Friday, October 27, 2017


Whatever it is Northwestern and Iowa do, it is not playing football.  It would be more accurate to say that the Big Ten continuously allows them to commit football against each other, the Greater Chicagoland Metropolitan Area, and whatever bar happened to have their TV permanently stuck on ESPN2 after Lenny hit the TV with his pool cue again while demonstrating his Steven Seagal barfight techniques and that son-of-a-bitch never paid for it he didn't. 

Last Saturday, a howling wind from the south led both offenses to perform like they were Napoleonic generals terrified to cross the end zones and move too far from their supplies of gatorade and butt towels.  The game was marked by stymied drives, heroic stands, astonishing punts, and appalling acts of football cowardice; with 90 seconds to go and two timeouts Pat Fitzgerald ran out the clock to play for overtime, unwilling to trust his team to proceed into the gale.  It ended up working out because Justin Jackson is dropping smoke bombs and reappearing ten yards away whenever some jabroni tries to tackle him and because an Iowa player dropped a wide-open fourth-down conversion so egregiously that it appears that Brett Walsh (Northwestern #10) actually goes into a full-on Iowa Fan Surrender Cobra because he can't believe what has happened.

Behind every ugly win is a great defensive performance, and the Wildcat defense has quietly become a wall.  Iowa's plan was to once again unleash Akrum Wadley to run through the tracks he dug into the Ryan Field last time he played there.  This time, Northwestern linebackers smashed through the Hawkeye defensive line and brought him down repeatedly.  This time, on fourth and inches late in the game, the Hawkeyes, surely confused by the ferocious home crowd of nearly four dozen Northwestern fans, moved offside and had to settle for a field goal.

In some ways, the loser of this game was the sport of football as two teams more or less shouted at each other for three hours before agreeing to go home in a perfect display of stereotypical Big Ten 11AM anti-football.  But, in a more accurate way, Iowa lost this game, the indomitable Wildcat triumphed once again and greatly improved its odds of making the Old Macbeth's Industrial Iron Shards bowl or even the Repurposed Magic the Gathering Server Dark Internet Cryptocurrency Bowl.


Iowa fans would never say they have a rivalry with Northwestern.  It is unseemly.  Only one man has ever sunk low enough to court Northwestern as a rival, and he is now in jail.  Yet, Northwestern has been a hilarious thorn in the side of the Iowa Hawkeyes for more than a decade.  Pat Fitzgerald is 7-5 against Iowa with the Hawkeyes favored in nearly all of those games; the average Northwestern victory has been by just about a touchdown.  Over and over, Iowa rigged their boulders, built their rockets, donned their elaborate ACME Bat-Man's Outfit, and then run into a tunnel painted on the side of a cliff after watching Pat Fitzgerald disappear into it in defiance of all known laws of physics and the AP Polls and it is incredibly funny.

Northwestern and Iowa appear to be locked in the same cycle of infuriating losses to one another, grandiose punting exhibitions, and you and me we're not so different monologues because they have the most entrenched, unchanging leadership in the Big Ten.  Ferentz, who has been coaching at Iowa so long that traces of Feretnz molecules from the Big Bang have been found in Iowa City soil, has entrenched his position by appointing his son as offensive coordinator, sending a clear message to any rogue Iowa coordinators who would scheme to depose him or slip reptile poisons into his cream of wheat that a Ferentz will remain on the throne.  Pat Fitzgerald has gone from the young, fistpumping boy coach to a beefy, gray-templed J. Jonah Jameson.
I'm very proud of our young men for going out there this week and 
executing and also for not letting that wall-climbing FREAK run amok 
around this city leaving web residue all over the buildings for us, the 
taxpayers, to have to CLEAN UP that FLUID or the DEBRIS from the 
time he got into a fight with a guy dressed like a HUMAN RHINOCEROS go cats

While neither head coach seems to be going anywhere, frustrated fans have turned on the most obvious targets: offensive coordinators.  Iowa fans have been frustrated with Brian Ferentz because if Iowa's offense stagnates then it appears his key value is the ability to pass as a Kirk Ferentz impersonator from a distance when the elder Ferentz is otherwise indisposed.  Northwestern fans (on the internet at least) remain irritated with Mick McCall, who, in the insane business of goatee guys named Skip and Bobby replacing each other every year, has remained in charge of Northwestern's offense and will stay there until he dies and is entombed in Pat Fitzgerald's pyramid so Fitz can have someone call ill-advised speed options in the afterlife.

College football fans love to complain about coordinators and assistant coaches.  In many ways, it makes sense-- teams without flashy recruiting rankings routinely shock better teams with better schemes.  And in many ways it is far more palatable that college football fans' deranged ire is focused on the people actually getting paid.  At the same time, the sense of coordinators and coaches as maestros singlehandedly responsible for magicking their teams points or turnovers can stray into the realm of the ludicrous.  Football is an insane, complicated game based on violence-diagrams ruled by the bounce of an oblong ball and even the greatest football brain genius cannot account for one single slip or mistake or a guy falling down on his ankle weird which means the athletic training staff should probably be fired because they should be preventing injuries, say the maniacs in the stands who are screaming at these behemoths to run into each other for our amusement and maybe it is possible that everyone is not a holy shit he called that inside handoff again.


Last year, Michigan State and Northwestern seemed primed for a miserable punt-off.  Instead, we were treated to an insane shootout with Austin Carr rampaging through the secondary and Michigan State bringing in a backup quarterback who just kept bombing the ball down the field. Solomon Vault fielded a weird bounce on the kickoff and ran 95 yards.  A Northwestern team that couldn't get more than seven against Illinois State scored more points than any opponent in Michigan State history.  So it might be prudent to not predict this to be a miserable, cold, low-scoring shitfest.  At the same time, man does this game look like it is going to be a miserable, cold, low-scoring shitfest.

Michigan State appears to be back after last year's nightmare season.  They are 6-1 with their only loss to an unthinkably resurgent Notre Dame team that should have been stopped by the government, they had a trademark ridiculous win against Michigan in a monsoon, and they come into Ryan Field ranked sixteenth in the country.  Yet, Michigan State has not been blowing people out.  Their four Big Ten wins have been by a combined 19 points.  Their approach seems have been to assemble some bludgeonous defenders and occasionally deign to move the ball towards the endzone only when it becomes necessary to score more points than their opponent.  They play like football has some bizarre new Price is Right rule where you can't go over one touchdown more than the opponent.

Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke hopes to impress 
with his offseason tunneling out of Spartan Stadium regimen after this safety

Northwestern seems to want to play the same way.  A resurgent defense has frustrated opponent running games.  The offense will give the Spartans a heavy dose of Justin Jackson and a plan to inch towards their goal line.  Neither team seems that interested in doing much on offense other than not allowing the other team to have the ball.  But maybe the script will flip and in a chilly, windy, possibly rainy Ryan Field, the two teams will throw caution to the wind and ball to hand and not get a one-point lead then spend three plays building an increasingly cozy mud den on their own twenty-five for 120 seconds before punting it to the other team who will get busy passing around trowels and flagons of warm tea.  

Michigan State is very good.  They're ranked, they'll be supported by an invasion of green men and women, and they'll provide the greatest test for the Wildcats yet.  But, the both teams' love of hideous garbage football and the weather conditions mean that this could be anyone's game, that Northwestern could pull the home upset and vault itself back from middling obscurity to slightly less middling obscurity.


I'm reading Robert Hughes's Barcelona, his 1992 tome about the history of art and architecture of Barcelona.  Hughes, an author and art critic whose books on Australia and Rome I've reviewed here in the past was a dyspeptic flamethrower who had never met an early 1990s post-modern building he had not wanted to jackhammer.  He specialized in long histories (both this book and Rome go back to the Roman period) while causally tossing out withering asides about any artist he does not like, which is most of them.  

I do not often like to do this, but I should be upfront and say that I have not finished Barcelona.  This is always a foolish thing to do when writing about a book but especially with Hughes, where there is danger on every unread page-- his book on Rome, for example, ends with a wild, maniacal assertion that Italians cannot be trusted to preserve their art history because they watch soccer on TV, for example, and there is no guessing what sorts of insane early 90s fire takes on Spanish government lurk in upcoming chapters.  The reason for posting this is an excuse to include this passage, not only for him casually name-dropping DalĂ­, but putting this information into my life and now yours.

Further reports on Barcelona as they develop.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Undefeated All-Time Against Maryland

After back-to-back neck wringings at the hands of the Big Ten's top teams, Northwestern finally had a chance to test its mettle against a Big Ten team that will be scrapping around with them for a berth in the Yelling Fist Generic Flesh Colored Hulk Hands Bowl and they bulldozed through them with the assurance of a team that will get to six wins if they have to infiltrate Big Ten headquarters and rearrange the Big Ten's computerized punch cards.
A Big Ten technician adds the statistical
 data from last year's Northwestern-Michigan State 
game into the official database

Maryland seemed to have the Wildcats' number at first.  Star receiver D.J. Moore jetted through the Wildcats' defense, already depleted from injury and suspension for trying to tackle receivers through the inside of their chests.  But then the 'Cats came alive.  Maryland, down to a third-string quarterback named Bort Bortenschlagen could not move the ball, and Northwestern wore down their struggling defense by battering them with Justin Jackson.  What looked like another nail-biting game turned into a solid victory in the yet another chapter in this storied Big Ten football rivalry.

Jackson owned the day.  He broke the all-time school record for rushing, carried Northwestern to the win, and delivered impassioned French monologues about how the French word for touchdown is "touchdown."  Northwestern has had its share of great running backs in recent years, but Jackson may go down as the best.  Jackson is not a big back nor is he blindingly fast.  His specialty is poking and prodding through holes and shimmying away from contact.  Some of his most impressive runs have been in games where the offensive line has struggled against conference behemoths and he has had to dodge three or four tacklers just to get back to the line of scrimmage.  When he gets into the open field, he is shifty enough to bamboozle would-be tacklers into lunging at air.  Yet, Jackson's greatest attribute is probably his resilience.  There have been many games when the entire offensive game plan seems to have been to keep giving Jackson the ball against teams that have moved their entire defense into trenches surrounding the line of scrimmage and hope that it's enough to win the game.  It didn't always work-- that kind of thing can't work unless you're a Wisconsin team that has specifically engineered linemen from the largest and most virulent strains of locker room fungus available on the black market, but it takes a back like Jackson to make it a conceivable strategy.
That Pitt safety was absorbed into the grass of Yankee Stadium


One of the sad effects of the Big Ten's adoption of conferences has been to see the same teams every year.  In some ways it is a boon, especially since Northwestern plays in the blighted West, which reliably serves up the requisite three jabroni teams that keep Northwestern in low-tier bowl swag.  Conferences, though, have created six annual games, instead of the protected annual games that featured a mix of hated rivalries with trophies named for weaponry and farm implements and matchups generated more or less at random.  The conferences mean that Northwestern has to weather an irritating biennial Invasion of the Nebraska People and getting sat upon by Wisconsin every season.  It also means that the Wildcats are constantly playing Iowa.

I don't know what to make of Northwestern-Iowa matchups anymore.  Northwestern and Iowa should never be playing every year when they're both fighting for mid-tier bowl games.  They should appear like wraiths on the schedule in one of the years when one of the teams is good, waiting as a dangerous three-win team nonetheless hellbent on ruining their opponent's season.  Iowa or Northwestern should forget about each other's existence except when they're on an impossible Rose Bowl hunt and then fall into a trap door into filled with turnovers and overtimes and, to read on the internet the next day, a shameful bounty of uncalled holding penalties. 

Iowa lost CJ Beathard and talismanic cornerback Desmond King.  They still have their star linebacker, the comic book-named Josey Jewell.  And they still have Kirk Ferentz, their Forever Coach.  Ferentz has solidified his power by naming his eldest son Brian to the role of offensive coordinator.  He will supplement his coaching staff with other Ferentz from throughout the Spanish and Low Countries branches of the Ferentz family until college football is, like Europe in the early twentieth century, essentially a deteriorating mass of branches of the Ferentz weakened by generations of inbreeding until they all declare war on each other.
Guards come to escort Rolph Ferentz IV from the Sun Belt branch of 
the Ferentz Family to accept ULM's invitation to participate in the 2345 Belk Bowl

Is there a point to trying to predict an Iowa-Northwestern game?  Iowa sure looks like the better team. Northwestern is coming off its best performance of the year against an injury-ravaged Maryland team.  Iowa's only losses have been a near-upset of the same Penn State team that pulverized the Wildcats at Ryan Field and a narrow loss to a resurgent Michigan State.  The Hawkeyes will be looking for revenge after having their homecoming spoiled by Northwestern last year, but this game remains a big one for the Wildcats-- a loss keeps them scratching for three more wins against a putrid conference that might not be putrid enough.  A win might do what last year's game against Iowa did and wake them up from a disastrous non-conference performance that ended in the most famous Pin Stripe Bowl victory.  Either way, the unfortunately annual Iowa-Northwestern undoes the hoary maxim about familiarity breeding contempt.  Contempt grows best from rare meetings that end with recriminations and devastating quarterback injuries.


NBA analysis has changed from its original barebones boxscore to a cornucopia of fancy statistics, impressions gleaned from the numerous terminator cameras feeding biometric data to teams and to the per synergy sports bloggers, and, most importantly, running updates about the various feuds, social media kerfuffles, and free agency betrayals that pepper the NBA year-round and make it by far the most compelling sports league in this country.

There are, perhaps, basketball purists who sit around longing to root for crew-cutted ciphers who run pick-and-rolls and hoist jumpshots, for basketball broadcasts without allusions to a twitter war between opponents, or try to follow teams without learning which players’ embarrassing sexual peccadilloes have been instantaneously broadcast to a worldwide instagram audience.  For the rest of us, the NBA has become a glorious dunk-adjacent soap opera.

Every sports league has its outsized personalities, but the NBA sells them better than any league.  The NFL is dominated by its owners; every year, the major storylines involve some sort of rules conflict and the NFL meting out its own bizarre brand of football justice.  MLB's players remain in a weirdo Twilight Zone episode where overexuberance at doing things most normal people would find near-impossible is met by a hail of baseballs.  When I think of the culture of American baseball (if anything, the World Baseball Classic demonstrated that literally every other country seems to have way more fun playing baseball than the USA's square-jawed hall monitors), I think of John Lackey, a man who has taken his cues on manful stoicism from 80s action movies and speaks in a weird tough-guy argot that seems to be taken from a disastrous Stephen Seagal-penned Western.  

Imagine Seagal sitting atop a lifeless plastic horse in front of green 
screen wildly whipping the bridle around as he pretends to be chased
 by a ruthless gang of Bulgarian cattle rustlers

The NBA is rife with drama because players have been forming and reforming superteams and appearing to take things extremely personally.  Trust no NBA preview that doesn't feature a list of feuds boiled down like the incomprehensible What's Happening on Your Favorite Soaps columns that used to be in newspapers:

LeBron is feuding with former teammate Kyrie Iriving because Irving's inexplicable decision to wade unbidden into the waters of flat-Earth theories pre-empted LeBron's attempt to troll the media by earnestly speaking about the Mole People.  Chris Paul and Doc Rivers have been trading barbs in the media until they will finally reconcile years from now when they both simultaneously wheel and turn to belittle the same referee.  Tom Thibodeau is attempting to recreate his Bulls teams in Minnesota and is currently building his own Kirk Hinrich out of compression sleeves.  The Lakers drafted a player with a maniacal basketball stage dad who has already provoked a feud with LeBron.  LeBron, who is very busy, is also feuding with Comic Sans mortgage-goblin Dan Gilbert who is going around firing people like a mad emperor.  Carmelo Anthony finally accepted a trade after the Knicks' attempts to alienate him enough to waive his no-trade clause became increasingly indistinguishable from George Costanza's attempts to get fired from Play Now. 
Jackson torturing Anthony with his famous Zen koans such as "how 
shitty is Carmelo Anthony? Still here?"  Jackson left the Knicks to 
have several expensive surgeries that will transform him into a human triangle

At least the Three Alphas had an obvious tragic downfall.  The Bulls surrounded Jimmy Butler with combustible personalities with a poor fit on the court and the entire season was spent waiting for it to combust.  The collapse happened quickly-- Butler was shipped to Minnesota in a trade that immediately made living phrenology exhibit Gar Forman the laughingstock of the NBA, then the Bulls paid both Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo substantial sums of money to prevent them from playing for the Bulls again.
I don't think there will ever be a funnier self-inflicted sports
 nickname than the  Three Alphas

Last year's Bulls had infinitely more compelling drama of washed-up stars, a grotesque parody superteam scratching and clawing for the eight seed over the other shambling corpse teams in the Eastern Conference.  This year, they will be bad.  Barely anyone on this team is an NBA player; their best player is somehow still a guy recovering from knee surgery.  All of the Bulls' hopes lay in the spindly arms of Lauri Markkanen, a sweet-shooting Finnish beanpole who will spend the season being wrapped around the stanchion by bruising NBA forwards. The Bulls will likely be the worse team in the league, clobbered night in and night out, trying desperately to turn over a top-three draft pick to a front office so beleaguered that they have literally inspired a protest movement.

And yet!  This team, a team that featured players so anonymous that they were not issued their own jerseys on media day, that has been assembled to be the largest mass of humanity ever collectively dunked upon, is not content to get beaten by opponents.  They are instead beating upon each other.  Niko Mirotic, last seen being pulled from a rut five feet behind the three-point line, had his jaw broken in practice by Bobby Portis.  There is nothing funny about an altercation that lands someone in the hospital.  There is something vaguely amusing about thinking about Fred Hoiberg trying to stop this fight by repeatedly and ineffectively blowing a whistle.

The Bulls will be almost unwatchable this season, as abysmal as their post-Jordan unraveling that featured awful players like Dragan Tarlac, Marcus Fizer, and Fred Hoiberg.  The NBA's draft structure that rewards awful teams with the chance to draft superstars will change after this season to make it slightly harder for teams to guarantee high picks just for sucking.  This change has created a terrifying race to the bottom among the NBA's shittiest teams and has destroyed the entire point of basketball; bad teams are so desperate to be bad, especially this season, that any win that the Bulls get by running into a team ravaged by the flu or coming off a back-to-back or so distracted by Cam Payne repeatedly falling down that they actually start throwing the ball directly to him, will be potentially catastrophic.  It's no revelation that savvy fans should root against their own rebuilding teams-- this is, after all, what has sparked the rules changes.  But in a bleak year where even the Bulls know they have no chance one night, it deprives Bulls fans the ability to enjoy their greatest achievement of making another team's fans really really angry.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Narrative

James Franklin has finally done it.  After losing to Northwestern at Vanderbilt, canceling a game against the Wildcats by ordering a specially designed goblet that said "home and home series against Northwestern," and smashing it against the walls of his palatial Coaching Mansion and then mailing the shards to Northwestern's athletic department, and then moving to Penn State to build them up specifically, one presumes, to defeat Northwestern, Franklin stood triumphant on Ryan Field under a darkening sky with a cloud of crows and ravens and other species ordered off the Foreboding Birds catalog released to terrorize Evanston, and he departed victorious, with nothing left to play for.

Sportswriting exists to invent narratives for events that involve a lot of luck and happenstance. Wisconsin, for example, had failed to win a game at Ryan Field from 1999-2016; this streak comprised of four whole football games, each with its own discrete improbable insanities that had nothing to do with one another but became perfect for inventing a narrative of the Badgers unable to win at this lakeside doom fortress in front of a hostile crowd of nearly 40% Northwestern fans.  I have absolutely no idea if James Franklin cares at all about Northwestern or about his epic three-game losing streak dating back to Vanderbilt, but I also know that in my brain he spends most of his time skyping with Tim Beckman about his cadence in late-night fireplace-lit pacing as he composes angry couplets about Pat Fitzgerald and the yowling Wildcat noise on the PA system and Air Willie, which I am pretty sure has not existed during Franklin's entire Big Ten tenure but is something he could have read about on the internet.

James Franklin, as he always does, pondering how to beat Northwestern, 
a real rivalry that I know for a fact has consumed him

Another misleading narrative would be to look at the final score and assume that a febrile Northwestern squad flailed against a top-five Penn State team.  Northwestern's defense bottled up Penn State's fearsome attack for the first half, and Saquon Barkley, that terrifying running back who trains by leaping canyons and stiff-arming university buildings marked for demolition, could do nothing at all.  The Wildcats' offense, though, bungled a few early opportunities to take the lead, including a sequence of penalties near the goal line where they were called for holding, false starting, conspiracy to false start, and mail fraud and then turned it over.  The defense in the second half, often called upon to stop the Nittany Lions from within Northwestern territory, eventually faltered, Barkley finally unleashed his most terrifying move by psychically moving a referee into the way of a helplessly diving Wildcat, and Penn State romped through the rest of the game.  This is the second time Northwestern has played a top-tier opponent tough through a half of football, which may not count in the standings but does count in the extensive glossy literature that will be sent for the consideration of the people at the Bleedgrowl Bear Trap and Bear Trap Accessories Bowl should the Wildcats successfully win Big Ten games.


Maryland has been in the Big Ten since 2014, but has been hiding in the conference's weakling East Division the entire time, safe from the Northwestern Wildcats and their onslaught of occasional bowl-caliber football competence.  No longer!  The Terrapins will now face a desperate Northwestern team coming off consecutive losses to two of the Big Ten's best teams while Maryland hopes to build on the momentum of a season featuring wins against the crumbling rot of late Ottoman Empire-era Texas and P.J. Fleck's Order of Rowboatsmanship, both on the road.

What does Maryland look like this season?  This is a blogspot website that is all about integrity, and I will not insult you by pretending to know anything about Maryland football.  I remain in shameful ignorance; the only Maryland football I can recall watching was the end of last year's Quick Lane Bowl, a tedious Goal Line Fumbles Exhibition in front of 47 people, the apotheosis of the Quick Lane Bowl experience, and one I desperately want for the Northwestern Wildcats.  From what I can tell through extensive minutes of research, a runaway combine harvester has mown down all of the Terrapins' quarterbacks, and they hope that third-stringer Max Bortenschlager, who sounds like the video game boss second form of Blake Bortles, will be healthy.

These projections predict the emergence of a third Bort Quarterback by 2025

The narrative here is confusing: either Northwestern has valiantly struggled against two top teams to open Big Ten play or they are bad and the only thing to do is to go on the internet and call for the citizen's arrest of all of the coaches for the crime of calling ill-advised speed options.  Last year, the Wildcats found themselves in a similar place before rallying against the middle of the Big Ten. This game, against a team outside the AP top ten, will let us know which narrative to pursue: a miserable decline that depends on only on holding onto the Hat, or another triumphant march towards bowl eligibility.


Sports narratives are part of the atmosphere of the baseball playoffs; they roll in like a ghostly fog carrying the ominous spirits of every baseball fuckup that has ever happened to a team stretching back generations.  Baseball playoffs are the province of snake-bitten managers, dominant pitchers forever labeled as postseason chokers, of grudges and of curses because the events of a baseball playoff game are almost completely random and defy rational explanation.

Last night, the Cubs and Nationals played an operatic 75-hour baseball game, a tortuously long time for anything that is supposed to be entertainment, but especially baseball because playoff baseball is an exercise of prolonged dread.

Every agonizing moment of playoff baseball, of watching the manager turn his roulette wheel to another shaky relief pitcher with guys in scoring position, of grimacing through errors, of knowing the guy coming up with two outs and men on base is the guy who is going to chase balls out of the strike zone every time why would you swing at that it's in the goddamn dirt, of Jon Lester staring at a man who is sitting down cross-legged between first and second, and the human mind is incredible at knitting those anxieties into prophesies of doom.

The Washington Nationals are cursed.  Not in the supernatural vengeful spirit in disguise who is not at all happy about getting sprayed by that chariot sense, but in the sense of the narrative overwhelming the rational, of the ridiculous baseball catastrophes congealing into a palpable wad in the pit of every fan's stomach, and the desperate search for a connection between every misfortune into a larger explanation of why the team cannot win.  

The Washington Nationals are cursed because it is almost impossible to believe the following things happened in the same baseball game: an ace pitcher comes out of the bullpen as a reliever (a tremendous playoff baseball wrinkle*), gets two quick outs, and then the following sequence of events happen: a infield single, bloop hit and RBI double, a controversial dropped third strike involving an arcane baseball rule about hitting the catcher with the follow through that I've literally never heard of, a catcher's interference, a hit batsman, an egregious error, a valiant comeback against a Cubs bullpen that appeared to be throwing the weighted baseballs that pitchers grab to make Pete Townsend windmills motions as they warm up, the ending of an inning against a beleaguered, laboring Wade Davis on a pickoff play where the officials determined that numerous Lobaton Molecules had strayed from the bag for several microseconds as measured by the New York Office's electron microscope.

Javy Baez's controversial and possibly illegal backswing against Matt 
Wieters gives him his A.J. Perizynski Moment. You know that this was 
a rule because if it was not, A.J. Pierzynski probably would have spent 
his career walloping catchers on follow-throughs or kicking them in the 
facemask before loping over to first while already pointing to the section 
in his rulebook that he has taken from his pocket that has numerous 
post-its pointing to where it doesn't say you can't do that

The Washington Nationals are cursed because they are managed by a man who has been engulfed by the narrative.  Dusty Baker has made numerous mistakes in this series, but so does every manager; in a league overtaken by the tenets of La Russism where a manager is expected to use at least a dozen pitchers in every game, where the most radical thing a baseball manager can do at this point is to identify his nine best players and ask them to play an entire game of baseball, there are an infinite number of decisions that will look dumb in retrospect.  Baker's most controversial decision, the bizarre public waffling on the Many Ailments of Stephen Strasburg eventually revealed with the subtlety of Chairman Kaga unleashing the asparagus, worked out when Strasburg heroically struck out 12 Cubs and even allowed the Nationals to survive long enough to invite this debacle.  But Baker has overseen too many catastrophes to avoid having the narrative swallow him, where Baker's various baseball management mistakes have been compounded by the inexplicable and the unholy.

Dusty Baker signals for a relief pitcher and an explanation of why this 
keeps happening

Sports curses exist because we need to make sense of things, because the truth that every single baseball game is its own discrete event and that sometimes fatal flaws intersect with weird luck more than once and sometimes that happens to an entire city's worth of sports teams in the playoffs for decades is cold comfort.  It is because we need stories and explanations beyond sometimes shit happens, in baseball.  It is because people naturally find it much easier to believe that something that has happened before will happen again than to believe that something that has not happened will; the Cubs choked and imploded in every playoff series my entire life and therefore it was easy to believe that they would never win, that there was some bizarre, inexplicable force preventing them from winning anything ever instead of individual events like Lou Piniella deciding to save Carlos Zambrano for a game that will never come one year or the Cubs' bad defensive infield biting them another year or having most reliable bullpen arm be a person named "Joe Borowski" in another.

For the first time, the Cubs are not only the team without the narrative, they appear to have been getting all of the breaks.  They head into the NLCS with a strained, exhausted pitching staff against the best team in baseball.  Their only fresh pitcher is aged prospector John Lackey who seems capable of only giving up home runs and bellowing the word fuck; Lackey has hinted at retirement after this season and there is nothing more terrifying than a Lackey with nothing to lose, a Lackey who could even come in from the bullpen and rip his jersey off to show he has the word FUUCCKKK tattooed on his belly, which he is exposing to the entire world while also bellowing.  

The Cubs this year are not the best team in baseball in a desperate fight against the narrative.  They are a good team going against a better team in a playoff format where being better matters only slightly and where chance and ill-fortune swirl intersect with every move.  I have no idea how to watch baseball without desperately groping for doom, I have no idea how to react when the other team has imploded and are blaming obscure rules infractions and mystic forces beyond our control, but I have to say it's not bad.

* MCCARVER (bursting through the studio show set in an MRAP and handcuffing himself to Alex Rodriguez before dramatically swallowing the key) Not a lot of people know this, Joe, but in the movie Major League, Ricky Vaughn was the starter coming out of the bullpen. He was not the closer, Joe. He was clearly a starter coming out of the pen in a Game 163 situation.  Tell them, Joe.  Tell my family not to forget me and also not a lot of people know this but a lot of managers don't like to use their starters in these situations because (he cannot be heard over the grinding sound of from the sawblade cutting through his handcuffs).

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Gauntlet

Northwestern held the lead at halftime.  They came into a hostile and raucous Camp Randall as heavy underdogs and managed to keep Wisconsin's offense and Alex Hornibrook in check mainly because the Wisconsin Badgers all agreed to replace their hands with the robotic grasping claws from the pick-a-prize carnival game and could barely manage to hold onto the football for more than a few plays at a time.  The Badgers' opening kickoff rolled into Northwestern hands and the Badgers fell on several more fumbles.

Wisconsin's ball security was affected by each player going back into
time and accidentally preventing their parents from falling in love at
the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance 

Unfortunately for Northwestern the turnovers and defensive stops only led to a few points.  Time after time, Northwestern faced a third-and-one and Wisconsin's defense clamored through the line to tackle Justin Jackson and force a punt.  In the second half, the Badgers made an adjustment to the Tecmo Bowl Called Play defense that left Clayton Thorson scrambling for his life so profoundly that he leaped between graphical planes and appeared in one of the approximately 35 cut-ins that showed Hornibrook playing catch with someone named Brock Huard that ended when Hornibrook chopped off his head with a sword and absorbed his left-handed quarterbacking powers through a lightning storm while a barely visible speck of Thorson hoofed it across the field in the background hoping to avoid any Wisconsin tacklers who had also transcended time and space.

James Franklin has never beaten Northwestern.  He lost as coach at Vanderbilt, and then struck the 'Cats from their schedule in a minor bureaucratic move that readers of this blog may be familiar with because I have put far more thought and energy into disparaging him for this than any other human being on the face of the earth for literally years.  I have suggested that Franklin had ducked Northwestern in order to qualify for a bowl game and that he moved to Penn State to marshal their resources against the Wildcats much like how William of Orange assumed the British crown in order to have a better chance of defeating his arch-nemesis Louis XIV; according to the person who edits his Wikipedia page, "Louis described William as 'my mortal enemy' and saw him as an obnoxious warmonger."

This time Franklin has with him the most terrifying player in college football.  We thought that had been the case with quarterback Christian Hackenberg, but Hackenberg turned out to be a bizarre case of people anointing him as an NFL quarterback after his Freshman year, watching him repeatedly throw the ball to defenders and patches of otherwise undisturbed turf, and continuing to rate him as a professional quarterback because the Football People once decided he was one until he managed to, through the sheer force of inertia, make it into the New York Jets' Quarterback Purgatory where he backs up at least one McCown Brother although spiritually he might be backing up all McCown Brothers past, present, and future.
A McCown in action 

I have no idea how a team is supposed to stop Saquon Barkley, a sentient monster truck who is somehow allowed to play college football.  One way may be to rig the field with traps like the end of Predator, where Barkley breaks free and crosses the fifty after knocking over dozens of Northwestern players and spectators before leaping over pits, log traps, and Northwestern's safeties who have coated themselves in grass and are screaming I AM HERE, JUKE ME NOW.  It may also be possible to form a complex Defensive Alliance among Big Ten West teams by offering to annex five yards of Ryan Field to Iowa in order have their linebackers secure it.  Or, Northwestern could do what they did the last time Barkley played at Ryan Field and stuff him on the very last play of the game while James Franklin refuses to call timeouts because he left them all at Vanderbilt.


The Cubs are in the playoffs for the first time in a century without the goat, without the curse, and without a cackling Joe Buck bursting forth from a grave to deliver solemn Vincent Price Thriller monologues about how many people have died watching the Cubs fail to win the World Series.  The Cubs are in the playoffs as a baseball team and not the wretched personification of failure.

Last year, the Cubs had been designed to foment baseball anxiety.  They led baseball in everything, won 103 games, and earned a trip to baseball's playoffs that exist only to eliminate the regular season's best team.  They survived a tour of baseball's mystical bullshit, first against a team whose fans have come to believe in numerology, then against a team that shut them out repeatedly, and finally in a World Series that seemed designed specifically to induce emotional breakdowns from both teams' catastrophist fanbases.  This year, the Cubs meandered their way through a crappy division and have sort of popped up in the playoffs again.

The World Series was supposed to have exorcised the playoff demons and silenced Cubs fans' overrwrought and irritating pessimism and obnoxious public displays of baseball woe, but habits die hard, and it is very difficult for me to watch the Cubs in the playoffs without immediately looking for the most humiliating and awful way they could lose.  Last year, for example, I was sure that Cubs castoff pitcher Jeff Samardzija would shut them out in the playoffs because ex-Cubs always came back to haunt them and then he gave up a home run to a relief pitcher.

This season, the obvious Cub hobgoblin is Dusty Baker.  Baker is older now, a little more stooped and Piniellabellied, and suffering from Kirk Hinrich Sports Accessory Syndrome where he is slowly being overtaken by wristbands.  A lot of Cubs fans blame Baker for the tens of thousands of arm and shoulder injuries that slowly engulfed Mark Prior and Kerry Wood and the subsequent collapse of the Cubs, although Baker could not possibly be responsible for the dozens of times Prior collided with baserunners, got struck with comebackers, fell into open manholes, and had vivid dreams about demons slashing his shoulder capsules with claw-fingers and then woke up and collapsed during a towel drill the next day while some surreal dreamland Anti-Prior gained shoulder capsules until his shoulders were nothing but capsules that turned into wings as he flies around knocking out other dream people's teeth and taking their pants before public speeches.  Baker and the Nationals have a tremendous pitching staff and a fearsome lineup, and it is possible that Baker will have his day celebrating at Wrigley Field.  This time, it will be because his team played better and not because he has been reborn as an avatar of Ironic Cub Destruction.

Cubs Perennial September Call-Up 
Augie Ojeda, picked up by the Diamondbacks, 
became another Avatar of Ironic Cub 
Destruction and batted like .450 against 
them the in the 2007 NLDS while his eyes 
glowed an unearthly red light after exposure 
to anti-Cub artifacts secretly buried in the 
Wrigley visitors' locker room by a heretofore 
unknown Cubs curse mystic  

We now live in a world where the Cubs will be playing in a series against a fanbase worried about its own nonsensical set of curses and inexplicable playoff failures.  The Nationals have yet to get out of the Division Series with their loaded roster, and the Cubs will try to continue that streak in an attempt to one day cultivate a group of fans as performatively sad-sacked as those who root for the Cubs.
Now famous, the World Series Cubs can be found on 
local commercials

The world is, for now, free from having to hear about Cubs fans rhapsodizing about how they will never win and from announcers throwing up pictures of old-timey cars on broadcasts and the Litany of Cubs playoff failures and the people saying "black cat" in profoundly Chicago accents, and the harrowing footage of Steve Bartman escaping Wrigley Field while 20,000 people simultaneously menace him with beer bottles.  Humanity now faces something perhaps more dangerous: confident Cubs fans who travel en masse across the Midwest, waving W flags and honking Go Cubs Go at otherwise innocent bystanders.