Crooked Scoreboard

Soler Power: A Letter to the Newest Chicago Cub

dt.common.streams.StreamServer.cls

Dear Mr. Jorge Soler,

Congratulations! You made it to the big leagues. Sure, that’s no surprise. The Cubs loved you enough to pay you $30 million over nine years before you even hit a single ball for them, and you batted .338 in the minors this year, which is better than most of your Chicago teammates could have done. Your ascension to the majors was basically a given, but I’ve lived long enough to know that freak baserunning injuries and goat-herding accidents can and do happen, so this is a time for celebration. The next five seconds are a time for celebration, at least. You can celebrate until you’ve reached the end of this sentence. Okay, stop now. The MLB is a cold, ruthless place, and those who are happy just to be there will find themselves shagging fly balls for the Batavia Muckdogs or Jamestown Jammers.

When you get to The Show, all kinds of people will be angling to join your inner circle. Don’t listen to them, especially if they come to you asking you to invest in a really great Detroit real-estate deal they found on an interleague road trip. Some people will be willing to help you, though, and as someone who is one year older than you and has played in exactly zero professional baseball games, I am up to the challenge. You may say that I lack an insider’s perspective, but I like to think that I have a healthy distance from the game, combined with a knowledge of what makes players great. Perhaps most importantly, I have never once chewed tobacco, and I trust that my smart decision-making and healthy salivary glands will be assets to you in the future.

Get a gimmick: As I’m sure you are aware, the team that you have just become a part of is not very good. Your arrival is an indication that people in the Cubs organization are serious about winning, but nothing you could do in the next month is going to help the Cubs overcome the 13.5-game division deficit they currently face. That’s perfect for you, though! Instead of worrying about pesky details like on-field performance, you can devote this time to building your brand, and showing Chicago fans why you’re going to be the next Cubs superstar. It’s been a long time since a legend made his home at Wrigley Field,  so the fans are looking for someone they can embrace. Or someone they can embrace, shun, and then mock for his questionable skin-care choices. The big deal these days is the 12-34 demographic. The Cubs pinstripe jerseys are nice, but have you considered adding a cape? Or what about holding the bat upside-down once in a while? No one has tried it, but I’m sure making solid contact off the handle would create some crazy spins.

Embrace the Cuban: When you made the decision to defect in 2011, you joined a growing cadre of Cubans who have brought their baseball talents to America. Comparisons to Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, and Yoenis Cespedes will be everywhere, but remember that you’re a better player than all of them. You can out-Puig Puig, out-Abreu Abreu, and out-grass Cespedes, all without trying very hard. But don’t stop with statistical dominance; let everyone know that you, and you alone, are your country’s premier export. Keep a Cuban flag in your back pocket for your home run trot. Make sure you’re photographed with cigars, ham sandwiches, whatever it takes. Never mind the fact that you may not even like your country that much (you did risk your life not to live there); Americans baseball fans love displays of patriotism, even if the country being bolstered isn’t their own.

Be picky with endorsements: After you knock your first few home runs, companies will come running for you. But be careful of these folks, especially the ones who aren’t even willing to give you a copy of the contract in Spanish. It may be tempting to jump at every offer, but do Oreck vacuum cleaners really need to be part of the Jorge Soler brand? Laffy Taffy? No. That stuff is made out of discarded pool covers. When people see their favorite rightfielder onscreen between segments of “Baseball Tonight”, they need to know that he’s there in support of the best deodorant, the tastiest iced tea, and the most sublime of hair-replacement therapies. If there’s one thing you don’t want to become, it’s the Ty Burrell of baseball players. When Jorge Soler endorses a product, his fans need to know that he really uses it, or at least would use it, if he were a post-menopausal woman suffering from plaque psoriasis.

All the best to you as you prepare to make your debut. I hope I have given you sufficient reason to bring me on as an advisor during your MLB career. If not, consider this advice my free gift to you. But if you opt for some Scott Boras clone with “experience” and “qualifications,” just know that it will be yet another big mistake, and one of Cuba’s other top prospects will be coming for you in a few years, barrel of the bat in hand.

 

Williamsport Confidential: My Potential Path to Athletic Glory

little-league-world-series

I’ve done some good things and some bad things in my life, but suspiciously few of the good things have involved my participation in a sport. Sure, sometimes I’ll make a couple of threes in a pickup basketball game or accidentally throw one of those Wiffle ball pitches that rises on its way to the plate, but things like that are small potatoes next to my real ambition: nationwide exposure in sports media. How can I go about attaining this? At 22, my window of opportunity for being a professional athlete has likely shut (if we’re going to pretend this didn’t happen at birth). Jose Fernandez and Bryce Harper are both several months younger than me. This is to say that I’m not a very good at baseball for a 22-year-old. What I am, probably, is a phenomenal Little Leaguer, with skills perfectly suited for the 10-12 age group. Each August, ESPN and its camera crews swarm down upon the pint-sized baseball field that plays host to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA. This would be the perfect place to test my hypothesis. Here’s a list of reasons why it wouldn’t be an awful idea for me to have tried this year:

The Precedent: Danny Almonte, who captivated audiences across the country with his string of dominant Little League World Series pitching performances in 2001, turned out to be significantly older (by two years, or 16.666666 percent) than he was believed to be, and his team had to vacate all of its victories. Do you know what would have prevented this problem for poor Danny? Better falsification.

The Undeniable Inspirational Story (or, the Falsification): The most important component of my plan to enter the LLWS would be to pass myself off as a 12-year-old who recently immigrated from a Caribbean isle so far-flung and hostile to human life that children have the ability to grow beards. There, armed with only a dream and a tattered steroid-era MLB coloring book, my love for the game grew. I learned to throw with coconuts on the beach, in the absence of common American sporting goods. This training made it incredibly easy for me to throw a much lighter baseball upon my arrival to the United States, after cricket players burned down my house.

Wheaties Money: It is rumored that this year’s breakout LLWS star, Mo’Ne Davis, received a six-figure offer to appear on boxes of Wheaties, a cereal that I have never known anyone in real life to eat, ever. I’ve never met anyone who knows what they taste like. They’re probably in stores, but they’re so unappealing next to the Count Chocula and Honey Bunches of Oats that nobody I can trust would ever notice them, much less make them part of their complete breakfast. That being said, I would be a shining ambassador for all things Wheaties if they gave me multiple times my current salary to be on their packaging. I’d burn the Corn Flakes rooster mascot in effigy if that’s what it took. The concern for Davis is that accepting the endorsement would ruin her chance at NCAA athletic eligibility. I have no such concerns, considering that, despite my convincing middle-schooler exterior, I have already graduated college.

It Would Get Kids Used To People Misrepresenting Their True Ages In Media: The guy who played Miley Cyrus’s brother on Hannah Montana is now 37 years old. I repeat, the guy who played a 16-year-old on a kids show that I was far too old to watch when it came out, is now 37 years old. He was 30 when the show started airing. Nobody cared. Nobody stopped this from happening. That’s a 14-year gap between portrayed age and actual age. Why not apply this reasoning to the Little League World Series? I’m sure that weirdo old guy from Hannah Montana got the job because of his professionalism and poise on set. Have you ever seen an interview with one of those Little Leaguers? The interviews are awful. The kids only talk about wanting to meet Ariana Grande and how much they like to race go-karts. NO SUBSTANCE. If I hurl a perfect game, and then I go on Jimmy Fallon or whatever to bask in the viral success I wrought, I’d wow the audiences with my loquaciousness, and the whole baseball-industrial complex would benefit.

IF YOU ARE A SHADY YOUTH BASEBALL COACH WHO READ THIS AND THINKS IT’S A GOOD IDEA CONTACT BLOG MANAGEMENT THANKS.

False Idols: The Uncomfortable Truth About Religious Athletes

It was sometime between 2003 and 2006, and I was a freshly minted member of one of the three NBA teams for which I played sparingly almost a decade ago. Practice was over, which meant that I was relieved, for I had survived another day of pretending I belonged in a place (the NBA) that I thought I probably did not (because, as I learned in the three years I spent in and out of that particular sports league, I was not quite good enough to play in that league).

Inside this NBA team’s grandiose locker room, which was equipped with carpet that was softer than any my parents ever had, two televisions that were bigger than televisions have any right to be, and lockers made of wood polished so well that I could evaluate my too-skinny body in them, I was approached by one of my new teammates.

He was smiling. He looked like he wanted to talk to me. And I was excited, for this didn’t usually happen. Most of my teammates didn’t know my last name.

He said, “Hey, so, tomorrow, before the game, we have a-“

A party? A dinner? A tradition that involves booze and drugs and women of questionable repute?

“-prayer meeting.”

I hesitated, checking his eyes. Was he messing with me?

“Seriously?”

“Yeah!”

He was not messing with me.

“I’m good, man,” I said. “But, uh, thanks.”

“OK, well, let me know if you change your mind!”
My teammate walked away, and sat down at his locker, and changed his clothes, and went home to his kids, and woke up the next day, and came to the game, and before that game, true to his word, led a prayer circle.

And this would all have been well and good if I didn’t come to know over the next few months, after observing the way he treated fans, team officials, and complete strangers, that this teammate, like many of the “religious” teammates I met before him and would meet after him, was completely full of shit.

**

I was raised in a small town in Kansas. My family went to a Methodist church most Sundays. The beginning of each sermon at Grantville United Methodist was marked by the Greeting, during which my family and others got up out of their pews to shake the hands of the people around them. What came after the Greeting featured God and Jesus and that burning bush thing occasionally, but the Greeting seemed emblematic of my church’s unstated mission. It appeared to me that we went to church mostly to meet up with some decent people who genuinely cared about each other.

With this quaint vision of what religion should be, I left Grantville for the wider world. At Iowa State University, where I played basketball and graduated with an engineering degree, my view of the actively religious remained largely untarnished; the kids who went to church on Sundays were well-meaning (if not particularly interesting to talk to) and the athletes who tried to secure my attendance at their Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings were similarly well-intentioned (if also bland).

But then I left college for the pros, and my view of the religious athlete began to crumble.

The guys with crosses emblazoned on their deltoids were also the ones cheating on their wives. The guys who said prayers before dinner treated fans like they were Untouchables. The guys who thanked Jesus after games were the same guys who played hardball on contracts so they could spend the money on cars, cards, and jewelry.

The worst part: not only did my religious teammates fail to practice the humility, selflessness, and generosity their religions called hallmarks, they were using the idea that they were humble, selfless, and generous to sell tickets and jerseys.

**

I no longer attend church, Methodist or otherwise. This is because I have long since given up on believing in God. That fact is not important here; my religious beliefs (or lack thereof) have no bearing on the fate of the world.

What might be important is this: thanks in large part to the ways I’ve seen religion used and abused in sports, not only do I not go to church, I’ve learned to take a dim view of religion in general. But I don’t think it has to be this way.

Not every athlete who claims to be religious is lying. One of my teammates on the ABA’s Kansas City Knights, a hyper-religious fellow from the University of Missouri, remains one of the best humans I’ve ever met.

Nor is every athlete religious; I had some teammates who were just as atheistic as I.

However, we were exceptions; most athletes, like most people, are religious.

And it is their right to be so.

It is not, though, their right to quietly undermine the religions they purport to follow, whether by appearing in police blotters or by displaying on-court attitudes that can only be called selfish and egocentric. This is called hypocrisy, and just as we take to task such hypocrisy amongst politicians and priests, we should do the same with religious athletes.

Behavioral consistency is difficult to achieve.

But them’s the breaks. If the religious athlete is going to reap the public goodwill that results from an ostentatious embrace of his faith, then we should expect his behavior to correspond all the time.

Not just when he wants us to believe that it does.

Study Abroad Participant is Huge Fan of Spanish Futbol

WASHINGTON, DC – Emily Bunning, a junior at George Washington University who spent a semester in Spain this past spring, is now one of Barcelona FC’s premier supporters. Bunning, who earned a C- in Spanish 102 last year, fell in love with the team after watching them in a Madrid sports bar. “I mean, the players are so hot, and the game is so beautiful. It’s an outrage that this country only cares about American football.” As a high school student, Bunning passed through soccer broadcasts on her way to reruns of “Saved by the Bell,” but now shows her appreciated for “Barca” by wearing (or, in her words, “rocking”) the team’s blue-and-red striped jersey.

“Whenever I’m with my friends, we get so into the games,” said Bunning. While her GWU classmates, including Aaron Krish, 21, and Valerie Gold, 22, watched the game intently, Bunning was using her phone to play Bubble Witch Saga, check her credit balance, and send text messages to a man identified in her contacts as “Hot Ass Logan.” (George Washington University has no record of a student with such a name, and Mr. Logan could not be reached for comment).

“I just feel such a profound cultural connection with the players, and it’s just special to be part of a shared cultural experience,” said Bunning, whose favorite Spanish words are reportedly cerveza and tequila. When asked which soccer player she liked best, Bunning responded, “definitely Nadal, because his hair is the greatest.”

Fishing For Compliments

There was once a World Series in which all of the following things happened:

  • All seven games were needed to decide the winner
  • Game 7 went to extra innings
  • The winning team tied the game in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7, and won in the bottom of the eleventh, in thrilling walkoff fashion, in front of an adoring home crowd

This, you would think, would live in permanent baseball lore. After all, it isn’t October until ESPN airs footage of Kirk Gibson’s 1988 Game 1 World Series walkoff (which has its own Wikipedia page), Bill Buckner’s infamous error, the Curt Schilling ALCS Bloody Sock Game, or a multitude of other great moments which did not decide championships but are still (rightfully) part of baseball’s highly selective canon. People, when asked for the name of a World Series hero, might mention Carlton Fisk, or Joe Carter, or Jack Morris, or Kirby Puckett. Few of these people, I am assured, would ever mention Edgar Renteria. Renteria had a very fruitful 15-year Major League career, complete with five All-Star appearances, and multiple Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers, all of which is to say that he was among the best at his position for a spell. He also hit a walkoff single that won a World Series for the Florida Marlins in 1997, a highlight that has made it onto exactly zero ESPN Top 10 lists that I’ve seen, and which has been brought up by nobody, ever, in talk of baseball.

Why is this? One would imagine that if the Yankees ever won a World Series in such a spectacular fashion, ESPN would cancel all of their programming to air a GIF of the game-winning hit for a month. Perhaps this is at least partly due to the lack of goodwill the Marlins have fostered among those who have observed the game during the last 17 years, between their multiple fire sales, civic fraud of a new stadium, and rock-bottom attendance figures. Maybe it’s the responsibility of the fans to toot their own horns incessantly, as to engrain the success of their team in the heads of all nonbelievers. A more likely scenario is that the people who cared enough about the Marlins, a team then only in its fourth year of MLB participation, did not have too strong a voice in the national media. Or maybe the television markets involved (Miami and Cleveland) were not conducive to wall-to-wall coverage of the games. The disheartening truth proven by these facts is that a small-market team can do the biggest possible thing in the most dramatic possible way and STILL never be appreciated as a legacy juggernaut that pulls off lesser feats.

Will it always be this way? Will the expansion teams of the 1990s ever have their achievements recognized with the same weight as those of an old or big-city team? Will things like the Steve Bartman incident continue to overshadow the fact that the ’03 Marlins overcame a 3-1 NLCS deficit against the Cubs and eventually won the World Series? In that World Series, by the way, the Marlins faced the New York Yankees, fresh off of their newly canonized ALCS Game 7 win (The “Aaron Boone” game). The Bartman incident was perhaps the closest that any expansion team of the last 25 years has had to a mythical on-field event, and the Marlins’ Cinderella run through that postseason is usually regarded as but a footnote to the Bartman morass.

Historical evidence points negatively, if you think of the other expansion teams that entered the league in the 1960s and 70s. Not a team among the Astros or Mariners or Angels owns any of baseball’s most remembered moments, even though there are teams in this group that have appeared in and won World Series. The Padres might be best known for Roseanne Barr skewering the national anthem at one of their games. The Brewers might be best known for the fact that a player once assaulted a participant in their on-field sausage race with a bat. The Royals have won a championship, and I can still only bring to mind the mental image of George Brett going nuclear over pine tar that gets replayed on ESPN “Best Meltdowns” segments time and again, when an insane minor-league coach puts on an elaborate ejection song and dance.

It’s hard to conceive of a future where these teams garner the same reverent tone as their more prestigious older brothers in New York and Boston. Curt Schilling’s bloody sock sold for over $92,000 at auction last year.

Just A Shirt With Holes: Growing Into (And Out Of) Jerseys

The first jersey I ever owned bore the name of a man whose level of success I will never match, not as a writer, and certainly not as a football player. I tuned in at the very end of Barry Sanders’ ten-year NFL career, but I got there in time to see him trample the Chicago Bears defense for 167 yards and three touchdowns on Thanksgiving Day of 1997. I entered the game a five-year-old Bears fan, somehow drawn in by the mythos of Walter Payton, even though I was too young to have seen him play live. Less than a month later, I tore open the wrapping paper on a blue #20 jersey, with silver trim outlining the white numbers. The youth-medium jersey fit me like a dress, and fell so far below my knees that I had to remove it when using the restroom (the times I didn’t, well… let’s not discuss those times). But I wore it everywhere, until the number 20 began to wear away into a hieroglyph, and “SANDERS” was reduced to something like “S    E  “.

When I reached the seemingly unreachable point at which the Sanders jersey was too small, my Steve Young, Randy Moss, Tom Brady, Corey Dillon, Eli Manning, Larry Fitzgerald, and Adrian Peterson jerseys followed. These jerseys told people absolutely nothing about my geographic location or which teams I preferred – hell, I actively disliked a couple of the players – but they clearly marked me as a sports fan, and generally indicated which players I respected and looked up to. After a while, even my Peterson jersey began to look like it had fallen into the hands of some merciless Packer fans, and was consigned to the resale shop. So, here I am, seventeen years after I donned my first NFL replica, penniless, friendless, and jerseyless.

No, I kid about those first two! I’m doing okay financially, and I have many friends who are willing to shamelessly plug articles like this one whenever I ask them to. And here’s the interesting part: I’m pretty sure that my departure from jersey wearing (you might say my “jersisprudence”… or you mightn’t. Actually, please don’t say that ever) has something to do with the fact that I’ve grown into a fairly well-adjusted and minimally medicated adult. I’m 22 years old now, and while that may not seem like a very mature age to some of you, I’m certainly a much different person than I was when I wore my soaked-from-the-waist-down Barry Sanders jersey. And I’m too old to be wearing jerseys; that’s for sure.

Wearing the jersey of our favorite sports star is no different than playing dress-up, even though we like to pretend it is. I can envision a fair share of the 40-year-old Polish-American plumbers who wear Colin Kaepernick jerseys making fun of the people who go to Comic Con dressed as superheroes, but it’s the exact same thing. As much as he may deny it, a small part of Joe Kowalski is pretending that either he is Colin Kaepernick, could be Colin Kaepernick some day, or deserves some credit for Colin’s success. But unlike the slew of Spider-Men who infiltrate San Diego each summer, he didn’t even bother to shed the beer gut or get the pants right. If Joe ever feels the impulse to make fun of nerds in costumes, I hope he remembers that his jersey is just a lazier version of that.

When you’re a kid, it’s okay to play pretend, because it’s not as if you have many other skills in your arsenal. When I was a five-year-old who couldn’t tie his shoes, Barry Sanders’ level of football achievement was something to aspire to. When I walked into sports stores, the first place I looked was always the very top of the back wall, where the jerseys hung far out of my reach. They brought a little slice of professional sports to my hometown, where the closest NFL team was three hours away. And they broke up the monotony of the strip-mall shopping experience, what with all its colognes and socks and other boring adult stuff. Now that I’m a 22-year-old who can’t tie his shoes, Sanders’ feats aren’t any less impressive, but I have my own set of strengths and abilities that I can be proud of. And I have to buy my own socks.

Imagine if I walked out into the world today wearing a Cam Newton jersey. Newton is three years older than me, and is essentially my peer, even if our 40-yard-dash times set us apart a bit. I’m sure I could close the gap by helping him revise some essays from his Auburn days, should he ever go back and finish his degree. Is he so worth idolizing that I need to shell out $100 to establish some tenuous connection with him, when I could spend a mere $30 to express my role as a fan by wearing a team tee shirt?

I haven’t even addressed baseball and basketball jerseys. They’re not worn as frequently as football jerseys, but they do pop up from time to time, and I owned several in my youth. Basketball jerseys are nothing more than bulky wife-beaters, and I support federal legislation targeting people who wear them without undershirts. Baseball jerseys are tremendously uncomfortable and oddly shaped garments; the fact that an article of clothing commonly worn during athletic competition incorporates buttons still amazes me. Yet, certain adults enjoy dressing up in these costumes, too.

I want to offer some ideas of jersey etiquette, based on the general principle that the world would be a better place if replica jerseys were only sold in kids sizes. Sure, wearing jerseys is a little cheesy even when you’re young, especially when you’re liable to grow out of them as quickly as just a week or two. But, provided your family is willing to bankroll your expensive games of dress-up, childhood is a time when it’s okay to be cheesy, and have the kind of fanciful goals and aspirations that a grown man or woman shouldn’t be having. Some say athletes are terrible role models for kids, and there’s no argument from me there when it comes to the ones that drive drunk, shoot themselves in the leg, or defecate in laundry baskets. But moms and dads are human, too. Some of them make even bigger mistakes than those athletes (mine haven’t, fortunately; thanks mom and dad!), and others don’t even bother to show up for their kids. If a kid wants to wear a Roethlisberger jersey, let him, with the hope that he’ll strive for Big Ben’s on-field work ethic and find off-the-field inspiration elsewhere.

How do we determine who’s too old to wear jerseys and who isn’t? It seems a little simplistic to draw a line in the sand at a certain age level, which is why I have a solution that’s probably too generous, but will still do some good: If you’re older or fatter than the player whose jersey you’re buying, just don’t do it. You’re not Johnny Manziel, and the money you’re spending to pretend otherwise is embarrassing. Go grocery shopping, or, if you must buy a jersey, get one for your seven-year-old nephew who just swallowed his tooth. Johnny Football could teach him about proper dental care, if nothing else.

And with that, Tony Siragusa jerseys just sold out.

Hope I Retire Before I Get Old: The Problem With Longevity

Sports fans are suckers for the old guy. Whether it’s Jamie Moyer nearly continuing his career into his fifties, Jimmy Connors reaching the semifinals of the 1991 US Open at age 39, Dara Torres medaling as an Olympic swimmer at 41, or Barry Bonds breaking rec- wait, nope, not that one. But you get the point. We commend the old athlete for remaining successful long after his or her body was supposed to have broken down. It’s captivating to watch someone keep going long after everyone else of the same era has traded in their jerseys for lapel microphones or a coach’s headset.

It’s not just their ability to defy time and biology that makes old athletes so popular. Most of them have to rely on their intelligence, craft, and experience to counterbalance their diminishing physical returns (Moyer’s 80-mile-per-hour “fastball” always had to be perfectly located). The story goes that old athletes are more mature and level-headed than the young hotshots who hope to supplant them on the depth chart (thanks for keeping us honest on that one, Brett Favre). The main conflict in ESPN’s god-awful but somehow popular and critically acclaimed football soap opera “Playmakers” concerned thirtysomething running back Leon Taylor’s attempts to fend off a depth-chart challenge from do-rag-wearing, posse-having, heroin-shooting rookie Demetrius Harris (Leon Taylor also happened to be a wife beater, but she shoved him first, so it was okay, I guess? That show really was terrible, but that’s another column for another time).

When I was a kid, I idolized football players who played until age 40 or later, a benchmark that now seems unattainable for everyone except kickers and punters. But Jerry Rice, Warren Moon, Ray Brown, Darrell Green, Bruce Smith, and Vinny Testaverde, among others, all did it. I’m not Facebook friends with any of them, but they’re all doing okay, as far as I’m aware. Others aren’t, though. Brad Johnson, who played 17 seasons in the NFL and quarterbacked the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl in the 2002 season, is still suffering the debilitating effects of his NFL injuries (one has to wonder why someone with such an extensive injury history – and no apparent financial duress – hung around in the league for so long, but again, another column for another time). Another is Junior Seau, whose 2012 suicide is thought to have been the result of chronic brain trauma.

This brings me to David Wilson, the 23-year-old former New York Giants running back who retired from the NFL earlier this week. After a spine specialist (a type of doctor that no human being should have to see, ever) advised Wilson that repeated spine and neck injuries posed a threat to his continued health and safety, the former first-round pick stepped away after just two professional seasons. He’s part of an increasingly large cadre of players who have decided to call it quits in their twenties, though his professional fate was more of a medical mandate than a decision.

Wilson is nothing like those players who played into their forties, but his story is one that also tends to be appreciated. He probably could have ignored medical advice and pushed through years of rehabilitation and recovery, if he really wanted to. There could have been a Disney movie about him, and he could have written a book with a foreword by TD Jakes. But he chose to forgo all that and walk away while his body was still a body, instead of a gelatinous blob. His retirement is a real retirement, unlike the drug-test-evasion circus that Ricky Williams went through in 2004, or the temporary farewell that legally embattled linebacker Rolando McClain ended last month. In making the smart move rather than taking a risk for further glory, Wilson has struck a chord with the growing number of NFL fans who are sensitive to the sport’s injury risks, and tired of the league’s gladiatorial, play-til-you-drop culture.

As much as I admire players like Doug Flutie and Jerry Rice, I can’t help but wonder if, when they enter their sixties and seventies (Warren Moon is 57 already, holy crap), they’ll wish they’d taken a more Wilsonian approach. I also wonder if the thought of walking away early – or at least deciding not to hang on for so long – will permeate other sports, even the ones without elevated safety risks. Who, exactly, has benefitted from Jason Giambi’s post-40 baseball career?  Is there someone out there, whose favorite movie is Bubble Boy and whose favorite band is Semisonic, who burned all of his Indians memorabilia when the team released the .128-hitting, 43-year-old former slugger earlier this year? Competing at an advanced age is great for those who can do it safely and at a high level, but it’s not for everyone, and I hope David Wilson has made that clear to more than just the injured and at-risk.

A Different Kind of Pitcher

Deadline deals dominated baseball news this past week, as the likes of David Price, Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Jarred Cosart were shipped off to competitive teams that hoped to boost their playoff chances by improving their starting rotations.

Elsewhere in baseball, two decidedly noncompetitive teams saw their pitchers make news for different reasons. The injury-plagued and loss-plagued San Diego Padres trotted out 37-year-old former outfielder Jason Lane, after scheduled starter Ian Kennedy was scratched due to an oblique injury. Lane was the starting right fielder on the Houston Astros’ NL-winning 2005 team, and became a full-time pitcher in 2012 after years of paltry offensive output left him floundering in the minors. Lane made two scoreless relief appearances earlier in the season, and exceeded all reasonable expectations on Monday, allowing one run, six hits, and no walks through six-plus innings. The left-handed finesse pitcher threw 68 of 92 pitches for strikes, and did not reach a three-ball count until his final batter.

The next night, the Chicago Cubs, carrying a win-loss record even more pitiful than that of the Padres, won the longest game in franchise history, exhausting all of their pitchers in the process. Catcher John Baker took the mound in the top of the 16th inning, walking one batter but emerging unscathed after forcing a double play. After Starlin Castro’s game-winning RBI, Baker’s first MLB pitching appearance was also his first win.

Although conventional pitchers claimed the headlines this week, there’s something inherently exciting about position players showing their skills on the mound, whether it’s a result of a late-career conversion or late-inning necessity. The same is true for pitchers who can hit. As a middle-schooler with too much time on my hands (which describes all middle-schoolers, probably), my perusal through baseball stats left me amazed that journeyman starter Allen Watson hit .417 in 36 at-bats for the Cardinals in 1995 (I had yet to grasp the concept of sample size). Why was this guy hitting? The next Ted Williams was stuck with just a few stray cracks at the ball every five games. He undoubtedly spoke several languages, too, and had a portfolio of Louvre-ready oil paintings in his basement.

We enjoy stories like those of John Baker and Jason Lane because we have a general affinity for the multitalented, especially when their talents aren’t expected to coexist, or aren’t seen together in very many people. There’s a reason why Harvard admissions officers nearly choke on their crimson-and-gold pens when they learn that that kid who has a 1550 SAT is also the captain of the football team and the lead stagehand in the drama club. We like to believe that people who are among the best in the world at something aren’t just laser-focused automatons. When an athlete shows an aptitude for something other than what he gets paid to do, we get excited, just as I did back in March.

The trouble is, though, that pitchers who can hit and position players who can pitch aren’t really that special. Plenty of players are converted between pitching and hitting at some point in their minor-league careers, and two-way players are commonplace on high school and even college teams. Still, in a league where Bartolo Colon stands in for pseudo-at-bats that involve flailing and waddling, we can be forgiven for being impressed by displays of unremarkable versatility. Plus, given how rarely players actually get to showcase the full extent of their two-way skill sets, Jason Lane’s pitching renaissance and John Baker’s winning relief appearance don’t seem that much different than Cam Newton taking some reps at left guard, or D’Brickashaw Ferguson moonlighting as a coffin-corner punter. Which, now that I mention it, are both things I’d love to see. Too bad NFL teams only have four meaningless games in which they can try them out.

Hashtags and Hardwood

The 2014 NBA draft was, according to many observers, the deepest that the league had seen since the 2003 bumper crop, whose top 10 selections included Chris Kaman, Kirk Hinrich, and T.J. Ford (and LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade). As such, this draft had all sorts of buzz around it, coming off the heels of several months of detailed coverage of such prospects as Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins. So heralded was this group of incoming ballers that multiple starless and rudderless teams throughout the league made a concerted attempt to perform badly in the 2013-14 season, in order to maximize their odds of receiving one of the prized top picks. No team did a better job of unambiguously tanking than the Philadelphia 76ers. If that sounded like some sort of derogatory comment, it wasn’t; you can only win an NBA championship if you have one or two of a very select set of elite players. If you know anything about basketball, you probably know that the 76ers have not employed any of these players in years, and that it definitely behooves them to acquire one in the simplest available way: through the draft after a season of total ineptitude.

In the weeks leading up to the draft, Kansas standout Joel Embiid was widely touted as the best player available. That is, until a medical exam revealed he was in need of surgery. The Sixers, who ended up with the third pick in the draft after recording the second-worst record in the league, are familiar with selecting high-upside big men with troubling injury histories. They did the EXACT same thing early in last year’s draft, choosing Nerlens Noel, who had one less functioning knee than a team would like to see on draft day. So, what did they do this year? They picked Embiid. Real, actual Sixers fans, whom I speak to regularly, were devastated upon hearing of this selection, especially with rumors that the team might hold him out of game action for his first season, much as they had with Noel.

People were very upset. Short of Wiggins or Parker, it would have at least been nice to pick the man with the smoothest accent in the draft (Dante Exum), or with the most generic and unmemorable name (Aaron Gordon), or the unassuming long range shooter who wears a t-shirt under his jersey (Doug McDermott, but no, it was good that they didn’t pick him, probably. Does nobody remember Jimmer Fredette?). Reactions were generally negative in the following weeks. People questioned whether the Philadelphia front office had any idea what they were doing, especially since they also used a top ten pick to trade for some European guy who wouldn’t be in the NBA anytime soon. The cloud of uncertainty hung over the fan base until one fateful day early this month: The Day Joel Embiid Tweeted His Thoughts.

After the draft, something deep inside young Joel-Hans shifted, and he let everyone who wanted to listen know that he’s a comic wizard. He tweeted a screenshot after having Twitter-blocked LeBron James, for fear that LeBron would send unwanted direct messages. He petitioned for a date with Kim Kardashian, and later claimed to not know of her incredibly public marriage to Kanye West, all while peppering his missives with his minced-oath mantra, paraphrased from a very bad song, “These Girls Ain’t Loyal.” Which girls aren’t loyal, Joel? At the time of this writing, he had never made this clear. Then he switched lanes and switched his attention to Rihanna, tweeting, “SOURCES: Rihanna strongly considering JOEL EMBIID’s offer.” Officious? Probably, but I instantly started rooting for Rihanna to strongly consider Joel Embiid’s offer, regardless of what it was.

Embiid's Twitter profile picture

Embiid’s Twitter profile picture

I hadn’t watched Joel Embiid play much basketball on TV at all. I generally don’t enjoy watching college basketball unless it’s in person. Or if my self-worth is riding on the result, because my bracket predicted a certain outcome. I just knew that he wasn’t a good pick once I had heard of his injury. “The team that takes him is going to be sorry,” I thought. Too many times, talented NBA big men have been sidelined by injuries brought on by their immense sizes. This time, teams knew GOING IN that something wasn’t right with the guy. Little did I know, the Sixers must have had a character interview attached to their assessment of Embiid. Now I couldn’t endorse him more. Sam Hinkie is a genius who sees things that less savvy teams (Cleveland) refuse to acknowledge.

Embiid’s social media presence is only so great because of how it contrasts with that of his contemporaries. Try reading Jabari Parker’s Twitter. It’s so lame. He’s my younger sister’s age, and he tweets like someone who she and her friends would mock incessantly if he wasn’t already fabulously wealthy. A recent tweet: “People need vocations. What if college doesn’t workout? What else would they rely on? Please CPS, keep these programs alive in Chicago.” B O R I N G. “To all the shorties that’s out there hoopin. Keep grinding, not to prove anything to anybody but yourself. Keep the love for the game.” Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz. It’s not even that Parker is doing anything wrong, it’s just that nobody gains anything from having read his tweets. They have messages, sure. They have positive messages that are great for young people to read, sure. In fact, if all of our youths were as conscientious and kind as Jabari Parker seems to be, our world would have no war, and no one would ever forget to bring their canvas shopping bags to Whole Foods. This is true. But these tweets are, if nothing else, reminiscent of the manicured social media presences of basically any major American sports figure.

LeBron has 13.8 million Twitter followers, but he never says ANYTHING interesting on there. The backlash from The Decision would have been nullified if he had decided to start cracking jokes and retweeting memes about himself in 2010. Instead, he tweets things like, “Good morning folks! Another day to improve and be thankful for seeing this day. .” It sounds like it came out of a greeting card factory run by Pat Boone and the eggplant from Veggie Tales. I’m sure a lot of athletes have funny thoughts. I’m more likely to appreciate an athlete who seems like a real person and not a Nike-powered, stock-quote machine. I’m more likely to like ANY PERSON who sounds like a real human being, and not an inspirational-quote dispenser. I know the point for an athlete’s representation is to reduce the level of controversy surrounding their client, and nothing is a greater powder keg of controversy than Twitter. It’s refreshing that at least one agent-athlete combo doesn’t seem to mind.

Reading Embiid’s tweets, though, saddens me, because it makes me think of the multitude of athletes who have been advised not to be themselves in those 140-character spurts. What if Tiger Woods really liked that episode of “Designing Women” he just saw on Nick at Nite? What if Derek Jeter goes all red in the face when people don’t reprimand their tantrum-ridden children at Pottery Barn? What if Peyton Manning wonders why Drake has a verse on that otherwise-good Rick Ross track? If they do, we’ll never know, and we’ll never get a chance to know. Maybe with good reason, if it turns out that Embiid can’t actually play basketball. But I hope his story doesn’t end up that way. His success would be the success of everyone who doesn’t quite like the model of athletes as business entities. Who doesn’t want their pal with the funny tweets to succeed?

Chicago Man is Better Pitcher than Edwin Jackson

edwin-jackson-cubs-300x231

In the sixth inning of his favorite team’s 13-3 loss to the San Diego Padres, 46-year-old Chicago Cubs fan Larry Gunderson confirmed many fans’ suspicions when he declared that he was a better pitcher than 30-year-old Cubs starter Edwin Jackson. “I could get these guys out,” said the former pitcher and first baseman for McCloskey’s Plumbing and Heating of the 9-10 Little League Division. “All he has to do is keep the ball low.”

Gunderson, who once threw an 85-mile-per-hour fastball in 1991 (the radar gun said 65, but it was obviously broken) knows that years spent watching Cubs games, playing fantasy baseball, and eating peanut-butter pretzels have made him a more capable pitcher than Jackson, a 2009 All-Star who signed a four-year deal for $52 million in 2013. This season, Jackson sports a 5-11 record with a 5.46 ERA, numbers that municipal bus driver Gunderson, who was named Cook County Public Transit Employee of the Month in November 2012, is confident he could improve upon. “These players get big guaranteed contracts and don’t even care how they play. It’s all about the money, and they’re a bunch of babies. Pay me the league minimum and I could do just as good as him,” said Gunderson, who had just finished berating a pizza delivery man for delivering his meat lovers breakfast pizza without scrapple.

When asked by his friend about Jackson’s 2010 no-hitter, Gunderson, an occasional cigar smoker and owner of three Ratt tour shirts, responded “that ain’t nothing. When I was his age, my curveball dropped like an elevator. If I were as good as him, I’d throw a no-hitter, too.”

Later in the game, Gunderson shifted his criticisms to catcher John Baker, whom he noted was “slow as my grandma.”

%d bloggers like this: