Friday, March 21, 2008

Holy Communion

There are pockets of baseball fans who are annoyed as hell by the NCAAs and I hear them that it's all too much. But it's still one of my favorite things about sports. Yesterday didn't provide the magic moment on TV that we wanted (though Belmont was damn close) but I still loved getting together with friends and strangers to watch the games. As a middle-aged father, I can count the times on one hand where I get to hang out with an old friend and do nothing but, well, hang out for way too long.

I still believe, like I wrote five years ago in the post below, that The Big Dance provides an opportunity for magic both on the court and wherever we gather. And I'll be gathering today at Senser's in Bloomington to watch the duration today, starting with (hopefully) the opening tip. I hope you can join us.

Holy Communion
(from 3/21/2003)

For me, it started in Philly, where the Big Five can be close to religion. Philadelphians are a passionate lot (as Kobe well knows), and the five (now six) division 1A college teams inside the city limits can draw a fanatic following, whether they're playing each other in the old Palestra or the new MegaBank-of-the-Moment Center.

The first round of the NCAA has turned into a religious holiday for many, and this year my wife (The Voice of Reason), my friends and I are choosing to worship. We've arranged care for the kids with my parents for the day, who don't really understand our fascination with this event, so it means even more to us that they agree to help. The congregation is gathering at America's Original Sports Bar and the service lasts approximately 11 hours. What makes it communal is the nonsense that we spew at each other between the nail-biting finishes. What makes it holy are the miracles that we invariably witness.
  • "HOOOoolyyyyy CROSS!", Bob exclaims as we walk in at 11:45. #14 Holy Cross is only 2 points behind #3 Marquette, 14-12. It's too soon to be a big deal, so Bob uses the joke while he can. I wonder how long he's been saving it.

  • The first beer arrives at 11:55 AM. It's part of the tradition of the tournament - the first beer has to arrive before noon. There's something liberating about snubbing social norms. We feel free and a little giddy.

  • Matt walks in the bar and pulls up a seat. He has a 7-day-old baby at home. He's our new hero.

  • There are three early games and they're all on big screens - with a small TV in the corner alternating between Fox News and CNN. It's there to ease our guilt about ignoring the real world for 11 hours. We can glance over occasionally, and feel like we're still good citizens for reading the news ticker.

  • It turns out that Bob's joke didn't need to be used that early. Holy Cross is playing their hearts out - well enough to be a Cinderella-Sweet-Sixteen-kinda team. Except that Marquette came to play, too.

    We watch two talented, focused teams play good solid basketball for the entire second half. Aggressive defense. Hard fouls. Precise, quick ball movement. And gutsy shooting. In the end, it's Marquette's Travis Diener who makes the biggest shots, and we're robbed of a big ending by a stumble and a steal that puts the game out of reach for Holy Cross.

    When the game ends, the bar breaks into applause. It may be the best basketball game we'll see played all day.

  • Al and Bob are doing their best Norm and Cliff impression. They just don't know it.
    Bob: We concluded with Andy the other day that you might be able to induce diabetes if you ate 30 Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
    The Voice of Reason: Why 30? Why not an even 3 dozen?
    Al: I spotted him six.
    Bob: Yeah. Eating 30 Krispy Kremes is one thing. But 36 is just crazy.

  • The highlight you're probably seeing replayed today is from the Cal-NC State game, made even more spectacular because is was announced by Kevin Harlan. With 12 second left in overtime, NC State hits a three to take the lead, but Cal answers by racing down the court and draining a three with 5 seconds left (by a freshman, no less). And then NC State races down to the other end and just misses answering themselves.

    The game itself was competitive, but sloppy on both sides, and marred by officiating blunders at the end of regulation. The consensus opinion is that we wanted that to be the ending of the Holy Cross/Marquette game.

  • The Voice of Reason: If I give you this credit card, can we start a tab?
    Hot Waitress [taking card and walking away]: Sure, sweetheart.
    The Voice of Reason [stunned, to Matt]: I'm sorry - did she just call me "Sweetheart"?
    Long Pause
    Matt [meekly]: Can I watch?

  • The Southern Illinois (#11) vs Missouri (#6) game had something like 20+ lead changes and we were apparently wrong about Holy Cross/Marquette being the best game of the day. Missouri's center, Arthur Johnson, carried his team to a five point lead, but somehow the Salukis came back and tied the score at 71 with Missouri still having the ball for a last shot.

    But the Missouri player accidentally charges into Saluki Jermaine Dearman with five seconds left - and the official blows the call. He rewards Missouri with a foul on Dearman, who fouls out. Irate, he walks back to the bench to find the rest of his team on the edge of their seats, with their arms linked. He slides into place, another link in the chain.

    Missouri only drains the second free throw, so Southern Illinois is down by just one point with 1.5 seconds left. They get a decent look, but the shot doesn't go in. Before the shooter can walk off the court, a Missouri opponent is shaking hands with him. Good game, indeed.

  • On the corner TV, Fox News is talking about French President Jacque Shirac. We can tell this because they have a graphic behind the announcer with the word "Shirac" and a picture of Shirac which only a rival campaign manager would love. Honestly, he looks like he's yelling at someone for mispronouncing a wine.

    Leave it to Fox News to pull something like that. Why not go the full nine yards and just put up a picture of Pepe LePugh? Or Napolean?

  • The biggest "almost" upset comes from (#15) Utah State, who battled (#2) Kansas for the entire game. They pull within 3 points with 46 seconds left, but Kansas outlasts their charge.

  • A commercial for the movie "Anger Management" comes on.
    Al (dryly): That'll be funny.
    John(increduously): Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson?
    Andy (dryer still): Finally, they're together. Finally.

  • University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (#12) has traded punches with Notre Dame (#5) for 47 minutes. More accurately, they've traded punches with Notre Dame's guard, Chris Thomas, who is literally willing his team to compete. He is scoring, rebounding, and dishing the ball. This would be a 20 point blowout if not for him.

    UM-W wasn't even supposed to be here. They made the tournament when they upset Butler in their league championship game. They are lead by senior guard Clay Tucker, who leads the team in scoring, assists and is second in rebounds. And they find themselves up by a point, with under a minute to go, and they have the ball.

    Their shot balances on the rim, but falls out and the Irish get the ball back and score on a loose ball putback by Torris Francis with 35 seconds to go. The Irish lead 70-69, but UM-W doesn't call a timeout. Instead, Clay Tucker calmly dribbles the ball across half court and waits for the clock to run down. If they make it, the Irish (and Thomas) won't get another turn. And if they miss....

    With 8 seconds left, Tucker starts his drive to the lane, looking for the shot to ice it. Notre Dame's defense comes in waves; one too many waves it seems. Because rather than shoot, Tucker finds 6' 8" UW-M forward Dylan Page, by himself, under the basket. The pass is made and Page goes up above the rim and lays it in the cylinder.

    And it rolls around the back of the rim.

    And out.

    And the game is over. Irish win, 70-69.

    We watch Page walk numbly to his bench with his team and start shaking hands.
    We all know the feeling. It's an emptiness. A throbbing too intense to be fully realized. A failing that hurts oneself most because it hurts others more.
    We look at each other. We exhale and shake our heads. We give our hearts to a 21-year-old kid that we just noticed. We want it to be different. We want to heal it. We want to heal him.

    But we're reminded that religions don't provide miracles, they provide communion. This wasn't the miracle we wanted to see, but it's the communion we wanted to feel.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Denard's Patience

School is back in session and you can't help but roam the halls marveling at the changes that took place over the summer. This year, the hot topic is the new girl from New York who nobody can take their eyes off.

I mean, holy cow. Have you see that game-changing speed? Eight steals so far in spring training? And room for power too? She looks like the whole package, except - well, she just doesn't seem to get it, you know? Maybe she's a little too used to being the center of attention and takes things for granted?

And quite suddenly you wonder if all that hubbub hasn't caused you to overlook that girl in American History. You know, the one that you had that thing for in eighth grade, but she was a little too stuck up. And then she started overrating herself, and that turned into a little insecurity, and she just wasn't walking around the same way anymore.

You haven't paid attention to her much, but this year there seems to be something a little more substantial about her. A quiet confidence, or even groundedness, perhaps? Who is she again?

Denard Span has alternated between "overlooked" and "whipping boy" for followers of this organization for several years. Some of that is out of convenience because Span has embodied two of the favorite Twins-critical paradigms. For starters, he's a first round draft pick and a position player, and the Twins have been short on success stories for both recently. Second, he's a light-hitting speedster, and many believe the Twins are too infatuated with "piranhas" like him.

But, to be fair, Span has done his fair share to deserve that criticism. At 24 years old, he's not particularly young, and he hasn't exceeded a 700 OPS since High A ball. With almost no power to speak of, he needs to be an on-base machine that can use his speed, but he's only been average at getting on base in the minors. So Span entered this spring as an aging ex-prospect with career minor league numbers that include a .285 batting average, a .350 on-base percentage and seven home runs over five years.

That's pretty bleak, and would've been a lot bleaker if not for August of last year. You may have read that Span's second half of 2007 was much better than his first half, which gave everyone involved some hope. And you may have read more cynical takes that Span really only had one great month. Both are true, but there might be something more substantial there.

Well, I suppose the optimist could look at that steadily rising batting average and get a little excited, but you can see what has the cynics worried. Span basically had one very good month, and by "very good" I mean he had about a half dozen extra hits fall in. That doesn't erase four years of skepticism.

But this might:

Um, sixteen walks in August, too? That suggests that Span wasn't just finding holes in the field, he was taking substantially different at-bats. That looks a lot like a change in patience, and the skyrocketing OBP looks like a lot like a major league asset.

Now, sometimes with a free-swinging player, they can see a surge like this just because they decide to keep the bat on their shoulder. Pitchers have decided they don't need to throw the player strikes, so the passive batter ends up walking a lot. But the batter also often strikes out a lot as they let quality pitches go past.

But Span's strikeouts in August were also the lowest of any month. Span historically strikes out twice as much as he walks, but in August he walked more than he struck out. That hadn't happend to him in any month for several years.

Now, this doesn't prove he's made an adjustment, but it gave cause for legitimate hope in spring training. Even in the limited at-bats a player has in spring training, you would hope that you would see some similar trends.

And so far, so good. Span has six walks and just three strikeouts. In 31 at-bats, most of which have been as a starter, he's hitting a reasonable .290. But his on-base percentage for the spring is .421. Those numbers look pretty consistent with what happened at the end of last year.

Which isn't to say that you're ready to forget all about that knockout from New York. But it might pay to take a second and third look a that girl you wrote off a couple of years ago. She might be proof that patience really does pay off.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Weekend Notes

Is there a more frustrating endeavor than to monitor spring training developments from 1200 miles away? I say "no". You can glean a smidgen of info from the stats, and a little more from the lineups, but mostly you need to watch the games.

For Twins fans, this weekend provided two opportunities to do so, and I was able to take advantage of one of them. The Voice of Reason and I had our annual Twins-Phillies bet riding on Saturday's game because it was on TV locally. Since she artfully arranged to have our kids dying Easter Eggs at my parents' house for the same three hours, we got to hunker down at Majors in Bloomington for a baseball date.


It was beautiful. And, because we view you all as our close friends, it seems only fitting we bring you along....

- Over at Stick and Ball Guy's blog, Ubelmann was kind (cruel?) enough to point out to us that the Twins have started Nick Punto at second base most of the time when Adam Everett was playing shorstop. It's a reasonable assumption that Gardenhire is interested in having his keystone combination play together in spring training. Yikes.

Sure enough, Punto played there for our game, too. My impression? It looks like he has rediscovered the plate discipline he lost midway through last season. I did not notice how he handled high pitches, which was part of last year's downfall.

(TVOR's reaction? "OOOH! Look at him move those tiny little legs to get to first base. Isn't he just adorable?".

Umm, OK. I just made that up. That would never happen. She wanted the Phils to win so bad that she would've been more likely to root for him to strain a hammy. She is, after all, from The City of Brotherly Love.)

Then, in yesterday's call-in radio show, Gardenhire was asked point blank whether Brendan Harris would be his starting second baseman. He refused to say that he would be.

And then, in Sunday's game, Harris missed yet another ground ball that should have been playable by 95% of all second baseman. And about 50% of all one-legged second basemen. To be fair, Dick Bremer said it was hit "in the perfect spot", of course. But in the replay, it looked like the perfect spot is about fifteen feet to the right of second base.

Which is a long way of saying that you shouldn't be shocked if Nick Punto is your starting second baseman this year. And even more shocking, I might not have a problem with it.

- Majors was great. I don't think I've been there to watch games more than a handful of times in my life, despite it being very close to may parents house, but it was fantastic. The food was very good, the TVs were everywhere, and the service was fantastic. And you have to love anyplace where a staff member confides that they got a whole one hour and 45 minutes of sleep last night.

- The Twins broke the game open versus JD "The Real Deal" Durbin, who bounced around last year before latching on with the Phils. He's battling for the 5th starter job versus Adam Eaton, who was pretty good versus the Twins. The Phils also re-signed JC Romero during the offseason. Oh, and Kyle Lohse rejected their 3-year, $21 million offer before he snapped up that 1-year, $5 million deal from the Cardinals.

Between Durbin's meltdown on Saturday and Lohse's and Romero's playoff performance last year, I almost have TVOR convinced that their our secret agents.

- It would have been nice to see the offense come alive versus some players who might make the Phils major league staff this season, but beating the hell out of some AAA guys makes for a pretty nice afternoon, too. The most impressive swing of the day came from Jason Kubel, who hit a no doubt home run to deep right field against a horrendous wind.

If you've seen any highlights of the game, you know the same wind played havoc with the gloves, but there was at least one play that drew a some low whistle in the bar. Phillies speedster Jimmy Rollins hit a line drive into the left field corner. Delmon Young chased it down, planted, and threw a strike (directly into the teeth of that wind) to second base. Rollins made it to second, but just barely. Young's arm is real.

That's it for tonight. The whole CF situation deserves more time that I've got. Check back later this week and we'll see if we can't break it down.