Monday, June 13, 2022

Twilight of the Crusty Old Pain-In-The-Ass Baseball Manager

If you're going to do some disastrous, avant-garde baseball managing, it is probably best not to do it during a day game against one of the best teams in the league.  Not for Tony La Russa.  It's smack dab in the middle of the afternoon when La Russa decides to play the percentages and inexplicably issue an intentional walk to the Dodgers' Trea Turner in the middle of an at-bat with Turner facing a 1-2 count.  Sox announcer Jason Bennetti is baffled.  The Comiskey crowd roars with incredulity.  A man can be heard on the broadcast bellowing "THERE ARE TWO STRIKES, TONY."  The next batter, Max Muncy, blasts the pitch over the left field fence and, according to baseball's expert Profanity Mouth-Watchers, he yells "you fucking walk him with two strikes! Fuck you, bitch!" as he crosses the plate.  

The press conference, where he got short and angry with reporters asking him about the walk while defending it as a no-brainer baseball decision, was vintage La Russa.  La Russa is, historically, an all-time great manager.  He is, according to police body camera footage, a "Hall of Fame baseball person."  But the White Sox are not getting La Russa at the peak of his tedious powers.  They are getting a crusty septuagenarian who appears to be not quite unaware of the drastic ways that the strategy and tactics of baseball have evolved in the last decade as much as arrogantly dismissive of them.  Last year, he revealed that he had no idea what the admittedly convoluted rules for the extra inning "ghost runner" were while still holding fast to unwritten rules about home run celebrations so much that he defended an opponent throwing at one of his own players.  Since taking over the White Sox, he has as many DUI arrests as playoff wins.  He looks like a rotting bog log wearing transition lenses. 

Perhaps I am being unfair to Tony La Russa but in my defense I despise him.  He has been my least favorite person in baseball for decades.  This is admittedly largely because he successfully managed the vile St. Louis Cardinals, but even people who have not have watched their favorite team endlessly walked off by a heretofore unknown baseball entity with a name like Ronald "Tummy" VanManbanter who somehow just sort of manifests on the Cardinals from some far-flung minor-league affiliate and immediately hits .285/.356/.458 are sick of La Russa's shit.  La Russa comports himself as a Genius of Baseball Managing which on its face is one of the funniest things for a person to do because the concept of watching a bunch of tobacco juice oafs hitting balls with sticks and setting each other's feet on fire and getting injured by doing things like accidentally gluing themselves to a truck or by trying to clear out a nest of aggressive hornets using a bat with a nail sticking out of it and then swaggering around saying "I am the genius of this" is an insane thing to do, but La Russa definitely wanted people to think he was really smart so he did a lot of things like changing pitchers in a way that I can only describe as ostentatiously and painstakingly doing Handedness in his lineups and disdainfully scoffing at everyone who questions one of his bold decisions even if one of his most brilliant baseball innovations was pretending he had no idea his Oakland players were bathing in anabolic chemicals and swelling up into muscular blimp creatures that needed to be crane-lifted out of their tiny 1980s sports cars. On the other hand, I have read that he is very nice to animals.

Despite his gaffes and the increasingly frantic complaints from White Sox fans losing their minds that their championship-caliber team is in the hands of this doddering dill weed, La Russa seems in no danger of losing his job because of his close friendship with Jerry Reinsdorf.  That was not the case for another one of baseball's elderly personalities Joe Maddon, who was fired by the Angels in the midst of a twelve-game losing streak.*  Maddon, like La Russa, cultivated a quirky genius of baseball affect, but while La Russa comports himself like a dour prosecutor condescendingly explaining why his office is declining to charge a rogue detective unit that has gone on a spree of stealing blizzard machines from a local dairy queen and turning a police van into a mobile ice cream unit despite them being caught on twelve separate videos, Maddon comes across like a professor who boozes with his undergraduates.  Maddon loves to deploy unorthodox five-man infields, set up squeeze plays, and stash relief pitches in the outfield for tactical purposes.  This season, he issued an intentional walk with the bases loaded in a tied game (the Angels won); with the Cubs, he oversaw a nationally-televised game that involved relief pitcher Travis Wood making a tough catch in left field in the ivy and then ended on a walk-off Jon Lester pinch-hit bunt.  Maddon also brought zoo animals to spring training games, drove around in a van that he referred to as a "shaggin' wagon" and tried to break up a Cubs slump by hiring a magician to entertain the team with a variety of tricks.  It's a routine that was self-consciously quirky and goofy and obviously very annoying except that Maddon won a World Series for the Cubs, which I never thought I would see in my lifetime, so actually all of that was adorable even if the way he used his pitchers in Game 7 may have actually taken years off my life.

Maddon and La Russa represent an increasingly rare kind of baseball manager, the obstinate old guy who is determined to do things his way even if it is obviously self-defeating.  There are few bulbous, purple guys straining at the tensile limits of their baseball uniforms making baffling decisions and then kicking a hat in a way that it seems like it may make them immediately die around the game anymore.  Looking around baseball, most managers seem to be anonymous stubble guys in their 40s and 50s, and their jobs seem increasingly encroached upon by front offices as they oversee constantly shifting lineups and entire relief pitching staffs rotated in and out of the roster with a variety of minor league options and injury list shenanigans like they are hockey lines.  Managers seem mainly to be in charge of vibes, even as many of them appear to be bereft of personality.  Like many changes in baseball, it is obviously smarter and more effective to manage teams this way, but less entertaining than having an angry and possibly day-drunk old guy going with his gut and doing the dumbest thing possible and then yelling at reporters that they never played the game.  Here is a video of Earl Weaver arguing with an umpire and both of them have bizarre Old Man Voices that clearly don't exist anymore to the point that they seem dubbed in by improv comedians.

One disappointing change to baseball in 2022 is that umpires are now talking to us and have boring, normal Ref Voices whereas before the only time we ever heard an umpire speak is when they decided that instead of words they should be bellowing inexplicable throat noises like HRAAAAAAT and DEEEEEKE and we could imagine they all spoke exclusively in a mysterious, runic Ump Language 

I am not sure what the solution is for baseball's crisis in pain in the ass old guy managers.  The game certainly does not need any more Tonys La Russa.  Perhaps we can find a compromise and train the current crop of managers in the art of having truly embarassing on-field meltdowns and also have them smoke several packs a day of cigarettes or watch footage of Burgess Meredith so they know how to rasp weirdly when it is time for them to go nutso on an umpire.  Perhaps Major League Baseball may one day give us a different option in its evolution  between Boringly Optimized and Insanely Stupid.

*UPDATE I have just learned that Joe Maddon had just gotten a mohawk haircut in order to rally the troops but was fired before being able to show any of them, presumably leading to a despondent Maddon swilling wine and stewing in his rumpus room while wearing a ridiculous Rally Haircut, this is the most Joe Maddon way to get fired that I can possibly think of. Here is an Advanced AI Rendering:



SOMNAMBULISTS

"...The 'WWI origins' literature has assumed such vast dimensions that no single historian (not even a fantasy figure with an easy command of all the necessary languages) could hope to read it in one lifetime..." writes Christopher Clark in his 2013 WWI origins book The Sleepwalkers. And yet here is his tome, with Clark admitting that he has tossed his work onto the pile while also boldly declaring that he has something fresh to bring to the subject.  Like any historian entering into a crowded, well-trodden field, Clark seeks to refocus the debate-- his overarching argument is that Europe's chaotically unfocused governments combined with some bad contingent decisions allowed the continent to blunder into disaster-- but I think his goal also seems to be writing the definitive recent English-language account of the pre-war years for the twenty-first century that could stand alongside classics like Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August.  I can't pretend I know enough about the enormous body of literature about the beginnings of the war to say where it stands, but I think that Clark does an admirable job guiding readers through the beguiling international and domestic situations unfolding all over Europe while also having a good eye for the baffling and absurd and often ludicrously-mustachioed personalities who blithely led their countries into an unfathomably horrible conflagration.

One of Clark's contentions is that Serbian politics have traditionally gotten short shrift in grand World War I histories, so he starts there.  He describes the Serbian state as one shaped by regicide and fueled by nationalism and irredentism.  The bloc in power during the 1914 July Crisis had been largely shaped by the party that had assassinated King Alexandar, a child who assumed the throne at the age of twelve after his father abdicated and then four years later performed what Clark describes as a soft coup prematurely putting himself in power in a move orchestrated by his father who then operated as the king all but in name while both father and son alienated Serbians with increasingly authoritarian crackdowns.  Alexandar attracted increased opprobrium when he chose to marry an older woman named Draga Mašin, whom Clark describes as being unpopular because, among other things, she was "well-known for her allegedly numerous sexual liaisons."  

During a heated meeting of the Crown Council, when ministers attempted in vain to dissuade the king from marrying Mašin, the interior minister Djordje Genčić came up with a powerful argument: "sire you cannot marry her. She has been everybody's mistress-- mine included." The minister's reward for his candour was a hard slap across the face-- Genčić would later join the ranks of the regicide conspiracy.

Clark suggests that the murder of Alexandar and Mašin in 1903 brought to power a Serbian government beholden to a radical element that had killed a king and also supported a network of secret organizations that would serve as an unwieldy but influential pressure group within Serbia.  This group would push for increasing Serbian demands on Balkan lands and for hostility against the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

One of Clark's main arguments is that European governments were too disorganized to maintain coherent foreign policies.  Responsibilities, he writes, floated between heads of government, foreign offices, and various ambassadors on the ground, each with their own priorities, connections, and competence.  The other monkey wrench was the presence of monarchs with varying amounts of actual power, effectiveness at wielding it, and ability to communicate to their ministers, the public, and their peer monarchs, many of whom happened to also be cousins with the unfathomably strange family dynamics that come from people who are expected to spend most of their time strutting around in weird military uniforms and bloviating.  These systems led to incoherent policies, communication breakdowns, and swift changes that all created a vortex of chaos swirling over the Continent as the tensions and stakes grew after the assassination of the Archduke.

It is no surprise that the most compelling personality Clark writes about is Kaiser Wilhelm II.  Clark is a historian of Prussia and his previous work includes a biography of Wilhelm, which I am curious to read because his portrayal of the German monarch is one of the nastiest and funniest I have seen in a book like this.  Clark describes Wilhelm as a blundering oaf, a belligerent hawk constantly calling for war only to panic and seek conciliation when it looks like he might actually provoke a real conflict, and as personally extremely annoying. 

"It is worth picturing this scene--" Clark writes about a meeting between the German and Russian governments in 1912, "the glare of the sunlight on the broken stone of the old fort, [Russian prime minister Vladimir] Kokovtsov sweltering in his jacket, the Kaiser red-faced, his moustaches trembling as he warmed to his theme, gesticulating, oblivious to the discomfort of his companions, and behind him the Tsar, trying desperately to end the ordeal and get the party out of the sun."  Earlier in this summit, Clark writes that Wilhelm harangued the Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov "for over an hour in detail about his relationship with his parents, who, he claimed, had never loved him."  

Even his mustache seems to be saying "enough with this guy"

This is the point of the review where a normal person would discuss how Clark sets up the interplay of increasingly dangerous European power dynamics that could explode into a widespread war (the Austrians, for example, had considered the possibility of what they called a "Balkan inception" long before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and even longer before the phrase could be used to describe an ill-considered bootleg DVD purchase) with bad and almost blasé decisions by European statesman.  But you are reading a book review on a blogspot post that is largely an angry jeremiad against Tony La Russa, so it's important to point out the quantity of World War I Guys who spring out of these pages as tossed off asides or in photos.  Clark casually mentions that the head of the British mission to the Ottoman Navy was a person with the arresting name Arthur Limpus.  Almost everyone pictured has alarming and terrifying facial hair that I can imagine the tension in the room not only from high-powered negotiations but also the ever-present danger of ministers or adjutants or other minor dignitaries somehow turning their faces in the exact dangerous angle that results in a tangle of dangling mustaches, whiskers, and styles that can only be described as side-beards as white-gloved waiters sprint for scissors and dashing junior military aids draw their sabers, much like how the alliance system led to powers like Britain, Russia, Germany, and sometimes Italy getting sucked into a dispute between Austria and Serbia. 

It is impossible to imagine Russian Prime Minister Ivan Goremykin making it through an entire day without getting his mustachios stuck in some sort of gears or dumbwaiter 

It has become fashionable for historians to relate their work to the present context instead of leaving it to succeeding historians to take a look at what was going on when the book was written and decide that their work on Ottoman tapestries is reflecting Contemporary Cold War Tensions or something.  In this case, Clark is concerned about the breakdown of the international order in Europe during the European sovereign debt crisis unfolding in the early 2010s as the book was coming together.  Reading this less than a decade later, this view seems quaint.  Unfortunately, I think readers in 2022 need little convincing about the fragility of peace in Europe, and while Clark, writing in 2013, claims that foreign relations are more streamlined and less convoluted than they were in 1914, I think he would agree that world leaders don't have the decency to parade around with elaborate and impossibly stupid mustaches anymore.  

Monday, May 9, 2022

An Aesthetic Review of Baseball in 2022

Major League Baseball gets stereotyped as a slow, hidebound organization bound up in its own tradition and high on its own bow tie colunmist-addled romance, but the signature element of Rob Manfred’s tenure as commissioner has been rapid change in rules, strategy, and the general aesthetics of the game.  Within the last decade or so, MLB has imposed new limits on a game whose signature feature is a lack of a clock and the basic idea that the game lasts for 27 outs.  Now, teams have restrictions on when they can bring in relief pitchers, which has not done anything to stem the game from shifting to an endless parade of relief pitchers, and it has put a finite cap on mound visits, which has only existed to confuse people who are wondering what MVR means on a scoreboard.

The biggest and most noticeable change to Major League baseball in 2022 has been the long-predicted move to bring the designated hitter to the National League.  This is a recapitulation; the DH appeared in the NL during the odd, shortened Covid Season and then last year baseball fans were again treated to the absolute shittiest hitters to play in Major League games ineffectively flailing at baseballs and almost always getting out.  I assume that anyone reading this has attempted to discuss the designated hitter and is aware of the poisonous futility of the debate where fans of pitchers hitting discuss strategy and symmetry and the pro-DH faction attacks its opponents as sepia-toned bowties; in the worst case scenario, an American League pitcher would get injured running the bases and we’d have a debate over whether the professional athletes that do so much damage to their arms that a Frankensteinian cadaver ligament procedure is now considered routine should be shielded from the extremely dangerous task of running briefly in a straight line.  

I am not interested in discussing strategy or ASSETS or anything that has to do with the effects of designated hitting on actual baseball.  Instead, I am approaching this by weighing the aesthetics of the extremely common and hideous results of pitchers hitting (almost always getting out, horrid strikeouts, the contemptibly cowardly strategy of managers walking the eight hitter to get to the pitcher, sacrifice bunting) with the much more rare and sublime sights (an opposing pitcher fuming after giving up a hit or walking his counterpart, the ecstasy of a pitcher home run, pitchers wackily pressed into outfield duty).  In essence, I am weighing how many mind-numbing and unwatchable pitcher plate appearances are worth it for the sight of a guy standing somewhat confused on first base wearing a dorky satin jacket.  The other important element to weigh aesthetically is the actual designated hitter, whether watching an enormous, beefy oaf get to blissfully bop dingers versus watching him lummox around on the field.

An aesthetcially perfect baseball image. In 2022, Zambrano as a pitcher would have no understanding of how to use a bat and he would be at a complete loss as to how to destroy a Gatorade machine

Unfortunately, we had a perfect solution for this by having both sets of rules operable at the same time, but even with the advent of the universal DH, we are getting aesthetically shortchanged.  The universal DH has not led to the addition of several pleasingly refrigerator shaped doofuses showing up to destroy baseballs, but with a lot of teams choosing to rotate their designated hitter among the otherwise normal roster.  Kyle Schwarber, a man who is built like he hangs around the wharf antagonizing Popeye, one of the most prototypically DH-shaped human beings currently produced by baseball, has constantly found himself forced to ply his lummoxical arts in the outfield, first by the Cubs in 2020 when they elected to use a backup catcher as the designated hitter, and now by a Phillies lineup that is so graceless and lead-gloved that he is their best option in left because the operating philosophy in Philadelphia was to build a team of sixteen-inch softball players.  In my mind it is not only an aesthetic downgrade to replace the 25 times a year when a pitcher does something cool on offense with a DH rotating among fourth outfielders and backup catchers; it is a catastrophe.

The other major innovation is the PitchComm system where catchers wear a small device that looks like an NES controller that relays a pitch type and location to a small speaker located in the pitcher's hat.  This is designed to obviate the use of hand signals and prevent them from being stolen by other teams while also speeding up the game so that the pitcher does not spend what seems to be 38 minutes squinting at the catcher in between each pitch.  This is a triumph.  Even though dugouts are now filled with tablet computers and scoreboards show HD highlights, this is first on-field innovation baseball has had that makes the sport seem like it is evolving into High Tech Future Baseball since outfielders discovered those elaborate futuristic sunglasses in the 1980s.  

PitchComm seems to be simple, works, and looks really cool strapped to a catcher's arm or shinpad.  For several days, I desperately wanted to hear what the PitchComm voice sounds like, and when they played it on a Cubs broadcast, I was disappointed although not surprised that it is the same generic computer voice that tells you that your call is important to Comcast that is also telling a genetic arm freak to throw a 98 mph heater on the outside corner.  

(UPDATE May 25: a recent Cubs broadcast has informed me that teams are free to choose their own voices for PitchComm.  The Phillies, for example, use the voice of catcher J.T. Realmuto.  The ideal voice for the Cubs is unfortunately the late actor Dennis Farina screaming at the pitcher to "throw da fuckin' cutter," but I have heard the Cubs are experimenting with the voices of Svengoolie and Peter Francis Geraci who implores pitchers to consult his breaking ball info tapes.    

I think that it should be possible for catchers, in emergency panic situations, to switch the voice to Arnold Mode.  I also remain intrigued with the possibilities for a team to hack into the oppositions PitchComm system or for teams to elude to it the same way that Ryan Tepera insinuated that the Houston Astros were at it again in last year's playoffs after a vanquished team notices that the Astros' new coach in the dugout is a code-breaking robot hidden under a trenchcoat.

The Houston Astros introduce their new Quality Control C.O.A.C.H.

THE NFL DRAFT IS THE QUINTESSENTIAL AMERICAN SPORTS EVENT

The NFL Draft has come and gone again, the single most deranged event on the sports calendar and the most quintessentially American, replacing any game action with a large crowd of people who cannot possibly have an informed opinion on anything going on and yet are getting insanely mad.  I love writing about the NFL draft because of its disparate and genuinely alarming combinations of freaks: the NFL executives who put on this bloated and cartoonish paean to the self-importance of the National Football League led by a commissioner losing his annual duel with a teleprompter; the facepaint maniacs enduring hours of tedium in order to hoot and holler for players they have never heard of in order to be shown hooting on television at the opportune moment; Mel Kiper, Jr., one of the genuinely weirdest sports-adjacent personalities on the face of the Earth whose appearance on a satellite feed combined with his ascending balding Dracula haircut made him seem like an evil Space Emperor cutting into the broadcast to threaten the planet with an offensive lineman who should have gone in the second round; and (most disgustingly) dorks watching the draft for content to put on their sports blog for three dozen people.

Kiper demands the people of Earth send him a "sudden, explosive" pass rusher or he will laser Jimmy Clausen's face onto Mount Rushmore

Yet while the NFL Draft serves as an insane fever dream, the league has actually managed to ramp up and hype the draft to the extent they have successfully made it a traveling annual party for fans of the league.  This is in addition to the Super Bowl, which is already an annual party involving the NFL, albeit one that seems to be catered increasingly towards corporate sponsors and not a place where a person who has worked very hard on an elaborate Arizona Cardinals bird headpiece can get on television bellowing about a 6th round guard from Gerald University II.  The NBA's all-star weekend functions like this as well, as a sort of party and NBA convention.  Major League baseball throws its annual party when an 85 year-old person from Boston writes a 250,000 word book about the pastoral grace and youthful violence that provided the keening engine for America and then immediately dies.

This year, the NFL managed to lessen its own berserk weirdness by putting the draft in Las Vegas.  The magic of the draft presentation combined the draft's procedural inanity with the NFL's version of spectacle, which gave it the air of an alien circus.  There is simply no way to describe NFL draft decisions like "Mike Mayock threatens to walk off the set after an orangutan reveals draft picks using an ipad" that does not seem like it is lifted from the Paul Verhoeven Starship Troopers.  Unfortunately, Las Vegas runs entirely on knowing, campy excess, so there was no amount of cheesy Criss Angel tricks or appearances by an orange, plasticine Wayne Newton that did not feel out of place.  The most interesting thing that happened on the parts of the draft broadcast that I saw was former Viking Ed Marinaro rambling for so long that an NFL official came out to scold him, very nearly brandishing a vaudeville hook.

The move to Las Vegas allowed the NFL to do the unthinkable and outsource its draft spectacle to local entertainment instead of trying to manufacture it.  There is something ineffable and intriguing about the way the league presents itself in all aspects other than the game itself, with a perspective that seems rooted in a remote executive clubbiness that is completely divorced from a multi-billion-dollar entertainment concern.  At all times, the principle guiding the NFL is a mix between stodginess and the things that genuine country club weirdos like Goodell or maybe Jim Nantz think would be interesting.  More than any other league, the guiding hand of the owners' bizarre sensibilities pokes through the entertainment side of the NFL leading to one of the strangest things annually to appear on mainstream television.  

The draft broadcast should feel like an eerie dystopian nightmare bracketed by truck commercials but failed in that respect this year.  This is why I propose that the next NFL draft should be held on an aircraft carrier.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

An Incompleat Taxonomy of March Madess Characters

Every single year I watch less and less college basketball and know fewer and fewer players on any of the teams and think I could not possibly care about the NCAA Tournament and then I watch a few minutes of a game and get hopelessly sucked in because a team I’ve never heard of whose mascot is a disconcertingly accurate marmot or cartoon rendering of a blacksmith whose plush face has features a horrifying rictus has an ungainly 6’9” center with a wispy mustache wearing what appear to be prescription shoes who is somehow getting buckets off an NBA lottery pick and I am back in. 

A delightful air of mystery surrounds the tournament. The sport is simply too large and unwieldy for anyone to master, and with one and dones and players transferring it is hard to keep track of who is even on the big teams anymore to the point where the eight foot person on Purdue has a different name every year. The tournament thrives from its veil of ignorance; there are entire schools no one has heard of and players no one knows that arrive fully formed at the tournament with their whole thing that they have spent the last five months workshopping in dusty conferences at the margins of their sport until they are on the court desperately trying to beat a name brand school before blowing three consecutive attempts to inbound a ball.

The NCAA Tournament is where the weaknesses of college basketball as a product– that it is generally very bad basketball when compared to the professional leagues– work exactly in its favor because no one cares what the games look like or how they are played as long as they are close and there are upsets. Teams, even those with future NBA stars, melt down. They miss shots. They commit atrocious fouls. There are probably cumulative hours of NCAA tournament play each year where someone who is months away from starting dental school is ineptly throwing James Harden step-back threes in the general direction of the rim and instead of being aesthetically revolting it is exciting because the opposing team has a 5’9” point guard who is wearing what appears to be a giveaway t-shirt underneath his jersey and refuses to miss. I understand the NBA people who, even putting aside the monstrous elements of college sports, hate college basketball on an aesthetic level, but in the tournament it is precisely the maddening and inexpert play that allows strange teams filled with unorthodox zones or unexpectedly lumpy players to rub elbows with the glamor teams and makes everything so entertaining.

The ephemeral and unexpected nature of the NCAA Tournament means that we will see players appear that we have never heard of and become legends for several hours or maybe a week or two before fading back to obscurity. The top of the line March Madness guy is a large, unexpectedly doughy oaf who is the best player on the team, somehow throwing dazzling passes out of the post or throwing up preposterous layups and hook shots. The second best is a very short player who catches fire from three. The next best is a freaskishly tall player; there’s at least one in every tournament, and since the NBA has stylistically negated gigantic, earthbound centers, it’s always nice to see a reminder that being enormously tall is an advantage in basketball as this guy lopes around and drops the ball into the basket or swats opposing shots into the stratosphere while only sort-of jumping. It is also very important for a successful NCAA tournament to have players who favor atrocious semi-formed facial hair, unnecessary accessories, or unorthodox hair styles destroy a big-time basketball program while the opposing coach writhes in agony.

While novelty powers the NCAA Tournament Experience, there is also a comfort in familiarity. Though college basketball’s overwhelming discourse revolves around movement-- top players leaving for the NBA after a year and the constant churn of transfers-- any moment of continuity helps, so a lesser type of enjoyable NCAA tournament character are players on perennial tournament teams that come back year after year until they appear as the most wizened and grizzled 24 year-olds on the planet. There are also the coaches who appear every year with the same rat-based yell faces, the same hoarse screams, the same cronenbergian combovers straining over undulating head veins. Generally if you recognize a college basketball coach, there is no joy greater than seeing him tossed from the tournament like rotting produce.

The reassuring sight of Brad Underwood's combover that looks like a 
tarantula that is grasping onto a half pound of ground chuck

There’s a sports radio cliche that everyone roots for upsets the first week and then wants to see the big programs after that, but that is not true for me. I want to see the upsets in the first rounds and then not much else because the schools I’ve never heard of coming out of nowhere and the various unexpected basketball weirdos they produce forms the only necessary part of the tournament. The whole event’s appeal for me is that it is a few days of chaotically delightful sports nonsense that happen on a weekday while you are probably supposed to be doing something else. After that, it’s just college basketball.

THE CUBS INTRODUCE THE ARTFUL MONEY-TANK

The MLB owners ended their lockout only after the rounds of fruitless late-night negotiations, the secret last-minute provisions, the endless shots of baseball players in casual conference-ware walking determinedly across parking lots, and the universal derision aimed towards commissioner Rob Manfred for being Rob Manfred. After the bitter labor fight, Manfred and the league decided to placate angry fans with the only gesture that can delight twenty-first century sports consumers: a relentless flurry of Big Time Deals. Within several days, teams began a whirlwind of signings, trades, and player movement that have come to overshadow sports themselves and by now have their own rituals: the Auspicious Reporter Tweet, the Eyeballs Emoji, the Dribbling of Incomplete Information, the Let’s Go Bicep Emoji Tweet, and finally the Jersey Over Dress Shirt Press Conference. I’m not going to pretend I’m above this as I monitor the rumors and hoot and holler with everyone else because for some reason sports transactions hit an incredibly satisfying part of the brain even if the hit is brief and ephemeral and it is clear that the Cubs are going to continue to stink.

At the very last second before the lockout, the Cubs locked up pitcher Marcus Stroman to add to their beknighted rotation. Then they emerged from seemingly nowhere to sign the star Japanese outfielder Seiya Suzuki. Suzuki, one of the top hitters in NPB for the Hiroshima Carp, inexplicably eschewed a number of contending teams to sign with the Cubs. He is the best possible kind of signing for this Cubs team because he arrives as a mystery who can exist as pure possibility. There are no MLB stats to quibble with that always come with worrying indicators that any success is bound to regress to the mean and no emotional baggage from being annoyed with him on the other teams; Suzuki currently exists only as insane NPB stats and videos of him hitting exquisite bombs and the hope that somehow he could become a superstar to replace the World Series heroes that the team so cynically jettisoned at last year’s trade deadline.

The big splashy moves that the Cubs made don’t make any sense because if the Cubs wanted popular, expensive, and skilled players they could have simply re-signed even one of their World Series stars. Instead, the Cubs appeared to be poised to rebuild, to gleefully throw themselves into the shitter and hope that a few of the teenagers they traded for will be good in several years while charging major league prices to watch some minor league flotsam. Other than those two signings and a few cromulent major league veterans to completely avoid embarrassing themselves, this is what they are doing. Unless it turns out that the 30 year old guys who unexpectedly had a few hot months are actually somehow good now, that Frank Schwindel is somehow the second coming of Miguel Cabrera, and that all of their underperforming holdovers all of a sudden start playing the best baseball of their lives, the Cubs will be a very bad baseball team. But if the Cubs are tanking, at least they put a little bit of art into it, throwing us a couple of bones with Stroman and Suzuki while watch Baez in Detroit, Rizzo in New York, and Bryant in some sort of phantom zone. Until those jerks trade Willson Contreras.

A TOAST

Matt Berry has the gift of a sonorous baritone voice that he wields expertly to make himself sound like a spectacular dipshit. I first became aware of him watching grainy downloaded bootlegs of Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place, a British show about a schlocky horror novelist whose 1980s supernatural hospital drama has been resurrected and intercut with interviews with Marenghi and the cast and featuring deliberately awful acting, clumsy effects, and atrocious dialogue. Berry played Dr. Lucien Sanchez, the sidekick for Marenghi’s character Rick Dagless M.D., whose job is to gravely ask questions and fight supernatural forces with karate.

Berry also had a wonderfully strange sketch show called Snuff Box and is great on the vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows, but my favorite thing he has done is the bizarre theater comedy Toast of London. He plays boorish actor Stephen Toast, who desperately attempts to work in a surreal London thespian world of deranged plays often opposite his sworn nemesis Ray “Bloody” Purchase, nonsensical voice-over roles helmed by sneering producers one of whom is named “Clem Fandango,” the concept of “high winds acting,” and various directors all played the same guy who at inevitably threaten to murder him. But Toast of London is not really about anything more than an excuse for Berry to pronounce words in a ridiculous way and for people to have silly names. It is the type of show where a joke is that Purchase greets Toast by saying “well well well” to him with the camera dramatically zooming in on every “well.” 

It is rare that a camera move gag lands so well, but one of my favorites in recent years comes from the master of the camera zoom joke Hong Sang-Soo.  The quick pan and zoom to the woman in the car looking miserable after her friend angrily calls her stingy and storms off tearily during the road trip in the movie Night and Day is funny even without the context of the pathetic quasi-love triangle. 

Seven years after the last episode of Toast of London, Toast has returned in Toast of Tinseltown, where Stephen Toast has come to Los Angeles in the belief that he has a role in a Star Wars film. The Hollywood setting gives him a new tableau of strange characters– the first thing you see is in Toast of Tinseltown is Larry David playing a JFK conspiracy theorist who is teaming up with Clem Fandango to berate Toast who is incredulously narrating his audiobook. But Toast of Tinseltown does not go Hollywood. The show was filmed in London and (with some exceptions, including a mysterious and annoying roommate played by Fred Armisen and his housekeeper who is not all she appears to be played by Rashida Jones) largely features British actors doing variously successful American accents. This creates an even more surreal Hollywood artificially created on British sound stages that feels of a piece with the earlier incarnation’s grotesque London.  Hollywood is so fetid and filled with weirdos that even with Toast's baseline befuddlement and malevolence, he is occasionally the voice of reason.

The change of scenery has thrown Toast of Tinseltown off a little bit, unmooring Toast from his usual haunts for the most part and adding in awkward Zoom cameos, but the basic Toast rhythm of him finding himself in a terrible acting job filled with deranged people with ridiculous names and then making it worse by being an unaware, malicious (Berry would probably pronounce this mal ISS eee us) buffoon, and that is exactly what I needed.  There is a hospital drama where Toast is paired with an international pop star who breaks into an unexpectedly bawdy rap, there is an almost hallucinatory trip to the desert, there is a dream-like meeting with a Hollywood legend in black and white, there is (of course) Clem Fandango adapting to a California lifestyle seemingly engineered to irritate Toast.  

Toast of Tinseltown came out early this year in Britain.  I have no idea when or if it will be available to watch legally here.  I managed to track down a low-quality bootleg version because I could not wait, just like how I had watched the original series on a youtube feed where the entire thing had been shrunk to a small corner of the screen to avoid detection.  Though it's not ideal, there's a certain charm to watching it this way, almost reminiscent of the effort it took to track down weird cult stuff before the internet trained us to expect everything to be easily available instantly and all of the time.  Hopefully, it will be available soon on one of the streaming platforms so I can see what happens when on the version I saw the video cut out and just showed a blurry, red Toast head superimposed over the screen, but perhaps that is the way it is meant to be seen.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Bulls Fans Have Been Waiting Nearly 25 Years For A Guy To Do Turnaround Jumpers Again

Every time DeMar DeRozan goes to the line in the United Center, he is  serenaded with MVP chants.  Certain NBA numbers-mongers would say that he has virtually no chance of winning, towered over by several big men who are all having better seasons.  But DeRozan, who has been brilliantly carrying a Bulls team hobbled not only by the franchises's traditional suite of knee injuries but also missing two players who broke their wrists after getting clotheslined at the rim, has cemented himself as a Chicago sports legend by getting as close to replicating Michael Jordan's offensive game as humanly possible at the exact moment that the city has been thrown into a Jordan-crazed reverie by a ten hour documentary where ESPN let him swill tequila and say fuck at his myriad basketball enemies when they are shown to him on an iPad.

The threes-and-layups architecture has taken over the NBA and I can't complain too much; the style of play and the rules changes that make it illegal to bludgeon players with their own ripped-off arms has generally made for a more entertaining product than the hideous trench basketball of the Jordan heyday.  But it is still nice to a player absolutely punish an opposing team with the fadeaway jumpshot, a technique that DeRozan has been stubbornly clinging to as the master of a forgotten art.

For me, the midrange turnaround jumper was The Shot.  It was how Jordan amassed his points, by posting up an opponent sixteen feet from the basket and shooting over him over and over and then barraging him with a variety of unhinged insults.  Every once in awhile, a player would emerge as a Jordan Stopper or, even worse, a Self-Proclaimed Jordan Stopper, and more often than not, he would find himself on the losing end and then have to listen to Jordan derisively laugh at him while wearing the largest suit ever created for a 6' 6" person. 


It was not Gerald Wilkins's fault that the media labeled him the "Jordan Stopper" but I can't imagine a worse fate for an otherwise anodyne 1990s NBA player than becoming a Named Jordan Adversary

The Shot became the calling card for so many star NBA scorers as a proving ground.  I used to gauge whether a college wing could get off The Shot as a good barometer of whether they could get off enough space to be able to score in the NBA, even though I have no idea what I'm talking about but it seemed like a good sports opinion to lay on someone unfortunate enough to be drinking beer near me during an NCAA tournament game before they were forced to detonate a smoke bomb and vanish to a stool next to a less annoying person. 

I believe that there are two reasons that the midrange turnaround jumper became less prominent.  One was the rise of basketball analysis on the internet which included actual spreadsheet perverts demonstrating how inefficient the shot is and then a bunch of people who half-understood it but wanted to sound smart also parroting this line by admonishing midrange shooting without nuance and also constantly shoehorning in inescapable references to Game of Thrones, a television show I have never seen but could probably credibly explain the entire plot of because I wanted to read about whether Jimmy Butler was getting All Star Momentum in 2013.  The other reason is that, let's face it, the turnaround jump shot in the hands of anyone short of an actual master can be a hideous abomination, and there were years in the early 2000s of Headband Guys fruitlessly bricking isolation eighteen-footers at each other for minutes at a time while getting sourly scolded by Hubie Brown.

The Bulls have had several very good players since Jordan, but DeRozan is their first star player who has managed to ascend to the aesthetic of his game.  He is doing this with a hail of fadeaway jumpers, and in the fourth quarter he is throwing them in like the basket is magnetized.  At the end of a game, teams are sending two or three guys directly at him and he is still cruising to his spot just off the free throw line where everyone in the building knows he is going to, throwing up three or four pump fakes (this is a unique DeRozan signature), and baiting an opponent into bumping into him while he hits another shot.  It does not matter.  He doesn't miss.  He is on a scoring streak matched in a Bulls uniform only by Michael Jordan.


The Bulls didn't need a reasonable Jordan facsimile to be fun again.  They needed good players and for the front office to be made up of normal people and not weird head guys constantly accused of doing John Le Carré-style espionage.  Bulls fans would be delighted with DeRozan having his marvelous season with a more modern array of moves.  But for middle-aged Bulls fans, seeing a player dragging the Bulls back to relevance whose game is a Proustian sense memory of the team's annual humiliation of Patrick Riley is an added delight.

THESE MOTHERFUCKERS LOVE CANCELING BASEBALL GAMES

It's been clear for the past few years that there was not going to be a full Major League season in 2022 as the owners became increasingly brazen in their anti-baseball agenda and the players signaled their growing disgust with barren free agency periods and multiple franchises refusing to field competitive teams.  But the way it ended, with a smirking Manfred making the Animal House oh boy is this great face at reporters while gleefully wiping out the first week of the season, made for a grim coda to the week of parody negotiations by owners who came down to Florida specifically for the purpose of canceling games.

Rob Manfred's job is to go out in front of reporters and tell them how the players' recalcitrance is preventing games from being played even though the lockout is a unilateral imposition from league ownership that they could lift at any time.  Manfred is not even a fun villain.  He exudes the tedious menace of a middle manager.  Somehow he is boring and humorless enough to submarine whatever point he is making without ever ascending to the stiff dignity of a person it would be funny to see Rodney Dangerfield shove in a pool.  And yet, Manfred needs to be out there because the alternative is for baseball to put one of the owners, a conglomerate of blotchy oligarchs who consist exclusively of financial criminals and sons, out there to weep about how paying the Collective Bargaining Tax would leave them destitute or by gnawing on something.  The only owner who seems to have any sort of public personality is a slimy hedge fund guy implicated in insider trading who openly feuds with his team's players on twitter for Doing Thumbs.  

All sports commissioners share the important job of having fans call them a piece of shit while the team owners berate the staff of their yachts but the disconcerting thing about Manfred is that he seems to enjoy it.  Unlike Roger Goodell, who carries himself like an embattled governor and loves to do Investigations and talk about Resiliency In These Uncertain Times or Adam Silver whose role seems to be to try to keep team owners from publicly clashing with the NBA's celebrity superstars egregiously enough to affect the league's profits, Manfred seems to exist completely outside the sport.  He seems like he'd be delighted to lock out workers in any industry.  While Goodell imbues the NFL with a ridiculous air of importance as an American institution on par with a government department and Silver sees the NBA as a lucrative television product to sell around the world, Manfred's relationship to baseball seems completely abstract.  He is a dour henchman.

Every time you see this Manfred guy on television it is because he spends 90 percent of his time sourly shitting on baseball or introducing some asinine new rule to fix the game by shaving fifteen seconds off a mound visit.  He says this while his bosses put their games exclusively on regional cable networks that are involved in intricate carriage rights disputes that mean that no one can even watch the games and while they call for increasing the number of playoff teams to an amount that is beyond the number of teams actually trying to field a competitive team.  Maybe baseball is so slow and long that it has always been destined to become a relic of a sport like horse racing, boxing, or even bowling but it sure would be interesting to find out what would happen if it was not controlled by group of people who treat the players, fans, and the sport itself with such contempt.

THE WINTER OLYMPICS SHOULD BE MORE FLAT

The Olympics may be a cesspool of scandal from grasping middlemen but there is one outrage that no one else has the courage to expose and that is that the so-called "Winter Games" disproportionately take place on mountains.  I have done the rigorous research of looking up the 2022 Winter Olympics on Wikipedia ("Bing Dwen Dwen's astronaut-like clothes imply that the Winter Olympics embraces new technologies and create possibilities") and more than half of the events required athletes to fling themselves down mountains or on ramps located on mountains.  This is a preposterous situation.  The Winter Olympics should add more flat events.

As a Midwesterner, I resent the association of winter with bluff people in neoprene suits and goggles jauntily flying down mountains.  Many of us experience winter as an endlessly bleak grayness  where the beauty of fallen snow is almost instantaneously rendered into beige sludge accented by dog piss and where the only thing we can rakishly throw ourselves down is maybe a pile of garbage that someone made into a small hill in a park.  Imagine if more than half of the Summer Olympic events involved athletes barreling down a hill in a soapbox derby car or hurling themselves off of a cliff in one of those extreme sports squirrel suits.  These are not the Mountain Olympics.  I am absolutely not a crank to demand that the IOC think about people who live thousands of miles from the nearest elevated surface and spend months standing on train platforms where slush hits them in the face horizontally while they huddle under one of those ineffectual heaters when they are determining which games to label as "winter."

Sure, the flat regions have ice skating, hockey, curling, cross-country skiing, and cross-country skiing while shooting a gun.  That's enough for you, is what the IOC says while handing the rest of the events off to a bunch of Alpine maniacs who recreate by trying to smash their heads into an ice wall while finishing a course three tenths of a second faster than their opponent with whom they have an inscrutable feud over who gets to be the Bad Boy of Bobsledding.  But I refuse to accept these scraps.  It's time for people form lowlands, flatlands, and basins to come together and demand Competitive Snow Shoveling.

Anyone who has ever lived in any sort snow-prone area has spent a depressingly large part of their life shoveling snow off driveways, sidewalks, and around cars that, when moved, people invariably throw a bunch of old chairs, buckets, tomato cages, religious figurines, etc. in to save their spot in a ritual that every cold city in this country claims is some sort of charming regional practice even though it is an inventible consequence of snow and street parking.  Who would not tune into the Olympics to see which country produces the persons who can claim they are the greatest at shoveling?

Competitive shoveling would work by giving athletes a uniform volume of identical snow to clear in a timed event.  People can compete by themselves, in pairs, and in semi-pairs where only one athlete is shoveling and the other person is yelling at them.  For the first several years, we would be witness the beginnings of the sport where shoveling athletes had not yet figured out the optimal techniques, equipment, and body shape for competitors so the first few years would be the shoveling equivalent of those Van Damme fighting tournaments where a karate guy is fighting either a sumo wrestler or a boxer or a guy who is channeling the fighting spirit of a lemur and rolling around in disconcerting ways.  Sports fans the world over deserve to hear an announcer grimly noting that a shoveler caught up on some ice caused by a tire tread is not going to want to lose valuable tenths of a second there or finding out that the greatest snow shoveler on the planet is a grumpy 54 year-old Estonian or a prodigy from a tropical climate.

It's time to end the domination of the Winter Olympics by dashing snowboarders and lunatic ski jumpers and give people who spend their time trudging through giant piles of snow while saying "dammit" under their breath more space in the Olympic Games by timing how well they can shovel several cubic feet of snow for my entertainment.   

Friday, November 26, 2021

Sad Cat Hat Chat

The last Illinois coach to win the fabled Hat trophy was literally Tim Beckman, the state's most prominent doofus-coach.  Beckman did a heroic service to this particular blog as the first person I am aware of who went all-in unironically on the woeful rivalry between these two programs by printing what many prominent archaeologists recognize as the only anti-Northwestern rivalry merchandise ever produced, referred to Northwestern as "that school upstate" presumably because he was not quite able to wrap his head around Northwestern's northern and slightly eastern distance from Champaign, and, as we later learned from documents related to the lawsuit that led to his dismissal, made his injured players wear purple in order to show that they are weak.  


Former Illinois coach Tim Beckman dramatically demands The Hat

Beckman won in 2014 in the greatest game ever played between Northwestern and Illinois, a game between two five-win teams for a spot in the Heart of Dallas Bowl held in the dilapidated husk of the old Cotton Bowl.  Illinois fired Beckman a week before the season began the next season.  They've lost every Hat Game since.  Northwestern beat interim coach Bill Cubit in an extremely depressing game played at Soldier Field, and Lovie Smith went winless against the 'Cats in five tries.  For six years, the Hat has not graced the head of a single Illini.  The longest streak of wins in this series is seven, both done by Illinois; they beat Northwestern from 1979-1985 and in all contests between 1913-1927 that paused for the First World War with no games from 1916-1921 and for a reason that I have unable been able to discover between 1924 and 1926.  A Northwestern win here would also even the all-time record as Illinois currently leads 55-54-5.  These stakes are silly and sort of meaningless but they are important that, given Northwestern's dire reputation due to a few decades of being extremely bad, they would at least be as bad if not slightly less bad than perhaps the Big Ten's historically second-worst team.

But Evanston's emergency Potential Hat Loss sirens are flashing because Northwestern was once again throttled, this time at the hands of Purdue in a showdown at Wrigley Field that football experts have described as "extraordinarily silly."  The 'Cats held their own in the first half and looked like they could keep it close until Purdue discovered the One Simple Trick to defeating Northwestern by throwing a sideline route to Milton Wright (defensive coordinators hate it!) and the game turned into another boring rout.

The star of the game was not Wright or Aiden O'Connell or any Purdue player, but it was Wrigley Field, which was put into Football Mode by hastily constructing a slip 'n slide over the infield dirt.  Players lost their footing on almost every play in the Chaos Grass. On two occasions, the Purdue kicker lined up for a kickoff and completely ate shit; the sight of a Purdue player flying in the air like he has slipped on a cartoon banana peel was a very Purdue sight at the game, and the fact that his accidental onside kick bounced off a Wildcat and let the Boilermakers recover the ball can only be described as "brutally Northwestern."

 


Northwestern is scheduled to play at least two more games at this wretched baseball diamond so hopefully they will either figure out how to install a surface that can be used for something other than the escape scene from a silent movie about bumbling art thieves or they just lean into it and just leave the infield dirt and pitchers' mound and bases on the field and let the players try to avoid them as the announcers say things like "well the bags are loaded" as players writhe around and grab their ankles near first, second, and third base.

In 2010, the Wrigley game was a college football event.  This was the only time I could possibly imagine ESPN's College Gameday, then at its peak as the official capital of college football, visiting a game between Illinois and Northwestern.  The game itself was a one-endzone debacle, featuring a miserable Northwestern team without an injured Dan Persa that gave up 300 yards rushing to Illinois's Mikel LeShoure.  By 20201, games at baseball stadiums have proliferated across college football.  This time the game was not nationally televised but featured on Big Ten Network Regional Action.  While the broadcast was unbearably hamfisted with baseball references, I did enjoy some of the shtick such as putting up the out of town Big Ten scores and playing Take Me Out to the Ballgame between the third and fourth quarter.  I doubt the game drew any additional curious onlookers. and those who did were treated to yet another desultory Northwestern loss on a sloppy field.  

There is only one game left for Northwestern to play before the season mercifully ends, and I can hardly bear the thought of it.

HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT

The 2019 Hat Game, where a woeful two-win Northwestern team marched to what seemed to be certain doom against a frisky Illinois team that had upset Wisconsin earlier in that season, stands as one of the funniest and most satisfying Northwestern wins I have ever seen. The Hat was practically there on Lovie Smith's head, and Northwestern took it away by completely abandoning the passing game and just letting quarterback Andrew Marty run them over again and again in a truly disgusting, muddy, rain-filled slop in front of 29 people.  

To this day, I am not sure what happened with Lovie Smith.  Smith is the best Bears coach of my lifetime, and I am not sure how you go from getting a team with Rex Grossman as the quarterback to the Super Bowl to getting outfoxed by Mick McCall.  My theory is that Smith was not deranged enough for college football, where the coaching duties include becoming a complete maniac and abandoning oneself to madness.  Even as Smith tried to lean into lunacy by growing a legitimately insane-looking beard and losing to Northwestern five years in a row, he could not quite do it, especially in a rivalry game that I believe can be won only by the biggest Football Oaf on the field.


I believe that Smith would have been able to succeed if he didn't stop at the beard but added an additional Grizzled Accessory to his repertoire each season such as an eyepatch or a snake. 

Illinois has countered with college football's preeminent oaf, Bret Bielema.  Bielema, who traded a successful stint in Madison into a maddening run with Arkanas in the SEC and some NFL time with the Patriots and Giants, has returned to the Big Ten.  Bielema is not as splashy of a hire as Lovie Smith was, but he's an identifiable commodity, knows the Midwest and Big Ten, and is probably the exact type of coach who can get the Illini back to some bowl games once he recruits enough rectangular guys to run his preferred type of football.  


We're coming to you live from Bret Bielema's Car

But I am not interested in Bielema as a football coach.  I need to know that Illinois football is back in the hands of a Football Character that at least makes these games funny and interesting to write about.  He at least looks the part, somehow resembling a drawing of John Madden done by Gary Larson, and the internet is dying to show you pictures of his bare torso.  The SEC network found him to be so fascinating that they gave him a reality show in 2016 entitled "Being Bret Bielema," which consists mainly of people telling you how interesting Bielema is while watching him mumble quips into the camera and it is a grim reminder that Bielema's roguishly jolly uncle who is really into his Trans-Am affect is what counts as being a character in college football's grim ecosystem of joyless hardasses, scolds, and people who are shown on television every week screaming in a way that would be the most embarrassing public meltdown anyone reading this has ever had.  

There is no way a college football coach could ever come across as interesting in that sort of controlled media environment because the profession exclusively recruits personalities incapable of self-reflection or doubt.  Football coaches are almost always funniest when in the throes of their madness than in any canned press conference or documentary series.  Pat Fitzgerald is way funnier when he is seriously fuming about why he was upset about the disrespect shown to his program because Joey Galloway called his team a bunch of "Rece Davises" than Bret Bielema boomhauerishly muttering a tight five about why they don't serve egg nog all year into an SEC network camera because Fitzgerald has left his corporeal being and is vibrating at a pitch of indignation impossible for a normal non-football-brained human to comprehend.  I can think of nothing a football coach could do that would be funnier than asking Bob Diaco to patiently explain to the trophy store guy the exact specifications of the Civil conFLiCT trophy. 

 The Civil conFLiCT trophy reappeared this year when UCF appeared to have it on the sidelines of their game this season, the plot has thickened where UCF appears to have commissioned an imposter "ringer" trophy specifically to mock UCONN as the original trophy appears to remain missing. Every single thing about exemplifies the very best of college football.

While Bret Bielema is a Television-Certified Football Character, he is unfortunately lacking in the most important department, an insane obsession with antagonizing the Northwestern football team.  Bielema and Fitzgerald are good friends, and Bielema seems more concerned about returning to the sidelines after missing Illinois's last game with Covid and seeing off his seniors than about winning the Hat.  Beckman's anti-Northwestern signs remain gathering dust in some forgotten supply closet.  

Illinois has had an up and down year, with four wins including upsets over Penn State and Minnesota as well as a loss to Rutgers.  A fifth win would put Illinois on the Bowl Standby List and cap a successful season as they return to respectability.  A Northwestern win would tie all of the records mentioned above and bring this lousy season to end on a good note, with Northwestern players jubilantly clutching the Hat and showing that when it comes to rivalry games you can Throw Out The Records.  

A road loss to a better Illinois team is not in and of itself disastrous in this slog of a season.  I don't know if this game will ever regain the heights it did in the heyday of the Beck Man, when his frenzied desire to possess the Hat gave every single game an irresistible subplot that culminated in him finally holding the Hat aloft triumphantly in Ryan Field cackling with a mad glee blissfully unaware that he was about to be catapulted out of college athletics for the foreseeable future.  Bielema, frankly, and to my eternal disappointment, does not really seem that into The Hat.  Perhaps the only way to get some more juice into this rivalry short of one of the programs hiring a person who is at least willing to act like a buffoonish Football Maniac for my amusement would be if these two teams were sort of good at the same time.  That appears to be less likely.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Somehow A Northwestern-Purdue Game is the Least Embarrassing Wrigley Field Sports Event in 2021

 At this point, I think it is fair to say that there is significant overlap between this blog and Northwestern’s football season in that the first question anyone would ask when encountering it is “why are they still doing this.”  The Wildcats are in a brutal tailspin where they lose in horrid and predictable ways on as they finish what could be their worst season in the twenty-first century; with only two games left and the hope of a bowl game evaporated, there is little hope of any turnaround.

The Wisconsin game unfolded along predictable lines: with the exception of a shocking early drive that ended with an endzone interception, the Wildcat offense did virtually nothing and the defense was overwhelmed by the Wisconsin running game.  The game was also marred by uncharacteristic penalties including the second consecutive week with a sideline interference penalty.  This week, Northwestern football hit a new low by succumbing to the dreaded Beckman Penalty, where a coach runs into an official on the sideline, named for the classic moment where Tim Beckman, in the middle of screaming about an interception, got completely leveled by a referee who then disdainfully dropped a flag on his prone body without even looking at him.  I don’t believe that the broadcast showed which Northwestern coach perpetrated the bump so I am choosing to believe that it happened because Pat Fitzgerald got so angry that he swelled to two to three times his normal girth and while he was spinning around with steam blasting from his nostrils he inadvertently smacked into a line judge.

 

Once again, Northwestern was left searching for answers at quarterback.  The Wildcats have vacillated among Hunter Johnson, Ryan Hillinski, and Andrew Marty.  I have not yet been able to determine who they will go to for the next game either because Pat Fitzgerald hilariously continues to guard his roster information like it is a Cold War nuclear submarine design or because the coaching staff genuinely doesn’t know.  One thing they have not tried is using two or possibly three quarterbacks at the same time, bamboozling the opposing defense by having quarterbacks hand off to each other, pass to each other, lateral to each other, or kick field goals.  Another use for a spare quarterback is to have one of them put on a Pudue uniform and attempt to enter the game as a linebacker to enact sabotage, which I guess is technically illegal under all sorts of NCAA by-laws but would be incredibly funny.

I just did a brief google search to see if anyone had actually tried this because it seems like something a guy named "Crankshaft" Harold Van Gruntte would have attempted in 1923 when the rules of college football involved things like "try not to get caught biting someone" but the only thing I found was the story of the Belgian league soccer player shown here showing up to his team's training ground wearing a rival team's jersey in order to force a transfer and then desperately pulling on the doors when no one would let him in, so if anyone out there has a verified story about an American football player at any level trying to sneak onto the field in an opponents' jersey in order to secretly do a shitty hold for a kicker please let me know.

NOW I HAVE TWO ENDZONES HO HO HO

The last time Northwestern played at Wrigley Field was all the way back in 2010 in the zenith of the Age of Zook.  That time, there was an issue with the facilities; one of the endzones backed up right into the brick wall in center field, and the NCAA decided at the last minute that it was potentially unsafe for football players to be turned into unsuccessful Kool Aid Men and declared that both teams would only be able to use one endzone, a delightfully stupid development that gave the entire game the type of ridiculous gloss required for a nationally televised Northwestern football game.


Northwestern celebrates a touchdown scored in the Forbidden Endzone after Brian Peters returned an interception during the 2010 game, as you can read about in my screenplay entitled Crossing the Line where a dogged NCAA investigator hunts down each of the players shown in this picture who had illegally crossed the line for five years after the play before confronting them on a dangerous skyscraper roof to tell them that they are suspended from playing in any more NCAA games even though they all have jobs


When Northwestern made its deal with the Cubs to hold more games at Wrigley (they were scheduled to play Wisconsin there last year before the pandemic), the Cubs said they had made changes to make the endzone further away from the wall allowing the Wildcats and their opponents to use up to two (2) endzones.  As Rodger Sherman points out, it sure doesn’t look like there is that much more space beyond the endzone, but I am sure an NCAA official showed up with a tape measure to determine how many inches a wall is from the back of the endzone before putting away his or her stamp that says Unyielding Hazardous Wall to Officially Safe.

 

In 2010, the game stood out as a delightful novelty featuring the first football game at Wrigley Field since the Bears departed in 1970.  Since then, the novelty of football games in other sports stadiums has worn off; the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium began that winter, and since then bowl games have proliferated in ballparks; we’ve also seen a football game at Bristol Speedway and basketball games on aircraft carriers.  The novelty of a Wrigley game in 2021 is to watch Northwestern play football in a stadium even less suited for football than Ryan Field while hoping that Chicago area fans turn out to see football in the historic park where Frank Schwindel plays.  

There have been enough of these alternate venue games to know that, once the game starts, it pretty much looks like a football game.  The only way to restore the luster is to infuse the game with dumb baseball shtick.  For example, the teams should be allowed to keep quarterbacks in the bullpen so that Fitzgerald inevitably decides to make yet another mid-game quarterback change he can slowly stroll to the middle of the field wearing cleats and goofy satin jacket, take the football from the QB, and gesture for a relief quarterback while the organist plays a jaunty rendition of Head East’s rock classic “Never Been Any Reason.”  This can also be done with kickers. I also think that the quarterback should also be allowed to throw the ball out of bounds if he doesn’t like how the defense is lining up with no penalty other than the fans getting increasingly agitated and booing the shit out of him.

 

Pat Fitzgerald calling for a righty from the pen

I don’t have the heart to tell you that the oddsmakers for this game are once again forecasting doom for the Wildcats.  Purdue is good this year.  They’re are 6-4, with their only losses coming against tough ranked teams, and twice this year the unranked Boilers have summoned a Purdue Pete from whatever hell he slumbers in to rise from the bowels of the Earth and bring his hammer down on an undefeated, ranked team, smiting Iowa and tearing the heart out of Michigan State.  Wide receiver David Bell is unstoppable.  Northwestern’s best hope is that they have played so crappily that the entire Purdue team becomes deranged by dreams of defeating their suffering rival Indiana and plays the game in a bucket-crazed frenzy until it is too late and the Wildcats have scored more than one touchdown.  

In 2019, a dismal Northwestern team had a crummier Purdue team on the ropes.  Kyric McGowan ran 79 yards to score the first Northwestern touchdown in more than a calendar month, and Northwestern clung to a lead late until a barrage of maddening pass interference penalties allowed Purdue to kick a last-second field goal for the win.  At this point, I would take that, I'd enjoy a heartbreaking loss over another steamrolling that is over before the third quarter.


If anything, this game serves one extremely important function and that is giving us another week where do not have the think about Bret Bielema ordering a special tool called an embulbouser to widen the hole in the bottom of the Hat for the purpose of fitting it over his head.  It is too grim to contemplate.

Friday, November 12, 2021

The Wretched Agony of Watching Northwestern Games When You Can Just Google the Score

 

If you, like me, consume most of your football via DVR, there comes a time when you are watching your team slowly lose in a game that appears to have been projectile vomited by Matt Millen onto the Big Ten Network and now you need to make the decision whether to keep watching or to google “northwestern football” and see the final score. Most of the time this is a prudent decision, such as deciding to pull the ripcord sometime in the dreary third quarter of the Minnesota game and realizing that somehow the Gophers put up another 21 horrendous points. Sometimes doing this means missing out on an improbable comeback, the upsetting price for being able to fast forward through a coach’s challenge and at least 35 minutes of commercials for boner pills and extra large men’s pants by giving in to the overwhelmingly temptation to just know what happens.


The DVR was made for this Iowa-Northwestern game, a contest that seemed on paper like one that should have been banned from television altogether featuring two offenses that are doing everything short of pulling out their phones and killing time before punts. Iowa’s passing offense was so atrocious to begin with that it seemed like their major receiving target was the ground. They went 2-14 on third down. Northwestern, on its third quarterback, continued to run aground on offense, adding three interceptions to the mix. The teams combined for fifteen punts. Play stopped, mercifully, for a protest. Pat Fitzgerald got flagged for doing a Charlton Heston You Maniacs gesture on the sideline where his dramatic momentum carried him onto the field. I believe that if Fitz is going to get flagged, his entire head should blast off of his neck like a space shuttle and then at the post-game press conference Fitzgerald should be forced to sheepishly hold his head like the Washington Irving horseman and say things like “That can't happen. I am a passionate person but I'm also a disciplined person, so I can't lose my cool, I can't have my head flying off my shoulders and spinning into the air before it comes to rest on top of a gatorade bucket and everyone is freaking out and screaming oh my god his head.”


"It was the right call and obviously I can't have my head bursting off my shoulders and the referee tweeting his whistle saying hey fella go get your head, so I'm disappointed in myself first."
 

There was no more satisfying feeling in the world than fast forwarding through a lot of that, the football equivalent of watching three people ineffectively try to move a sedan through a snow covered alley for three hours while Matt Millen screams from an open window about how the the sleet is really doing a great job at being slippery and how that’s his kind of ice.


But skipping through a dreadful game before succumbing to the temptation to look at the final score robbed me of hoping that when the Wildcats scored their late touchdown they would have a chance to come back and win. Football games are long and tedious, but that just means that there is more time for tension to build and excitement and anxiety and a recording gives me access to an immediate Fuck It button that allows me to instantly skip to the end even knowing that I will be extremely annoyed if it turns out the game results in a comeback.  Yet something strange happens while watching it after looking up the final; there is still a part of me insane enough to believe that somehow they will manage to pull it out even though my phone has given me empirical proof that the comeback is in vain (in this case, Northwestern's attempt at a game-winning drive ended on an interception on the first play that happened so quickly that it was almost vaudevillian).


On Monday night, well into the third quarter with the Bears down 20-3 against the Steelers and it getting dangerously close bedtime, I decided to hit the Fuck It button and discovered that I had ruined a ludicrous Bears comeback with Justin Fields turning into a star, a series of truly unfathomable penalties including one on a Bears player I have never heard of who looks like one of the twin henchmen in the second Matrix movie got flagged for a “the fuck you looking at” penalty and Matt Nagy ending the game on one of the most pointless and doomed field goals ever attempted in the history of football. At at one point on the final drive I had shifted from doing the constant mental math of trying to figure out how the score got from what I was seeing to what my phone was telling me to actually believing that the Bears were going to win.


Nagy's camouflage makes him look like a haunted officer who has been deranged into doing weird kicker shit. On a related note, NFL Coaches' increasingly elaborate army cosplay has gotten so ridiculous that I desperately want to see Nagy coaching from the sidelines in a full ghillie suit with only his visor peeking out of his fake shrubbery.  He wouldn't even have to cover his mouth with a play sheet.


Every person who knows anything about football thinks Northwestern is going to be utterly destroyed by Wisconsin up at Camp Randall. The Badgers seemed to have caught their stride in the Big Ten and are ready to start thrashing teams like Northwestern to try to retake their usual throne atop the Big Ten West. The fact that they have one of the top defenses in the country does not worry me at all. Northwestern’s offense has been crawling so ineffectively that it is almost impossible to imagine that a team can stop them worse than they have already been stopped in virtually all of their Big Ten games already and what can Wisconsin do: sack the quarterback? Intercept passes? Violently lineback at them? Make them punt?  Northwestern's offense was born punting.  


(bane voice)


What Northwestern has, at this point, is absolutely nothing to lose, a running back that can jet for a touchdown, one of the best wide receivers I have seen in a Northwestern uniform, and a history of annoying Wisconsin and Wisconsin fans although usually that happens at Ryan Field in front of an overwhelmingly red crowd in one of the funniest and least-explicable exercises of home field advantage. A Northwestern win here would be a titanic upset, one that could send the reeling Big Ten West into further chaos. The Wildcats’ best chance to win would involve somehow scoring on a fumble and then having the referees immediately call the game because an extremely wealthy person with a private railcar and one of those fancy old-timey phones has bribed them. But I hope the game is close and excruciating, even in a possible Northwestern loss because it is supposed to be crappy out and I will probably watch this game live, unable to skip toward the final score.


ONLY THE BULLS


A certain species of blogger and now, unfortunately, podcaster has taken over how people read about the NBA on the internet that obsesses over contracts and the salary cap and ASSETS and these green-visored, punctilious numbers-mongers have blasted the Bulls for spending too much money on the DeMar DeRozan contract so it is incredibly satisfying to have watched the Bulls shove every single one of them into a toilet during this early phase of the NBA season. After watching the Bulls try to perform a version of the famed 76ers Process except in a way done by stupid people with oddly-shaped heads, the new front office headed by Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley shaped their offseason with a new philosophy proclaiming that draft picks are bullshit, ASSETS are bullshit, and the only things that are real are Buckets.


Every single player picked by Gar Forman and John Paxson is gone except for Zach LaVine and Coby White, who is injured and has not played this season. In its place is a new team that actually tries to score points. The Bulls for the past several years were made from a collection of generic replacement parts from thinly disguised Amazon house brands, and in retrospect it was absolutely insane watching a a team depending on Tomas Satoransky and Garrett Temple where the only person who could reliably pass the ball was a grizzled Thaddeus Young. The Bulls traded both Sato and Temple to the Pelicans and then they played this year and the Bulls absolutely blew them off the court because those dudes who did absolutely nothing wrong in a Bulls uniform kind of stink. Now they have Lonzo Ball feeding LaVine on fast breaks, Alex Caruso flying around stealing the ball from people, and Nikola Vucevic, who fills the primal need that Midwestern sports fans have to root for a guy with an "OOO" sound in his name.


The player who has been a revelation for me has been DeRozan. DeRozan exists as a relic in 2021, a guy who does not really shoot threes and has the maddening arsenal of fadeaway jumpers and post moves that every shooting guard copied from Michael Jordan and then did only moderately effectively for the next 20 years which resulted in the NBA turning into the basketball equivalent of skateboarding teenagers unsuccessfully trying to do kickflips in a Jewel parking lot for 48 minutes. But DeRozan is not some clumsy oaf, but an artist who has mastered a technique that is no longer in fashion. DeRozan has been fine in lineups with the starters, but what I love is when Billy Donovan puts him back in with the second unit that is made entirely of hustling energy guys and then lets DeRozan barbecue the opponents’ backups with his unstoppable arsenal of midrange pullup jumpers from the early 2000s; it is as beguiling as watching Scott Stapp win over the crowd of drunken Lollapalooza teenagers there to see [tk naming a musical act that I’ve vaguely heard of that I think teenagers in 2021 like in a way that will not be utterly mortifying] by hummmer dunger darging them into a fistpumping reverie except it is not aesthetically repulsive.


The Bulls have been good and fun to watch, but they are also a triumphant repudiation of every sort of garbage tanking strategy that NBA fans suffer through because someone with an MBA made a powerpoint. They assembled the best team they could while jettisoning every player they did not want and by scattering draft picks like a Dickensian count throwing coins off his carriage. Instead of waiting to see if one of the charming but ultimately disappointing teenagers drafted in the dregs of the lottery somehow turns into a superstar, I can watch someone who already knows how to play in the NBA play basketball. The smarmy counter to all of this enthusiasm is to point out that these Bulls will not likely win a title and will be eviscerated in a playoff season against one of the superstars they were too cowardly to tank for. But it is very difficult for me to care about this. For years, the Bulls were run by a deranged cabal that seemed more interested in proving some strange point than actually winning games that germinated in the bizarre roiling feuds from their Thibodeau-era heyday and reached its apotheosis with every single thing that Jim Boylen said and did in his brief and ludicrous tenure. The Bulls are not just good again, but they are normal. How refreshing.