler was also, beyond his face, probably not a pleasant dude.  He constantly feuded with teammates and coaches (my favorite story was an assistant coach under Trestman anonymously shit all over him in the media and then tearfully apologized-- imagine tearfully apologizing to Jay Cutler).  Maybe if he won enough, all that would be forgiven, the way NFL explains away Tom Brady's infantile flag-begging tantrums or the way the Colts allowed Peyton Manning to summon the energy of the sun and blast it into his teammates' skulls through his gigantic, ray-gathering forehead.

The Bears have a new GM and a new coach and the only reason why they didn't build a catapult and fire Cutler into the lake is because of his onerous contract.  Now, they can finally be rid of him and hop back on the never-ending Treadmill of Bears Quarterback Mediocrity.  At his age, and with the completely barren team around him, there was no point in keeping him around.  But I hope, for the Bears' sake, that my theory of quarterback faces isn't true because look what just rolled into town.

The pre-Moneyball face scouting extends beyond quarterbacks.  Cutler's coach for several seasons was Marc Trestman, a guy who looked at all times like he was desperately sprinting after a bus.  In college sports, there's no better example than Tom Crean, who I am convinced could have wathered another down year at Indiana except that fans could not handle his uncanny valley face and weird and unsettling body postures that make him look like an incompetently programmed video game character.


Northwestern is in its golden age of sports.  In a single calendar year, they've won a bowl game and qualified for the NCAA Tournament; these are incredible feats for a school with sports teams unknown except for their prodigious and unfathomable losing streaks.  The Wildcats have even begun to attract a backlash built because sports media alumni have now begun breaking into people's homes and screaming about Northwestern basketball at them in the middle of the night, and the inability of a middle-aged sports reporters to refrain from dropping Seinfeld references.  

Gonzaga will be Northwestern's toughest opponent this season.  They're favored by double-digits and all of the analysts have KenPommed the Wildcats out of the tournament by Saturday night.  But in a year when the Wildcats have already shattered every expectation in the history of the program, why not add in an insane and improbable upset run to the Sweet Sixteen?  After a game when an opponent brutally northwesterned itself in front of a sea of purple, the laws of the universe no longer apply.  

Monday, March 13, 2017


Just a day before the Gumbel Brother put Northwestern on the bracket, Welsh-Ryan exploded in a paroxysm of basketball-related screaming, and the Sports Media Personalities unleashed their unholy torrent of purple-clad selfies, the Wildcats paid tribute to their basketball heritage by getting absolutely waxed by Wisconsin in the semi-finals of the Big Ten Tournament.  Most years, that kind of game capped off a losing season in the Big Ten, snuffing the tiniest ember of hope for a miracle Big Ten Tournament run to the dance.  This time, it didn't really matter.  Northwestern had already beaten Wisconsin in Madison without Scottie Lindsey.  They had made it further than any other Wildcat team had ever gone in the Big Ten Tournament by shithousing Rutgers with a record 31-0 first-half run and then silencing a rowdy, mother-booing, pro-Maryland D.C. crowd, and they had, by all accounts from even the most eccentric, apostate Bracketologists, qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

They can't stop it now; it was on television

There is no doubt about it now.  Wildcat fans can finally slam that Northwestern button on their internet NCAA brackets.  They can send off a glorious, stone-bleachered Welsh-Ryan Arena into Stadium Valhalla after it finally transformed from an empty house of basketball horrors into a venue capable of drowning out Jim Nantz.  They can surreptitiously watch the Wildcats at work on a Tournament Thursday while nervously toggling the "boss button" link that activates spreadsheets so profoundly fraudulent that they could only work on Kruger Industrial Smoothing-caliber management.

The "boss button" spreadsheets are a perfectly grotesque satire of 
whatever it is people do in offices

Chris Collins referred to the tournament berth as "the beginning of Northwestern basketball." It is not.  There has been more than a century of Northwestern basketball, most of which involved losing. More often than not, Northwestern basketball games meant trekking in subzero temperatures to a home arena full of opposing fans cocksure in their teams' victory and, more often than not, a loss. WGN had a great interview with Vic Law (Law comes on around the 1:45 mark) where he talks about wanting to change the atmosphere at Welsh-Ryan. "When we get good," Law remembers telling a reporter when he first committed, "we're going to blow the roof off the place."  This was a bold prediction about an arena where the Wildcats traditionally played home games only in scare quotes as rival chants echoed through the rafters.  Purdue-Northwestern games traditionally involved Wildcat fans surrounded by train costumes and Gene Keady combovers; whatever Purdue fans came gallivanting into the arena this year got completely drowned out on the television broadcast.

The consignment of Northwestern basketball to a pre-tournament dark age, though, obscures some really good players and teams, some of which could have even gotten to the Tournament if not for a truly beguiling series of separate misfortunes.  Northwestern may have lost games, but fans got to see Davor Duvancic take down Illinois, Michael Jenkins sink Iowa, Tre Demps buzzerbeat upon Michigan, and John Shurna break the scoring record with a jumpshot that could only exist at Northwestern.

Someone hoisted a Shurnahead at the Selection Sunday celebration 
because Shurnaheads should remain a Northwestern tradition even 
far into the future, when Welsh-Ryan is renovated again to have 
automated grape dispensers for high-dollar donors and basketball 
devolves into Bill Laimbeer's prophesied "combat" phase, a yellowed 
Shunahead stands watch over the severed heads of the Big Ten's weakest 
basketball robots

Northwestern could compete with and beat other Big Ten schools in basketball, but it had always felt outside the rest of the college basketball world.  The Carmody era partly fueled this-- almost no other team in the country played like Northwestern with its intricate offense and zone defenses, Carmody sought out international players that arrived with intriguing nicknames like "The Moroccan Michael Jordan," and he unleashed a masked Luka Mirkovic upon the Big Ten.  More than that, though, Northwestern usually hovered nowhere near the NCAA Tournament bubble with its attendant bracketologies and complaints about seeds and everything else.  The NCAA Tournament sucks up 99% of discussion about college basketball and Northwestern existed in a strange basketball Siberia, only affecting the tournament by occasionally ruining someone's RPI.

There is something that is ludicrous about Northwestern's Selection Sunday gathering. More than a thousand people gathered to celebrate a committee's decision that they were one of the 68 best teams in the country, promised nothing but an extra game-- should Vanderbilt clobber them in the first round, the hullabaloo over their bid would be as ridiculous as a silent film about a dandy dressing up in his finest tails and spats only to walk out his door and get sprayed by carriage puddles.  But more than 1,000 people in Welsh-Ryan didn't care about the sanity of sitting for hours for the chance to scream at a jumbotron showing promos for Kevin Can Wait.  Northwestern came in from the cold.


The tournament has spoken and, after sending a bunch of Big Ten teams to some extremely Big Ten cities, the Wildcats will meet Vanderbilt in Salt Lake City.  The location is disappointing to Chicago-area fans, but on the other hand, I am pretty sure they could put Northwestern in a regional so remote that it involves a rickety, slat-dropping rope bridge and we'd still be thrilled.

Northwestern will play Vanderbilt, a team that spent much of the season on the bubble because of its fifteen losses.  Their inclusion as a nine seed has stirred some controversy over on the Bracket Justice Internet where fans for whom inclusion in a 68-team tournament is not a once-a-century occurrence squabble about regions and paths and sound exactly like the Tom Hardy character from The Revenant replacing his endless pelt monologues.


The two schools have little basketball history-- they've played just five times, last in 1992, and have essentially no basketball animus.  But anyone who can't dredge up some dumb, sports grievance has no place writing a lightly-trafficked blogspot blog, so let's remember that the schools had a nascent football rivalry before Vanderbilt abruptly canceled a home-and-home series in 2013-2014 without warning.  The Chicago Tribune described the cancellation as done in "the coldest possible way--with a letter sent via U.S. mail," a schedule adjustment so callous that it inspired a major metropolitan newspaper to traffic in Dan LaFontaine sentences.  You might not think that this passes muster by even the flimsiest of margins, but as we speak BYCTOM rivalry-mongering intern Tim Beckman is hard at work drafting CANCEL THIS, VANDERBILT! (IN REFERENCE TO YOUR 2013-14 FOOTBALL SCHEDULING) signs to distribute in Salt Lake City but he keeps running out of room.

Vanderbilt's coach Bryce Drew made a name for himself in March Madness by leading Valparaiso on a magical run in 1998 most known for hitting a shot from a full-court pass eerily similar to Northwestern's own play against Michigan.  As his Wikipedia entry says: "Drew secured his place as a Valparaiso, Indiana, celebrity along with popcorn guru Orville Redenbacher."  Like Collins, Drew is the son of a coach, Valparaiso's Homer Drew. Chicagoans, however, may be more familiar with him as a brief member of the post-Jordan Shitty Bulls, where he teamed with Fred Hoiberg in an inadvertent Cradle of College Basketball Coaches.

Drew on the Bulls in the Dragan Tarlac Era

Both teams face a tough path out of the region.  The winner of Thursday's game will like face Gonzaga, lurking in the bracket like a Morrison-haired monster.  Almost no brackets have Northwestern getting past them to the Sweet 16, except for mine, where I will just keep writing down Northwestern's name because they're finally in the dang bracket and absolutely no one can stop me.

Friday, March 3, 2017


There was a risk that it could have all gone disastrously wrong, that Nate Taphorn's overhand, full-court baseball heave could have sailed over Dererk Pardon's outstretched arms into the face of a costumed, bodypainted student and given Michigan the opportunity to win the game with the ball under their basket because that's almost always how these games have ended.  There are few  basketball indignities that Northwestern has not yet experienced until they put in drastic rule changes that turn college basketball into the inevitable future death sport promised by every science fiction movie, which will give Wildcat fans the opportunity to leave disappointed because a Northwestern player accidentally activated the robotic basketball spider that devours key recruits.

Instead, Taphorn threw his pass, Pardon caught it, twisted, and converted a buzzer-beating layup to beat Michigan, win a school-record twenty-first game, and, in all likelihood, qualify for Northwestern's first NCAA Tournament.

The students swarmed the court, Chris Collins ran around like a video game character controlled by a Baby Boomer, Welsh-Ryan exploded, and the entire Chicago area went berzerk for its Big Ten Team including the enormous number of Michigan fans and alumni in the city who were forced to abandon their school and fall under the sway of Northwestern sports because of those billboards on I-94.  No doubt America celebrated as well, spurred on by Northwestern's endless supply of insufferable sports media personalities, with warm feelings for Collins's association with the universally-beloved Duke basketball team.

The win followed a brutal stretch where Northwestern lost nearly every game, squandered leads, ran out of gas, and threatened to turn ESPN's ubiquitous Doug Collins Cam into a horrifying snuff film as he disintegrated before our eyes like the guy who drank from the wrong grail in the Last Crusade.

Northwestern was only days removed from its most painful loss on the road to Indiana.  The Wildcats took a late lead against a spiraling Indiana team in a building full of angry Hoosiers more interested in jeering demented hobbit-coach Tom Crean than stopping Northwestern.  With less than ten seconds left, Northwestern clung to a two-point advantage before Thomas Bryant muscled in a tying layup with a foul.  Bryant's free throw hit the back iron and bounced what seemed to be seven feet in the air before plunging down like a Basketball of Damocles on the Wildcats' tourney hopes.  McIntosh's desperation half-court heave clanged off the rim, a play that was probably less ridiculous and improbable than the actual ending to the Michigan game.

Crean in the process of molting before growing a new layer of pants

Sure, Northwestern has not yet qualified for the tournament.  Nothing is official until the Selection Committee emerges from its cave, flies the bracket by sparrow to Bristol, Connecticut, has an ESPN guy read out out Northwestern, and I immediately start to complain about seeding and how the Selection Committee HAS IT OUT FOR THE WILDCATS DAMMIT even though as a Northwestern fan I don't really understand what any of that means and am just trying to fit in.  Between now and then all sorts of things can happen.  They can cancel the tournament immediately because of excessive Northwestern participation.  They can get locked in the MCI Center during the Big Ten Tournament and watch the tournament start without them while Northwestern State fills in.  They can get in the bus on the way to the first tournament hame and get crushed by a giant Monty Python foot.

Northwestern's greatest men's basketball achievement since the 1930s comes with no guarantees.  All they get is an invitation.  The Wildcats' first tournament appearance could involve them drawing a Final Four-caliber opponent loaded with NBA players that spends the entire game floating above them on air currents and raining baskets from the rafters.  They could draw an obscure mid-major that throttles them.  Northwestern players could fall into a giant pie and collapsing tower of unicycles on the sideline or activate a contraption that plucks Chris Collins from the bench mid-tirade and flings him into a rub-a-dub tub.  No one will mind much because the closest thing we've had to that so far was to take hallucinogens, turn on last year's Holy Cross games, and squint.

Northwestern fans took desert spirit quests that allowed 
themselves to believe, for several hours, that a player 
named Rados Ĺ ampion had led the Wildcats to Patriot 
League glory

Northwestern plays Purdue on Sunday on Senior Day in front of a national television audience.  I have no idea if they will flourish, free from the suffocating tournament pressure, or will allow Caleb Swanigan, the Purdue sharpshooters who shot 255 threes in West Layfeyette, and the twelve-foot tall buzzcut guy to once again hammer them while Northwestern fans jubilantly don't care.  Northwestern will be honoring defensive stopper Sanjay Lumpkin, who will allow the first 3,000 fans to barrel into his chest while he draws a charge, and newly-minted hero Nate Taphorn.  Both players remain the last vestiges of the Carmody era, and it's only fitting that they both had crucial roles in getting the team over the hump.

Northwestern will play its final home game at Welsh-Ryan as we know it, just as the arena finally cultivated a genuinely nuts, loud atmosphere.  In previous years, the primary noise in the arena came from Widlcat fans' DE-FENSE cheers overpowered by visiting fans' muttered complaints that Welsh-Ryan was a high school facility.  Next year, the Wildcats will move to the gigantic, empty Allstate Arena to play games in between Whitesnake reunion concerts and Monster Jams.  As anyone who has gone to a DePaul game in recent years can attest, the arena will easily swallow even a sellout Welsh-Ryan crowd and render the games a sea of empty blue seats and Chicago Rush Arena Bowl XX championship banners. The refurbished Welsh-Ryan will have fancier seats and glowing screens and probably won't allow you to be inadvertently bowled over by a visiting team while trying to wait in line for a hotdog, but it's fantastic that Northwestern got to likely clinch their tournament berth in their ridiculous basketball barn instead of the Grave Digger Sedan Cemetery.

Wildcat fans look forward to their season 
at the home of ArenaBowl '88

After decades of broken ankles, dunk victimhood, and general Washington Generalsmanship and even some heart-breaklingly close calls, Northwestern has almost certainly made the tournament on a play so absurd that I still can't quite believe it.  Selection Sunday is March 12, and I'll be watching for the first time.