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We’ll Always Have Atlanta

May 5, 2011

So… this is how it feels for 3 seasons of your favorite teams to come to a screeching halt within 24 hours.

Of course I’m talking about:

  • Caps
  • 2011-2012 Terps (Jordan Williams)
  • 2012-2013 Terps (Gary Williams)

While the first two weren’t particularly earth shattering since we all saw them coming from at least a couple of days out, the suddenness and the emotions involved with Gary’s retirement announcement have left me reeling.

It reminds me of the legend of the shirt pillow.

When I was 7 or 8, my favorite shirt was a standard red cotton plain Champion shirt. It was a weekly wear, if not daily. Finally, after roughly a year of almost constant air time, my mom took matters into her own hands. Instead of watching me wear a filthy almost brown shirt everyday, she turned it into a pillow – a comfy red shirt pillow – that I slept soundly on every night for the next decade.

My world came crumbling down one day Senior year of high school, when, during a pillow fight on pajama day, my beloved shirt pillow exploded in my hands. While initially, I was shocked and devastated that my pillar of comfort was gone, I realized something. The reality was that with the amount of use, and my rough and tumble childhood, it’s likely the shirt never would have made it past ’95. Instead, by making it a pillow, it took on another meaning and ended up having a much longer career.

Now I’m not sure who’s who in this story. Maybe I’m me. Maybe we’re all the pillow, and Gary is me. The point is, we’re all immensely better off for having had each other, him and us fans. It was a terrific ride, and I’m glad he was driving.

It’s a sad day, and even sadder seeing posts like this. Still, what keeps me going is knowing I’ll be running into Gary at Bentley’s some day real soon.

Thanks. This will always be Garyland.

Gary's Last Rush of the Court


Great Playoff Teams and Donuts

April 27, 2011

A seldom discussed advantage of shacking up with a lady, even one that loves sports, is that occasionally you’ll get a piece of sports wisdom that your unprecedented understanding and belief in the cardinal rules of professional athletics don’t allow you to see.

“Really, I just want us to play the losers.”

The losers, indeed. Of course, when given the choice of who to face in the playoffs, you’d much prefer the team that didn’t just win a hard fought series. You also hope chocolate frosted is still there when you show up late to the box of Dunkin in the office. Great teams and powdered jelly donuts tend to withstand the test of time. Unfortunately, these are facts of life.

Despite our best wishes, the Caps are stuck in the Eastern Conference semis with the three strongest teams left alive. The big story lines definitely would have been getting some payback against Montreal or Pittsburgh. Wasn’t to be. Instead, we have Tampa, which holds some terrible playoff history for the Caps, and for me.

Taking a trip down memory lane to the Spring of 2003, I was nearing the conclusion of my proud freshman year in College Park. In 2003, fortunately for Dune, Joe and I, it wasn’t so cool to be a Caps fan, so we very easily were able to snag tickets to the now infamous Game 3 of the Caps v. Lightning first round matchup (in fact, the game, embarrassingly, wasn’t even a sellout even though the Caps had won the first two games down in Tampa).

As the game neared it’s thrilling conclusion, we bravely ventured into the lower seating bowl to grab a closer view of the action, and luckily caught Brendan Witt sending the game into overtime. Shortly after the start of the OT, though, the Caps found themselves two men down, and Vinny Lecavalier put the Lightning ahead for good, later going on to win the series rattling off 4 straight wins.

The refs needed the safety of the glass to protect themselves from the debris that rained down on the ice. I should have taken similar precautions as a 32 ounce carbonated beverage drilled me in the back, let loose from the upper level.

I learned two lessons that night.

  1. There are certain advantages to the cheap seats. Namely, safety from flying cokes.
  2. Never underestimate hockey teams from cities that are strangers to winter weather.
Regardless, Tampa has plenty of dudes that know nothing but winter, so it should be a tight, tension-filled series. I can happily report that while they shut us out twice during the tough midseason stretch of the season, we did outscore them 18-6 in the other 4 games we played.
So, ya, we can’t play a team that limped into the second round. However, we can play a team that we know plenty about, that looked sure to knock us off our perch as a three-time defending division champ, only to crumble badly down the stretch. I think the boys in Red cruise after a slow start, and take us one step closer to making this oil painting a reality (courtesy of Mister Irrelevant and Puck Daddy).
Juan’s prediction – Caps in 6.

Karma, Superstitions and the Caps…

April 13, 2011

… Or How I’ve Singlehandedly Won and Lost Capitals Playoff Games

The horn blew ending the second period, and a dejected Verizon Center crowd filed into the concourse to attempt to digest giving up three straight Flyers goals in four minutes setting the stage for a 4-2 uphill climb to kickoff Game 1’s final stanza.

I turned to Berg to curse Donald Briere just in time to catch him slipping into an unorthodox, and typically frowned upon second intermission booze-induced slumber.

“Is he serious?” I wondered. “How could he possibly consider sleeping when the 18,397 other people in this building were venting about how they want the last ten minutes back.” As I reached out to shake him, it hit me. Letting him sleep might just be the move we needed to generate the karma necessary to turn the game around. It might just be something we would look back on, as The Moment Our Luck Changed.

Jumping around on Fun Street with Adrian Fenty an hour later, we wouldn’t point to Green’s two strong goals (one of which was slightly bush league). We didn’t even credit Ovie’s game winner and first ever playoff goal, which remains the most wild playoff goal I’ve seen live.

Of course, it was Berg’s uninterrupted nap that was the difference.

On the eve of the 2011 edition of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it’s important for me to run through what I’ve learned over the years, and particularly since that day, about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to winning a playoff game. Nobody wants to forget the failures of the past, and unknowingly set out on a brisk trot toward disaster.

There are two ways to kick off a superstition – after a big win, or following a particularly traumatic loss. Just as I Berg will always have the “as necessary second intermission nap,” I have my “nothing but a jersey to a playoff game” rule.

Last year, I went to my first ever Caps potential series clinching game. Big moment. However, it fell on a weekend evening and instead of opting for my Ovechkin jersey, I decided to rock the red in my favorite red polo. In other words, I placed my desire to protect my beloved Ovechkin jersey from the perils of a night at the bar above supporting the team, and propelling them into the next round. Terrible attitude and a big mistake. The rest, as they say, is history.

The past, though, is best left in the past. Let’s stay positive and take a look at some winning strategies.

Everyone is aware of the tried and true gold standards for NHL superstitions. For instance, there’s the playoff beard. It’s a widely understood truth that the team with the best collection of scraggly facial hair is most likely to lift the Stanley Cup. This, unfortunately, is terrible news for the Caps since Ovie is contractually obligated by Gillette to maintain a cleanly shaven face. Bruce Boudreau, Caps head coach, has his own non-beard superstitions, which, it’s rumored, also include not eating McDonald’s before a game, and the old reliable “same article of clothing throughout a win streak” move.

As a particularly superstitious individual, I have my own observances. Tomorrow, as Maddie and I venture to this year’s Game 1, the first of many, not only will I obviously have my jersey on in the stands, but I’ll be observing a few things myself. Aside from lucky underwear (standard), tomorrow I’ll listening to nothing but movie soundtracks on my iPod (all about The Natural and Last of the Mohicans), enjoying anything but California Tortilla for dinner (never goes well “before, during… and after the game”), and we’ll be entering the Phone Booth through the North Entrance (not seeing anybody at the Turtle).

Should be a good one. Hopefully, Berg packed his Tylenol PM. Just in case.

A Masters to Remember… and Forget

April 10, 2011

There are few things to be enjoyed more in this life than spending one of the first nice sunny Spring days of the year lounging on the couch watching Sunday at The Masters. It might not be the tradition that Jim Nantz refers to every year, but it certainly is unlike any other.

This year’s vintage, while not always the best golf in the world, had plenty of excitement. When the dust settled, there were really two stories: young Rory McIlroy’s collapse on the final 9, and eventual winner Charl Schwartzel’s highlight reel that carried him to a green jacket (and a third if you want to talk about Adam Scott with his unorthodox putter and lying up on 13. Fortunately, he’s obviously family, so I’ll overlook how he Norv Turner’d Augusta’s best shot at an eagle, settling for par and losing by two strokes).

First, Mr. Schwartzel, helluva day on the course. Two crazy chip ins. Finishing strong with back-to-back birdies. On a day when so many folks played hot potato with the lead (eight guys had a share of the lead on the back 9), the guy with the funny name took the lead and held it with an authority you just don’t see enough of in Majors. Tip of the hat to you, sir.

As for McIlroy, you have to feel for the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland. When I was 21, the most pressure I had to handle was getting up at 9:45 twice a week to make it to my 1-credit soccer class in Cole Field House on time, and suffice it to say that the B I got reflects that I wasn’t always successful. After leading for 63 holes, the wheels came off the bus in one of the worst ways possible, and it was difficult to watch. Spraying golf balls around the course, Rory found less grass than the opposite of what Federal Police found in the back of former Dallas Cowboy Nate Newton’s trunk last year.

The future will decide whether or not this will be seen as the last hurdle or a sign of things to come, but for now, Rory has to try to put the string of miserable shots behind him and look ahead. With as bad as it was, and it was pretty bad, seeing his classy post match interview and tweets, I think he’s going to be okay.

And hey, if I can figure out how to successfully win at the roll of the dice that is waking up with my alarm for work every morning, really anything is possible.

Let’s Play Two!

April 7, 2011

Seriously, let’s play all 162 games right now. It’s a beautiful day. If we hustle between innings, we can maybe fit them all in.

The 2011 baseball season started last week, and with the way the O’s have started things off, it feels like they might win all 162 (note: they are losing as I am typing this so this can’t possibly be considered a jinx post). At least that’s what you’ll hear if you talk to any O’s fan, myself included. It’s been 13 seasons of sub-.500 baseball. It’s been 13 years since we last opened up 4-0. We spent some money on some somewhat big names in the offseason, and with Buck Showalter at the helm, we’re on a 101-win pace. I think we have a reason to be optimistic, but maybe we’re pressing a little too hard on the sunshine pedal.

When I was coaching basketball (shout out to the Jewish Day School!), you could always tell how good the team we were playing was by their fans’ reaction to their first bucket. If it was anywhere from Phil Mickelson putting for the Masters championship to “Hey, thanks for the cranberry juice” we were in trouble. Of course, we only lost one game in two seasons and typically opposing fans treated the first basket like it was ’88 and Nintendo was wrapped up underneath the Xmas tree.

Right now, O’s fans sound a bit like its the first :30 we haven’t trailed in a high school JV basketball game all year. I’ll admit it, taken as a whole, perhaps us Orioles fans are getting a little too worked up for being 77 wins shy of a .500 season. But why shouldn’t we be? It’s been 13 miserable seasons. We’ve lost 24 of 26. We’ve lost a game 30-3. Last season we almost broke our own record for worst start to the season by opening up 2-16.

In reality, with that kind of recent history, it’s actually a wonder anyone showed up for the home opener. However, maybe it was the record April heat, but if this season’s first game at Camden Yards was any indicator, O’s fans are a little more excited and optimistic than they usually are this time of year. Case in point (love what you did here, Face):

Sure we’re going a little bit over the top, but who can blame us? Even though, we might sound like parents short of opportunities to publicly support our children’s far fetched aspirations for professional athletics, really, there’s a little more to it.

For whatever reason, there’s been a groundswell among O’s fans since pitchers and catchers reported to camp in February. It’s a little like seeing the people of Buffalo emerge from a winter of record snows, inexplicably optimistic that maybe this might be the last thaw.

How can you look at the smiles on their faces, the hop in their steps, the enthusiasm of their rush to outdoor happy hours, and even think of reminding them that the snows will come again? Sometimes you’ve just got to believe things have changed.

So I say, embrace the optimism.There will be plenty of losses, but hey, maybe we’ll flirt with 81 wins this year instead of 100 losses.

Some of us are counting on it.

"Pick me out a winner, Bobby."


Too Much Madness?

March 28, 2011

Big plaques and statues of stone dudes that look like you. Not such a bad way to go.

Long ago, in a land far away known as Scotland, a man picked a fight with some English soldiers and records show he later assassinated a local sheriff, possibly because the sheriff killed his wife… whom he married in secret because he wouldn’t share her with an English lord.

That man was William Wallace. Of course his story doesn’t have a happy ending – he was hanged, drawn and quartered and Scotland remained under English rule. However, when all was said and done, he had led the winning army in one of the biggest upset victories in the history of war, his story became a legend that has been shared for centuries, and, most notably, the movie about his life won several Oscars.

When he began, and I’m just spitballing here, he was probably just out looking for some trouble and respect, as young men often are. Instead, he ended up the subject of 1996’s Best Picture Oscar winner.

Sometimes you don’t get what you ask for, but instead you end up with something better.

With 11 seeded Virginia Commonwealth University on their way to their first ever Final Four, with a resume that is decidedly un-Final-Fourly, folks are starting to wonder whether this thing we call March Madness is doing what we wanted it to do. Didn’t we all want to see Ohio State and Kansas, pretty much everyone’s consensus 1-2, battle it out for 40 minutes for the national title? Instead of that dream match-up filled with future NBA stars, could we really be looking at a team that beat odds estimated at 1 in 203,187?

Admittedly, I was. Ohio State vs. Kansas would have been a battle. But then again, looking forward to that matchup was to forget what this thing is all about. Now that I think about it, I’m somewhat surprised that I heard Mike & Mike even suggesting this morning on their radio show that something might be a bit off with this Final Four. How can we possibly have second thoughts about a 68 team tournament, when seeing VCU and 8 seeded Butler in the Final Four is exactly what keeps us coming back for more every year?

Sure, if VCU, or when really any of these four teams wins the National Championship on Monday night, it will be difficult to argue that the team was really the best college basketball team this season. That’s just semantics.

To paraphrase Herm Edwards, one of the greatest things about March Madness is that no matter what seed the committee hands you, you go out there and you play to win the game, getting a 1 or a 2 seed doesn’t guarantee you a free pass to the Final Four, and sometimes, just sometimes, a little known team that did little to gain national respect during the regular season catches lightning in a bottle, proves everybody wrong, and punches a ticket to college basketball’s biggest stage. That’s what it is all about.

Hello! They call it madness for a reason, and there are few better feelings in sports than hearing your school’s name called on Selection Sunday and knowing that maybe, if the chips fall in just the right way, in a couple of weeks, you could be two wins away from a national title.

I realize that originally we meant to find the best team, but in the end we found the greatest, most unpredictable, most enjoyable (even with no horse in the race) sporting event ever made (speculation, but I’m sticking with it). It’s crazy that we even allowed ourselves to question whether it was achieving it’s purpose.

It isn’t what we asked for, but having seen the alternatives, we ended up with something much better.

Let’s not second guess it ever again.

What’s Wrong With Ties?

March 9, 2011

College is, in many ways, a perfect storm of ingredients that create a hotbed for heated debates. When you take young men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, and stir in new ideas and a pinch of growing self-confidence, folks are bound to find some reasons to argue.

For my group of friends, the arguments were typically sports related, and when we had our debates over a few brews, they could often devolve into shouting matches that frequently left us wondering what we were arguing about in the first place. All of this changed when a friend and I discovered a great way to help us avoid having trivial arguments ruin a good time. From then on, our boozy arguments typically went something like this:

Me: Cornerstone has the best wings in College Park, hands down.

Mark Mac: Seriously? Cluck U’s superior wing sauce selection makes it a clear frontrunner by miles.

Me: (sarcastically, but with a smile) You’re so right, dude.

Boom. End of meaningless argument. Back to having fun. Of course, there are situations where it is necessary to argue, but those situations are rare. For someone like me who enjoys a good verbal tussle, it was a difficult lesson to learn, but I’m a much happier person for it.

After watching the Caps end a  game with their division rivals, Tampa Bay, Monday night, with a shootout that hardly did the intense hard-fought 1-1 game justice, I’m starting to wish that the NHL could learn that lesson, too (even though a glorious Ovie goal won the game). In some respects they are as the NHL is looking for alternatives to the shootout which  has become much too commonplace (they ended nearly 15 percent of games last year), and has created issues in the standings. However, the most popular proposed solutions only seem to be more new and interesting gimmicks designed to keep our attention.

Reading through these exotic overtime proposals, I keep find myself wondering what’s so wrong with a regular season game ending in a tie? Why, after 60 or 65 minutes of playoff-style hockey, couldn’t Bruce Boudreau just walk up to Guy Boucher and say “You know what? You’re so right dude. See you in the playoffs.” and leave it at that?

Why does it make more sense to decide a game where two teams left everything out on the ice with a spectacle that has been compared to ending an NFL game with two field goal kickers squaring off to settle a game after over time?

Surprisingly, I’m in the minority here, as polls have suggested that fans like shootouts by a wide margin. Some people like Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated are so pro-shootout, that they describe themselves as shootout-aholics. Like Mike, I can remember my fair share of exciting shootouts, too, like watching two of the game’s greats, Ovechkin and Brodeur, do battle to decide a game with the Devils.

Still, at this point, we’re beating this particular gimmick like a dead horse, and as anyone who owned a Budweiser “Whassssuuuppp!” t-shirt or an XFL football franchise can tell you, sooner or later, gimmicks get old and people move on.

Besides, in Farber’s examples of high-profile shootouts from World Cups to Olympic hockey gold medal games, I think we can all agree that having to settle a major game by something other than actually playing the game is unfortunate to say the least.

So why not bring back ties? Sure, this is coming from a soccer fan who deals with ties every week. Ties are lame. I know. The point is if you are awarding wins for something so arbitrary, it diminishes the value of actually winning, and all while during the regular season when deciding a winner and loser isn’t really that necessary. Ultimately, at the end of the year, we’ll know who is the best at winning hockey games the way they were meant to be played, not who is better at working the points system.

How do  you feel about shootouts? Leave your thoughts below, or, perhaps, let’s just agree to disagree.

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