Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Story of the Year: 2003

5 Outs Away

FOX upper management had to be orgasming at the sight of the Cubs and Red Sox in the respective Championship Series. These were two teams that represented the second and third largest followings in the sport (plus, FOX had the consolation prize of the largest following also in the Championship Series). These were the two most mythologized teams in baseball, the two teams who were connected to their communities for one simple reason: futility, and in most cases infamous futitlity. The futility had crossed over to mainstream. Everyone knew that the Cubs and the Red Sox were both "cursed", woebegone teams in a game dominated by gotham New York. FOX could see it in front of their eyes, a Red-Sox/Cubs world series. The ratings would be huge, the money coming in even bigger. It was perfect, too perfect. There was no way the baseball Gods would bestow upon FOX this perfect match, this match made in baseball heaven. Instead, they gave FOX the Yankees (whose winning had become dull and boring by then) and the Marlins (whose winning is always dull and boring, then and now), but before leaving FOX to pick up the pieces of what could have been, the gave a glimpse into the true agony of defeat, and put together the three most dramatic and accursed days in baseball history.

Part I - The Play that Ruined a Life

The story begins in the North side of Chicago, between the hallowed ivy in Wrigley Field. Mark Prior was cruising along, throwing zero after zero on the scoreboard and warming the crowd with 98 mph heat on the cold, Chicago night. The Marlins had only four hits, and just five outs left when Luis Castillo came up to the plate, with Juan Pierre on second base, and Cubs fans on cloud nine. Luis Castillo battled from 0-2 down, to 3-2, facing the eighth pitch of the at bat, when Steve Bartman sat back in his seat and put his hands together, praying that the dominant Prior would gas one more pitch by him. Little did Steve Bartman know that in a matter of seconds his name would become known country-wide, and people would legitimately threaten his life.

Prior reared back and threw one more fastball. Prior, who had pitched 126 pitches four days earlier, threw a pitch that had it been one tenth of a mph faster, Castillo never would have touched it, the Cubs would have been down to four outs away, and the South Side may not be a depressing place today. However, Prior's overworked fastball got wood. Castillo floated the ball near the left-field side wall in foul territory. Notorious lothario and weirdo (he pisses on his hands to harden them before games) Moises Alou drifted over. Steve Bartman, seeing an opportunity to actually catch a foul ball, everyman's dream, rose from his seat and reached up. Everyone knows the rest. Bartman nudged the ball away from a then furious Alou. Prior threw a wild pitch, then allowed a single. Alex Gonzalez, the best fielding shortstop in the National League, misplayed what would have been as easy double play, botching it into an error. Then there was a double, followed by Prior being pulled. One intentional walk, double, single and triple later, it was 7-3 Marlins, and 1-0 Angry Cubs fans over Steve Bartman.

The Cubs would go on to lose the game, and crash and burn the next night in Game 7. The Cubs still have not won a World Series, in fact they have not even won a playoff game since Game 6. The particulars in the game are all gone, as Moises Alou is off getting angry at other random people, and Mark Prior is off getting his umpteenth Tommy John surgery. Alex Gonzalez has in fact joined the preisthood, as he felt God saved him by making Bartman the goat of the game, and not him. The real villain became Bartman, who was essentially thrown out of the ballpark for trying to catch a fly ball that went into the stands, much like the other ten people around him who similarly reached up hoping the ball would fall into their hands. Bartman's address was criminally given out by the Chicago Sun-Times (thankfully, no one reads the paper, so that didn't pose a huge problem). Bartman had to move into exile, in fear for his life. Sadly, that is not a joke. Bartman was used as the scapegoat by most Cubs fans, but other smarter fans decided it was fate, that the baseball Gods just were against them again. The events of two days later did nothing to assuage the Cubs fans of these fears.

Part II - Grady in Gotham

The Red Sox had the advantage of seeing the ills of leaving a starter in too long. They had seen the problems caused from a tiring starter who lost a couple tenths of mph. They were given the cautionary tale of the Cubs. One man chose to ignore it. Pity him, Grady Little, for the simple man had no idea the strength of the baseball Gods.

It was almost a carbon copy situation. Pedro Martinez stood on top of the Yankee Stadium mound. His own effectiveness and his record-setting offense effectively muted the big cathedral of baseball. Derek Jeter came up to the plate with one out in the eighth, but even he, "Captain Clutch" had a look of dismay upon his face. "Could this really be happening? Are the Red Sox about to beat us in our own house?" Jeter seemed to think. Jeter managed to hammer out a double, but really it seemed like useless stat fodder. Pedro was in control, with no obvious sign of tiring on the litmus sign that is the radar gun, but inside he knew that he was tiring. The movement that had defined Pedro's fastball was gone. Up came Bernie Williams, a man Pedro had battled time and time again, mostly to excellent results. Pedro reached back and threw a laser, one that was a tad slower than normal. Bernie punched a single, moving Jeter to third. Martinez was stunned and gassed. His best was no longer good enough, and to his satifaction Grady Little seemed to know as he came out to greet him. This is where the Gods intervened and decided to change the course of Grady Little's managerial life.

No one will ever know what prompted Grady Little to make a blunder so big it would cost him his job. No one will ever have an answer to the question "Why did Grady leave Pedro in?" All they know is that it is a move right next to leaving the bad fielding Bill Buckner in the game in the Red Sox hall of shame. Grady Little left the mound with Pedro retained on it. A totally gassed Pedro, one who let his guard down thinking he was about to leave the game, was no match for the Yankees and a suddenly rejuvanated, unmuted crowd. Hedeki Matsui hit a ground rule double, followed by Jorge Posada squeezing a double into the field's Bermuda Triangle between the shortstop, second baseman and center fielder. The game, one that was 5-2 zero outs ago, was now 5-5, destined for extra innings, and destined for mystique and destiny (Yankee Stadium's two angels that preside over the Yankee Stadium games) to make their appearance. Aaron Boone's home run was not so much as inevitable, but expected, as the Yankees would win, as they always do, and the Red Sox would die a slow, terrible death, as they always do.

Pedro Martinez sat in the dug out, watching the Yankees celebrating after Boone's home run. He covered his head with a hoodie hiding what might have been tears of agony. Pedro is a prideful man, and he felt responsible for the Red Sox second most dreadful defeat. Luckily for him, Red Sox nation felt otherwise, as Grady Little, who had just managed the team to 95 wins, would never take the dugout in a Red Sox uniform again. He knew as much, as he reportedly wished Pedro goodbye and goodluck. He knew well, that people who had the gall to add to the treacherous litany of Red Sox disasters would exiled out of town. Like Bartman, Grady Little's life was ruined. Little rebounded, and has had managerial jobs after that, but he lost his best chance of winning a world series, because he chose to challenge the Baseball Gods.

Part III - Curses Can Exist

Immediately people started claiming that the teams were cursed. The claim was old hat for the Red Sox, who have long been victims to the alleged Curse of the Bambino, a total misnomer as it makes no sense for a man whose career would never have been as mythologized had he not been dealth to New York to curse the Red Sox. This was, to most curse-supporters, just another example of the dark magic that surrounded the Red Sox franchise, another haunting in Red Sox nation. However, it was the start of something new for the Cubs. They had long been the lovable losers, the team that was so bad it never even came close enough to winning to inspire a catchy curse name like Boston. The Red Sox had a long string of disastrous defeats, the Cubs just a string of losses. Alot of them. The closest thing to a curse was some story about a goat not being given permission to enter Wrigley. Now it had all changed. The Cubs were now equal to the Red Sox, together helpless victims of some supernatural being hell-bent on never seeing those two teams acheive glory. The Cubs had arrived to the level of curse-hood, and the Red Sox to curse legitimacy. A new day had dawned in just three days.

Curses don't really exist, and definitely not in baseball or any sports. What would some accursed being care about the trails of two sports teams? Why would the greatest baseball player of all time waste his time cursing his old team, when he could be boozing and womanizing it up in baseball heaven? However, if there was ever evidence that maybe, just maybe, there are some weird megnetic energy and mysticism in America's two most hallowed sports grounds. Maybe the ivy in Wrigley is trapping bad spirits in, and maybe the glory whores mystique and aura do make nightly appearances in Yankee Stadium. All in all, as Tom Verducci pointed out, "Only the Red Sox and Cubs could both lose in a way that has only been done twice in postseason history two days apart." Yes, only the Red Sox and Cubs can. Grady and Bartman agree.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Rise of Rocky Top

The Transfomation of Tennessee Basketball

It hit me the second Raymar Morgan hit his game winning free throw. It kept hitting me throughout the Duke-Baylor game. It still astounds me six hours later, as the final four is set, and god damnit Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzsewksi are there again. What hit me? The stunning realization that I am distraught and saddened by Tennessee Volunteer basketball. I'll blame it on Bruce Pearl and his orange suits.

The last five years of Tennessee Volunteer basketball has by any conceivable measure the best five years in the history of the men's program. When Bruce Pearl took over the job in 2005, he was leading the second most popular basketball team in his own university. He took over an average team, with few real recruits, and somehow led them to a #2 seed in the 2006 tournament. No one really remembers that team, mainly because they lost in the second round to Witchita State, and the pursuits of George Mason have essentially whited-out every other significant fact of that tournament. (Hey, guess what, LSU was in the Final Four that year). However, it was the start of something. It felt good to be a Volunteer fan. I can still remember randomly looking at the AP rankings midway through the 2005-2006 season, and seeing the Volunteers at number 11, and just thinking, "What? Tennessee Basketball." Entering 2006-07 there was actual optimism, because the team had a duo of frosh Smiths (Ramar and JaJuan), and the two players that are responsible for the feeling that now festers inside of me: Chris Lofton and Wayne Chism.

The teams were memorable in 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 because they were actually very good. Back to back sweet sixteen appearances, one with a last second loss to Ohio State in the Oden year (a loss infinitely more heartbreaking than the loss today), and the next to Rick Pitino and a loaded Lousville squad. They had two than three Smiths, a scrappy white guy named Dane Bradshaw, and roamers like Duke Crews (what a porn name!), Josh Powell and Ryan Childress. They were good teams, fun teams, but flawed teams because the A1 recruits still don't truly want to come to Tennessee. 2008-2009 was different, because Lofton was gone, and so was the magic. They had to reload, and spent one middling year that amounted to nothing, but was immediately forgotten because of the exploits of the 2009-2010 team. That one magically got four of its players arrested, which led to the dismissal of the third Smith, Tyler, the team's best player. They then went on to band together and reach the Elite Eight for the first time since in the history of the program, and avenge the Ohio St. Sweet Sixteen loss from 2007. The team had new stars, like Scotty Hopson, Bobby Maze and J.P. Prince. But the binding was three men, Chris Lofton, Wayne Chism and Coach Pearl.

The first man in the trio is Coach Pearl, the man given the near Sisyphusian task of building Tennessee basketball into a major player. In one year, he had the team as a 2 seed. The next, one point away from beating the eventual runner-up in the Sweet 16. The next year having Tennessee ranked #1 for the first time ever, and two years later in the Elite Eight for the first time ever. Gifted with an infinite energy, and an uncanny ability to connect to his players (probably due to him being the only Division 1 coach to paint his chest and cheer in the student section for a Women's Game). Although, since he would have to be stoop to Calipari level shadiness to get major recruits, it is his brilliant coaching that has been his allowed the program to take flight. He has the singular ability to coach his team up for any game at any time. They are the nation's giant killers.

Time and time again, they randomly take huge bites out of the country's top teams. When Florida went back-to-back in 2005-06 and 2006-07, Tennessee beat them three times out of four. They were the only team to beat the Rose-led Memphis team in 2008 until Kansas needed a miracle to upend them in the Title Game, and they also did it in Memphis. Nothing drove this point home more than in the 2009-10 season, when Pearl coached his team up to beat the current #1 Kansas with six scholarship players and three walk-ons. Then, they beat Kentucky. Kansas and Kentucky lost a total of four games before the NCAA Tournament, and two of those were to Tennessee. Again, they came THIS close to knocking off Oden in 2007. There were no limits to Pearl. In the end, the program's inability to draw major recruits were his undoing. He was probably the best in-game head coach of the past five years, only beaten by Tommy Izzo. Bruce Pearl and his contagious smile and bashful behaviour masked a coaching genius, one that succeeded at finally pushing the rock over the hill.

Chism is next. The Chism era is now officially over, and what a whirlwind it was. He was the guy who like his coach, had a brilliant ability to come up huge in games. Izzo knew, so in what will be his final NCAA game, Chism was doubled and effectively taken out of the game, but look back one game, and Chism was the best player on a court that included the Player of the Year, Evan Turner. Chism was an uncontrollable player as a freshman on the memorable 2007 team. He had a maddening ability to jack up threes and wander far, far away from the basket. At times he could take over games, but he mostly was just a sideshow. That was until he did yoeman's work against Greg Oden, outscoring Oden in the 2007 Sweet 16 game. Every year he got better and better, and would just come up huge in major games. He finally was able to use his size and leverage, as he planted himself mainly under the basket, and contorted out lay-ups at every turn. It seemed that there was nothing Chism could not do. Hit a three? Yeah, he could do it. Block a shot? Yup. Wayne Chism's headband had a life of it own. Infamously fickle with the band of cloth, it somehow stayed on his increasingly rectuangular head until he decided mid-game to take it off. Headband off, headband on, behind the three point line or in the paint. Chism never failed to dissapoint, never failed to bring a smile to the Vols faithful. Chism will never suit up for Tennessee again, and if nothing else, that makes this loss hard to take. Never again will he launch a three or throw one down. However, the memories will stay forever.

Of course, that brings us to Lofton. Everything started and ended with Lofton. He was the greatest three-point shooter in team history, and probably the best big game shooter of the 2000s in college basketball. It never looked pretty, but his fall-back three point shot was a thing of beauty. It was him that keyed the 2005-06 resurgence, and him that made the 2006-2007 season the most memorable in Volunteer history. It started with his shot over 6'9" now superstar Kevin Durant to beat Texas. It was then his 30 points against eventual back-to-back Florida. There was no shot he could not hit, not any part of the court that was not outside his range. If it went up, it was probably going in. Chris Lofton was even a great help-defender and passer, the heart and soul of Tennessee's 2006-07 team. He was the man in Knoxville, the guy with the iron balls, able to launch up three's at a whim and make them all count. Yet, none of that mattered one year later after his dramatic senior year.

The question was inescapable. What was wrong with Chris Lofton? A pre-season All-American, Lofton was barely averaging 15 points per game, after crossing 20 ppg the season before. The team was having its best regular season ever, acheiving the #1 ranking for the first time in school history. They were finally major players in the regular season, but Chris was not the major reason why. They team was deeper and more talented, but not better because they did not have the same old Chris. We found out why after his senior season ended, it was because he battled cancer without even telling his teammates. Chris Lofton learned in May 2007 that he had cancer. At 21 he was supposed to be at his physical peak, but cancer does not discriminate. He was able to beat it, but it left him lifeless on the court and helpless off it. Only coach Bruce Pearl knew, and he valiantly kept the secret as he personally wanted to curse all the reporters who asked the question every fan was thinking, "What's wrong with Chris?" The fire just wasn't there, and in retrospect, it was there more than ever, but the opponent was cancer, not other teams. Chris beat cancer, but he also beat the odds, becoming a sports legend at Tennessee and not throwing, running or catching an oblong ball with laces. He was the biggest Tennessee sports hero since a certain QB named Manning. He was the heart and soul of the Tennessee resurgence. It all starts with him and his pure shot.

Tennessee is finally a team that will probably be in the top-25 for years and years to come. One day, Pearl will start landing major recruits, or at least major enough to get to that Final 4. It is only a matter of time, because he is too good of a coach and he is invested in seeing Tennessee reach glory (unlike a certain Mr. Calipari who is soulless enough to just leave a school he has a contract with in a mess of sanctions and stripped Final 4 seasons). Tennessee will never be Kansas or Kentucky, programs with great history and tradition, but it can easily be the next Michigan St. a program built by a coach and a coach only, one who rebuilt a program into a major power. The shot is there, and we have Wayne Chism and his headband, Bruce Pearl and his orange suits, and Chris Lofton and his big shot and bigger heart. Tennessee Basketball has come so far in five years, and the truth is in the pain caused by their losses.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Story of the Year: 2002

Maybe We Can Play This Game Too?!

Germany is always the villain. It was in World War II (obviously), World War I (less-obviously), and in our only realistic shot at winning the world cup (the antithesis of obviously). We all forget now, since the US was a finalist in some contrived "Confederations Cup", but the US team reached its apex in 2002, a wonderful tournament in South Korea and Japan. Playing in what was the wee hours of the morning at home, the US National team actually captivated a nation for the monthlong tournament, brilliantly beating traditional powers (Mexico, Portugal), and ending in a beautiful and controversial quarterfinal against Germany, the perfect villian. Soccer would never be the same in the US. Today, one can watch the UEFA Champions League on Fox Sports Net, watch English Premier League matches on ESPN, watch the UEFA European Cup on ABC, and every single kick of the World Cup live. All that is due to the valiant effort of the forgotten great team, the first team to make soccer matter in the USA, and the team that made every fan think, "Hey, maybe we can play this game too?"

There were little expectations preceding the 2002 World Cup for the US team. Coupled that with the fact the games were taking place an 18 hour plane ride away, and airing live at 2 AM and 5 AM, there was no buzz. Finally, to finish off the triumvarite of suck that was eminent before the tournament, the USA was placed in easily the second most diffucult group, with an able Polan team, pre-tournament Giants Portugal and host South Korea (and hosts almost always play better than expected; witness: the USA in 1994 when an awful US team actually was able to not suck). To say the US team was forgotten and pushed far down into the sports scene would be like saying that Brazilians can play soccer. It was obvious the US, who had never really done anything, and failed to score a single goal in the 1998 World Cup, would just be round 1 fodder.

That all changed on June 5, 2002 in Suwon Stadium, when the US took the pitch against the bookmakers second pre-tournament favorite Portugal. What followed was a resounding match that probably lit the soccer explosion that has occured in the years since (I'll explain later). The US scored in the fourth minute on a power-drilled shot by John O'Brien (who? exactly). Scored on a flukish redirection that slipped by Portuguese goalkeeper Vitor Baia, and the US somehow led 2-0 thirty five minutes in. At this point, it was around 3 AM in America, and really everyone was asleep. A beatiful header by hero Brian McBride six minutes later, and the USA led 3-0 against a dominant Portuguese unit. The thousands of US fans drowned out their much louder, better represented Portuguese brethren in Suwon Stadium. The US were not only shocking Portugal, but dominating them. The US hung on valiantly as every bit of liquid talent the Portuguese team could exert they did to score two goals to close to within 3-2, but got no further. Around 4:20 AM in New York, the American's landed the first haymaker in a wild, wild World Cup, beating Portugal and finally showing the world that the American's were not some country devoid of football talent, but a team that might actually be able to play.

The US beats Portugal, indirectly creating the soccer wave.

Hours later, millions of Americans woke up and found out the same thing, "We beat a Europe team in Soccer?". Americans are fickle sorts when it comes to soccer. America demands the best from its sports, and because the MLS is far from the best, no one cares much about soccer. At all. It is regarded as some French game played by lithe, slender Europeans and girl-men not macho enough to toss around a pigskin. Suddenly, the US team was good enough to beat Portugal. They were good. This was not the Columbus Crew beating the Cheyenne Bulls (just to prove how pointless MLS is, there is no team called the Cheyenne Bulls, but if I hadn't said anything I'm not sure anyone would have noticed). This was our country beating a soccer-crazed one. The World Cup is the best sporting event on the planet, and finally the US was invited to the party, and not as the nominal court jester, as a real party-picipant.

The US followed that up with a tie against host South Korea, an outcome not so shocking but incredibly important. And, of course, the game was on in the wee hours of the morning, but this time poeople tuned in. Viewership doubled. Americans cared. There was a chance the US team would win, and at least a certainty Landon, Brian, Claudio and the boys would be competitive. The US team was worthy of staying up (or getting up, as the 11 year old me did) at 3 AM to watch them play soccer. The outcome was actually a slight dissapointment, considering the US just beat Portugal, but helped everything. Entering the final match, the US knew that if South Korea beat Portugal, the US would make the knockout round. Of course, if they beat Poland the US could actually win the group, and made the Korea game meaningless in their respective view, but sport in the United States is never easy, nothing is meaningless. Within 5 minutes the Polish team was up 2-0, and millions of Americans did something that signaled just how important and invested they were into the World Cup. Instead of screaming at themselves for believing in their soccer team and switching it off and going back to bed, they switched channels, to the Portugal - Korea game. The US team made people care enough about the game that they not only watched the US team, but watched other games that effected the US team. It was the second level. The US game became secondary, the US fate was more important. Millions of fans cheered when Park Ji-Sung scored in the 70th minute to break a scoreless tie and give Korea a 1-0 lead. Now, Korea was 20 minutes away from winning, and the US 20 minutes away from a round of 16 date with..... Mexico. Korea held on, and the North American turf war was set.

June 17, 2002, in the hallowed city of Jeonju, the Americans took on the Mexicans for the right to play traditional power Germany. But no one cared about Germany, it was all about gearing up for the equivalent of a Canada-US hockey match. It was North America on North America, it was neighbor-on-neighbor. And just like beating the Canadians at their own game, the US had a chance to beat their pitiless brother at their own game. It really was the perfect storm for the sport. The Americans were finally good, and not only were people invested for that reason, but also for the fact that it was Mexico. It meant something to beat Mexico, to knock them out, to claim North American supremacy. Brian McBride scored in the eighth minute, and Landon Donovan in the 65th, and the US defense stifled the Mexican attack. The US had claimed Mexico's scalp, hung it next to Portugal's and had the opportunity to beat the Germans, the ultimate villian.

Maybe it is because Germany is such a polarizing opponent, for reasons stretching back to World War II, but it is more likely that it was because the US was actually good, and American's love greatness, but the US nation-over was excited for a soccer, was pumped and ready to go, and ultimately was devastated in defeat. After a great wide-open game, Michael Ballack's header past Brad Friedel stood as the only goal in the match. However, that was the smallest of the issues. There was controversy abound when an obvious hand-ball, one that was done right on the goalmouth stopping what would have been the game tying goal, was not called. The US was furious, the Germans were elated, the game was put under a suspicious cloud and the sport had changed forever. Torsten Frings, the hand-perpetrator, was placed right below Hitler and Chamberlain as German heroes (there is quite a gap between Hitler and Chamberlain, let alone Hitler and Frings), as the man who killed America's shot at glory, and more importantly America's shot at giving the world the ultimate middle finger, winning a tournament that it cared little about before it started. But the outrage that was born out of the no-call underlied a more important development, that soccer at its highest form mattered. It's the "Oh well" test, of whether a loss elicits outrage, or an "oh well." This wasn't, "Oh well... we'll just return to life as normal" loss, this was an infuriating loss. Sports can cause infuriation when they are important, when the sting of defeat hurts more than the spoils of victory a sport has reached a high, high level and international soccer did right then and then, because maybe the US team was good enough.

The US plays Germany close in an exciting match highlighted by a controversial no-call handball.

Soccer still has not taken off domestically for the reason that Americans need greatness. The MLS is a second-rate league with second-rate players. In Europe live the real stars, with the real talent, the Ronaldo's, Messi's Kaka's, Zidane's. Americans don't want to watch the DC United and Real Salt Lake. No, they want excellence, and in this lies the proof that soccer has arrived to some degree. The European Cup, a Europe-only version of the world cup played during the even year in-between world cups (2004, 2008, etc) and the UEFA Champions League, the tournament between the best club teams in Europe, are routinely watched by four and five times more people than the MLS cup. These are not minor ratings. The Champions League final, considering it aired at 2:30 PM in midday, got a very good rating. Americans like soccer, just not our soccer. They like the English Premier League, the Champions League, the EuroCup and are in unfettered love with the World Cup (as evidenced by the 2006 tournament that drew 26 million for the final between France and Italy). Hell, America even watched the third-rate Confederations Cup, which is the international soccer equivalent of the preseason NIT in college basketball, utterly meaningless. There is a soccer revolution underway, and it will only increase, and Brian McBride, Landon Donovan, Clint Mathis, Claudio Reyna, Pablo Mastroeni, Brad Freidel, Anthona Sennah and Bruce Arena are the causes, because it was them who allowed us to say "you know what, maybe we can play this game."

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Ramblings

Just got back from a 10 day three country whirlwind. First was 3 days in Spain, days that I lucked into getting alone, since I finally perfected the art of causing others to feel guilty for my plight. Then 3 more in London with my sister, and finally four in Greece. Being abroad, alienated in a world where no one knows what March Madness, and in a place where their were riots after both Real Madrid and Chelsea lost in successive weekends during my trips into their respective cities (Honestly, opposing teams should just pay me to travel to their opponent's city before a match) gave me an interesting perspective on things; namely: the difference between USA and Europe, why NYC is still the best city on the earth, and so much more.

  -  The most underrated sub-plot of walking around London: the absolutely amazing feeling of superiority. In Trafalgar Square, there are flags of each of the British "colonies" that still hold ties to the queen, like Australia, Canada, South Africa. Everytime I walked in the square, I thought to myself "every day some poor Briton probably wishes he could put the American Flag up there." Honestly, we were the crown jewel, and we won. Screw You, England. We beat your ass.

  -  On a similar note, being an Indian makes it even better. On the one hand, I come from a country that fought the greatest military force of all time, and whipped them. On the other hand, my people came from a place that decided not to pick up one gun and still beat the British. That's right. I am essentially a double-middle finger to the British Empire.

 -  On a similar note (I'm not done milking this British thing), London makes one fatal mistake. It tries to be both European and American. It tries to have the streets and plazas of Paris and Madrid, but also the bustling maw of New York. You can't do both, its impossible. And their confident arrogance that it works is probably worse than the confident arrogance New Yorkers have for their own city's superiority.

  -  Madrid, and Spain in general, is easily one of the best places to live. It is just so relaxed. Seemingly no one works, as hundreds of suit-clad businessmen gather around the local seafood bar for two hours in the middle of the day, without a care for their jobs. I guess that is why their Economy is going down the loo.

  -  Also, any country that not only doesn't serve dinner and solely serves tea until 9 PM, but looks down and glares at any tourist with the gall to ask for the "dinner menu", is a place I can live with.

  -  American Stadium tours should learn from Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu tour, where I got to go on the field, sit in the Real Madrid bench, visit the Real Madrid dressing room, see all of the trophies the team has collected and got to visit the presidential box as well as get a birds eye veiw from the very top of the stadium. Contrast that to the "tour" of Giants Stadium. First off, it doesn't exist, but even if it did, they would guard the inside of the stadium as if I was bringing the plague.

  -  I am never travelling without shaving completely and putting on skin whitener. In Madrid and London I was asked where I was coming from when walking by the "nothing to declare" area in customs. What was more hilarious, is when I said that I came from New York, they just let me go. I guess they were expecting me to say I was arriving from Pakistan.

  -  I hate to travel by the US airlines, specifically the farce that is American. Sure, the food was actually not cardboard this time, but their behind-the-seat video systems did not work for the entirety of the 7 hour flight from London to JFK. Really, American? Really. British Airways isn't great either, but at least the had the smarts to have the sole form of entertainment on their flights work.

  -  I have to give the European Immigration "EU Passports" only line a massive fail. Don't they know that flights between two EU countries (Madrid-London, London-Athens and the return) are 80% EU passengers. So, obviously, the non-EU passport line was much shorter, and went much quicker. I had to fend off laughter at their shortsightedness. Honestly, the EU was a terrible, terrible idea. Mostly because I miss the Euro.

  -  There was alot of coverage in the Euro papers about the impending EU financial crisis. My favorite part, the fact that Germany was essentially Europe's lender of cash. It's like World War I and II did not teach the Euros anything. Germany should never have that much power.

  -  Having to miss the best first-week of any March Madness tournament in recent memory was terrible. But it was effectively assuaged by seeing the carnage caused by Real Madrid's Champions League defeat one week, and Chelsea's the next. Those two clubs are essentially the Yankees, with the biggest checkbooks and the arrogance to boot. They were both embarrased, Chelsea doubly so since they lost to a team manageered by a former-Chelsea cast-off. Seeing Madrid and then London react like they had just been nuked was fun. There were literally parades of drunk twenty-somethings throwing bottles on the streets of London.

Now, for some American ramblings.

  -  Thank You Joe Mauer. Finally, there is a player who cares more about a community that loves him, and his own personal happiness than the negligible difference between 184 million and 220 million. Nothing makes me happier than seeing the Twins dole out that cash, and Mauer accepting. Mainly because it helps show that baseball might not be as broken as we think. Sure, the Yanks, Sawx, Mets and Cubs can still outspend everyone, but teams like the Orioles, Blue Jays, White Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Angels, Mariners, Dodgers, Giants, Astros, Cardinals, Reds, Phillies and Braves, and somehow Twins, can create the funds to save the true super-duper stars. Thank God for that.

  -  This March Madness weekend upcoming will be crazy. There is reason to believe that this will go down as the best March Madness since 2005. However, that one will be hard to top. Just for a refresher, 2005 featured three Elite Eight games that went to overtime, two buzzer beaters in the earlier rounds, the rise of West Virginia and a classic final between the two best teams. We won't get the final, since one of the two best teams is gone, but we have a shot for some good memories, as all the double-digit seeds look good enough to go to the Final Four.

  -  Cornell is scary good. They played two of the best defenses in the nation and carved them like butter. Cornell would easily be the best cinderalla ever (sorry, George Mason), if they were to make the Final Four, since Ivy League schools can't even give out full scholarships.

  -  Kansas was my pick to win it all, and this is the last time I ever trust them. I had them winning it all in 2007 too. Of course, they won the following year, so this might bode well for the 2011 Jayhawks. Either way, how can you not love Northern Iowa? Seriously, Ali Farokmanesh? That name has to made up.

  -  The seeding matchups are so, so weird. There is a 9-5 game, an 11-2 game, a 10-3 game, and two 6-2 games. In fact, there is only one matchup where the seeding has held through, the Duke-Purdue matchup. Contrast that with last years snorefest, where 6 of the 8 matchups were with the seeds holding through.

  -  As a quasi-Volunteer fan, I am feeling absolutely giddy. I still cannot believe that Northern Iowa can actually miss the final four, and MSU is missing its best player. Of course, I felt this way in 2007, where Memphis awaited in the Elite Eight (a team Tennessee beat, as they always do), when the Vols ran into...... Ohio State. However, that OSU team had Greg Oden, and won by one point. I am scared how amazingly confident I am that Tennessee can actually make the Final Four.

  -  Kentucky cannot win. I cannot believe. I believe in God, and therefore, Kentucky cannot win. Seriously, they are frauds. Their coach has been to the Final Four twice, and each year their season was eventually wiped out for shady recruiting. Then, after having a 38-2 year wiped off the record books in Memphis for admitting a player who cheated on his SAT's, Coach Calipari walks cleanly to Kentucky and steals Memphis' recruiting class at the eleventh hour? Really? That underhand crap is going to be rewarded? I just cannot believe it. If anything, they are the least deserving team. Coach Calipari is the new Coach K, and Kentucky must go down and go down hard, and nothing would be sweeter than an Ivy League school with 0 scholarship players, and four seniors knocking off the Wildcats.

  -  The Big East can suck it. At least the SEC backs up its undisputed claim to being the best conference, winning the last 4 Titles. The Big East last won a National Championship in 2004, and hasn't even had a finalist, let alone a champion since. Since 2004, the SEC (Florida, twice), Big 10 (Illionois, OSU and MSU), ACC (UNC, twice), Pac-10 (UCLA), Big 12 (Kansas) have all sent teams to the Championship Game. Shit, even the Conference USA has sent a team to the final game in Memphis. The Big East has got to get its act together. I really don't think it is any better than the Big 10.

  -  This upcoming weekend is going to be crazy. It is the second best weekend in the USA Sport's calendar, coming just behind the Divisional Weekend in the NFL Playoffs (ahhh, NFL, what a lovely thought. Come Back Soon!!), and I will live-blog Friday's games, where Tennessee will try to avenge the 2007 game, Saint Mary's will try to beat a team still trying to recover from the whole "one teammate murdering another" story, the giant killer trying to beat the best tournament team year in year out, and a Hummell-less Purdue team trying to do America a service and knock out Duke. Should be fun.

I'll be back tomorrow with something Decadium-related.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Top 10 Quarterbacks of the 2000s

These are the men that DO get all the glory, endorsements, money, fame and women. The most glamorized position in all of proffesional sports in the USA. The QBs took flight to levels never touched in the 2000s. The decade started with only four QBs topping 4,000 yards, it ended with 10 QBs doing it, and in between was a Brady-Manning cocktail. A fine decade indeed.

First, the 4 who just missed the cut.

14.) Carson Palmer, Cincinnati

He might have cracked the top-10 if not for Kimo von Olhoffen's cheap lunge that tore his knee into 456,223 pieces. He has never been the same since, but if never being the same is three 4,000 yard seasons and four 26+ td seasons, then he was really great before. Handed the most moribund franchise in the league, he took the Bengals to the playoffs twice. Only two other QBs have ever done that.

13.) Rich Gannon, Oakland

Sure, he was only a starter for three seasons, but his retiring has single handidly-killed a franchise. Let us not forget that he was a three time pro bowler from 2000-2002, and during those three years, no one threw for more yards, and other than Manning, more touchdowns than the 2002 NFL MVP Rich Gannon. He took the Raiders to two AFC Title Games, and a Super Bowl. That deserves inclusion in the list.

12.) Jake Delhomme, Carolina

Sure, he may have had one of the most disastrous playoff games ever, but he also put up 5 playoff wins where he was great. They guy who outplayed Tom Brady in Super Bowl XXXVIII, and the guy who twice led the Panthers to the NFC Title Game did it all with one receiver.

11.) Eli Manning, New York

His play has improved so much since the 2007 playoffs on. He is now a legitimate top-10 QB, but his lackluster play from 2004-2007 (until the playoffs) puts him just outside the list. It has to be admirable though, that he was able to accomplish so much considering the shadow of his brother.

And now, the Top 10

10.) Philip Rivers, San Diego

The man who has yet to lose a game in December starts off the list. He nobly sat on the bench for two straight years, mainly because the Chargers had a hall-of-fame QB starting, but when Brees injured his shoulder, it paved the way for the man with the awkward throwing motion. River's doesn't seem to have great accuracy, or arm strength, or fundamentals, but he is somehow able to throw beautiful downfield spirals that go exactly where River's wants them. He has become the best young stat-compiler QB of his generation, the Manning 5-years later. However, there are concerns about his playoff career, although concerns that surprisingly aren't voiced by many. He's a career 3-3 in the playoffs, and 1-2 at home, including twice losing the divisional round at home after entering the postseason as the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl. He still has time to grow into a Playoff competitor, but for now everyone can just sit and stare in awe at a man that, again, has yet to lose a game in the month of December, has twice topped 4,000 yards, has a career 109-45 td/int and a career 95.8 passer rating. He is one of the QBs primed to make the teens his decade, and has the teama around him to do so. Rivers has finally been able to escape from the Tomlinson shadow, and the Chargers are now Rivers team, and that has to make every San Diegan happy.

9.) Steve McNair, Tennessee, Baltimore

Forget Brett Favre, the perfect "warrior" QB is Air McNair. Sure, his best year was in 1999, but his finest moment of that season, and of his career, came in the 2000s, when he led a last-minute near-TD drive in Super Bowl XXXIV, and set a record for rushing yards for a QB in the Super Bowl. He followed it up with a 13-3, 12-4 and 11-5, season between 2000 and 2003, and then put up another 13-3 with Baltimore in 2006. Numbers cannot do McNair, the 2003 NFL Co-MVP, justice. McNair's legacy and brilliance lies in his own body, namely his ability to play through pain, wether it be broken fingers, ribs or even knees. He was always ready to go Sunday, putting forth every bit of effort his body could muster. Steve was never the most talented QB in the league, he was just the best fighter. He was a boxer on the field, taking hit after hit, and finally delivering blows with that great right hand of his. He made Derrick Mason adn Drew Bennett into pro bowlers, and made Tennessee into one of the 2000s model franchise's. McNair's controversial, tragic death is inescapable, but should not diminish his career and acheivements as a player. McNair was the Titans, he was a Titan, in every sense of the world. Steve McNair will never grace a football field again, but his memory, the ghost of 'Air McNair' will forever roam Nashville, always finding a way to be there on Sunday.

8.) Matt Hasselbeck, Seattle

Mike Holmgren rescued a young bald man from Green Bay, and the bench that awaited him every Sunday behind a man that has started 300 consecutive games. For a backup QB, Green Bay was Hell, a place where you knew the field would never be seen. Hasselbeck was rescued form hell. Matthew paid Holmgren back with the greatest career a QB in the Pacific Northwest has ever seen. From 2002-2007, Hasselbeck had a rating above 85 all seasons, throwing over 3300 yards 5 times and over 20 Tds 5 times. He led the Seahawks to five straight postseason appearances and four straight division titles. His four playoff wins is a franchise record, and he was the best playoff performer on the '05 team that was one shoddy refferee performance from a Super Bowl title. As with anything in Seattle, Hasselbeck was largely forgotten and left unnoticed, but after a while, he became too good to gloss over. Hasselbeck's 2005 and 2007 seasons remain the two best in Seahawks history. Plus, there is Hasselbeck the guy. He's as funny as any NFL player, and when coupled with his ability to lead that team day in and day out adds up to a weird combination, the leader/jokester. Hasselbeck may be done, but his days in the Emerald City, leading a franchise out of a rainy depression, will leave a lasting imprint on the Seattle football base, and a symbol of the true abilities of a balding man.

7.) Brett Favre, Green Bay, Minnesota

The guy who kept Mark Brunell and Matt Hasselbeck on the bench kept them on the bench for a very good reason. Favre was the best QB of the 90's, but his career in the 00's was nearly as good. Favre had some terrible seasons in the 2000s, like his abominations in 2005 and 2008, but Favre's 4-year run from 2001-2004 more than made up for it. Favre's best 6 years of the 2000s (2001-2004, 2007, 2009) were spectacular, even by his standards, as he went 69-27, with a 64.6 completion percentage, 182 tds, 91 ints, 23262 yards. That is a career for most good QBs, that was just six years. He will always be remembered as a Packer, for filling the cold tundra of Lambeau with smiles the size of the giant one plastered on his face. Sure, he had his bad playoff games, like his 6-int disaster in 2001, his three overtime interceptions in 2003, 2007 and 2009, but all of those games were preceeded with vinatage, classic Favre. With the media spotlight fixed on him at all times, and the nauseating coverage of his "will he, won't he" offseason retirement dillemas, Favre has become something of a hated figure, one that commands more attention than he deserves. Sadly, this overshadows a man who truly does enjoy every single Sunday, and truly does play like a kid out there, slinging the ball around without so much as a care for where it lands. For Favre, it generally landed in one of his teammates hands, and far, far down the field.

6.) Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia

Again, the rumors have started. For what seems like the 12th straight offseason, McNabb may be on the move. Philadelphia fans are fed up, feeling that the McNabb era has lasted too long, and gone as far as it ever will. My how they do not realize how good they have it. For the first time in the Super Bowl era, the Eagles had a real QB, a hall-of-fame QB. Donovan McNabb was the refined version of Steve McNair, with all of the scrambling ability with a better arm. McNabb was the centerpeice of the NFC's best franchise, seven times leading the Eagles to the playoffs, something that any Eagles fan wouldn't have ever dreamed of during the mid-90's. The Eagles never did win the Super Bowl, but it was no fault of Donovan, who put up 356 yards and 3 tds. McNabb was always the center of controversy and criticism, wether it be from Rush Limbaugh, Terrel Owens or his own fans, but exceeded all expectations. There was no better winner in the NFC from start to finish, taking the Eagles to the playoffs in 2000, 2009 and five times in between. McNabb might finally be out of Philadelphia, a battered and bruised soul piled onto the sky-high heap of players not able to meet Philly's unrealistic expectations. It is sad that this will be McNabb's fate, a man that could not meet expectations, because he met everyone else's, playing QB at a high, high level for 10 solid years.

5.) Drew Brees, San Diego, New Orleans

The 2009 Super Bowl cements his place in Canton, but also in the top-5 of the 2000s. That Super Bowl trophy, and the amazing stats that he has put up in 4 years in New Orleans (becoming the first QB ever to top 4300 yards in four straight seasons, and just the fourth to throw for 30 tds in back-to-back years), makes the story of his past life so much more amazing. Before helping rebuild a devastated city, he helped bring San Diego out of the quagmire that they were in. From 2004-2005, only Manning was better, as Brees threw for 51 tds, to just 22 ints, leading the Chargers to a 12-4 and 9-7 record. However, the San Diego era ended in flames, as in a meaningless Week 17 game, he tore his labrum and rotator cuff diving for a fumble. Thus ended part one of the Book of Brees, a story about a short QB who had the talent, but lacked the loyalty from a staff that saw him rise the team to level's uncharted. Exit San Diego, enter Sean Payton, a ravaged city and guys like Terrance Copper and Devery Henderson. Four years later, Brees is sitting on top of the football universe, with a legitimate claim to the title of "best football player on the planet". His story is one of true perseverance, one of true fight, and the story ended beautifully in winning a city for a City which has made 'perseverance' a civic motto. Drew Brees is still just 31 years old, with a young, talented team led by a offensive genius. However, as the #3 QB can attest to, the good times don't always last forever. Cherish Brees' brilliance today, because the next dive for a fumble might only be one play away.

4.) Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh

He is the most underrated QB in football. He is the guy who has a 60-27 career record and a better playoff record than Tom Brady. He is the guy to win two Super Bowls before he turned 27, and to lead the second longest Super-Bowl winning touchdown drive. He is the guy who has 4 seasons with a 98 passer rating or better, thrown for 32 touchdowns in a season and 4300 yards in another. He is Ben Roethlisberger, the longest and most unique name in sports, and the guy who has locked his spot in Canton before his 28th birthday. The Brilliant Giant is the other member of the 2004 draft class in the top-10, and the fact that many people say Rivers is the better player is unfair to Ben and all the talent he has. Sure, he may not hold up, and he is reckless in taking too many hits, but there is no better QB at avoiding getting sacked, ever. He really should be sacked twice as much as he does, behind a porous pass-blocking line, but nonetheless has always been able to spin, juke or step-around rushers. If all of those moves fails, he just mans up and breaks out of reach from defenders. So many times, the DE will say "I got him, Ben's down" and he stays on his feet, re-cocks the ball, fires and completes it down the field. Blessed with a Golden right arm, and placed in a situation that was condusive for winning, Ben took the field in Week 3 of his rookie year, and never looked back. He has all the skills of a Rivers and all the determination of a McNair. He is the guy best set to rule the 2000s, with a great team around him, a baller coach and all the talent in teh world at his disposal. The book is only half-written on Ben, and that is the scariest fact of all, the first half is hall-of-fame worthy.

3.) Kurt Warner, St. Louis, New York, Arizona

There are enough Kurt Warner stories out there on the interwebs that adding one more to the
pile will have no effect. Yet, there are not enough. They story is too good, the man is too talented and too classy, the career path is too perfect. He was the best QB on the planet, then a man searching for a home, then became one of the top-5 QBs again. The stats are all there, with 5 seasons with 3700 yards, four with 27 tds and three more with a 95 passer rating. He has the second highest completion percentage ever, and the fourth best passer rating ever. Statistically, no one can match him healthy, as he has thrown for 300 yards in 44% of his starts, and six more times in 13 playoff games. He has gone to the Super Bowl three times in the 2000s (Super Bowl XXXIV in Jan 2000 counts), and thrown for 414 yards, 367 yards and 377 yards. No one QB has thrown for that many, ever. He has led the Rams to multiple Super Bowls, and if that wasn't amazing enough, in Arizona, unseated the man hand-picked to run the franchise (Leinart) and led the Cardinals, the CARDINALS, to one miracle catch away from a Super Bowl title. There are people out there that can't accept Warner as a first-ballot hall of famer, namely Peter King, because of his mid career malaise. The malaise was really only two years, in 2002 and 2003. Even in 2004-2006, Warner had a 85 or better rating and had a 63 cmp%. However, for the years 2000, 2001, 2007-9 there was no better QB outside the two in front. The story is amazing, however the fact that he became the third best QB of his era and a first-ballot hall of famer is more impressive.

2.) Tom Brady, New England

Winner. That is all he is, and all he has ever done. Sure, he was nothing more than a game manager in 2001, and was essentially Jeff Garcia in 2003, but he then transformed into Tom Brady, great QB from 2004. His numbers post-2004 are hall worthy, and even when you take out the inflated 2007 stats, they are pro-bowl numbers. The days of Brady riding the cottails of his defense are over. Brady is now finally alone by himself, he is the guy leading the Patriots. Even Belichick has taken a step back. The team lives and dies with the Golden Boys right arm. The case of Mr. Thomas Brady is an interesting one. He was king of Boston when he "won" Super Bowl XXXVI despite throwing for 200 yards less than the man on the other team. He became a living legend, the neo-Larry Bird, when he won Super Bowl XXXVIII and XXXIX, but it was his post-dynasty play that cements his status as the second best QB of the 2000s. From 2005 to 2009, he has been one of the best QBs statistically. Forget about the dynasty. The dynasty is dead, and it died a long time ago. Brady, amazingly, has outlived the dynasty, has taken over the face of the team from the hooded weasel head coach and the great defense. It is Brady's team now, and he has not backed down. Sure, the playoff success has dried, but playoff success comes with a great team. Brady can now go to bed every night, knowing not only he has the most famous model in history next to him, but that he is the reason his team is staying among the league's elite. Tom Brady, the Super Bowl champion in the first half of the decade would probably place him behind Warner. Tom Brady the player in the second half is what makes him immortal.

1.) Peyton Manning, Indianapolis

There are great QBs, like Brady, Warner and Roethlisberger, and then there is Manning. He is The QB of the 2000s. He started the decade with 4400 yards and 33 tds, ended it with 4500 yards and tds, and had huge numbers in between. In the 10 years of the decade, Manning put up 42254 yards, 314 tds, seven times had a QB rating above 95, eight times had a cmp% above 65, won 4 NFL MVPs, was a 9 time pro-bowler and 5 time NFL all-pro. During the decade he won 115 games, and seven times won at least 12. Each and every one of those statistics is an NFL record for single decade for a QB. The only decade that compares statisticall is Favre in the 90s and the only decade that compares with a mixture of insane stats and winning is Montana in the 80s. He, arguably, just put together the best decade ever for a QB. Sure, Manning has lost his fare share of playoff games, but in some of those years (2000, 2002, 2008) his team had no right being in the playoffs, but it was because of the brilliance of Peyton alone they got there. Plus, he has thrown for at least 290 yards in each of his last four playoff losses (PIT, SD, SD, NO). His record in the postseason is also 9-6 since 2003, winning more games than anyone not named Brady in that span. He is finally, unequivocally, the best, laying waste to the best defensive minds of his generation, as he is now in the heads of both Bill Belichick, as evidenced by Belichick's decision not to punt in Week 10, and Rex Ryan, as evidenced by the appendectomy Manning surgeried in the AFC Title Game. There are many ways to describe Peyton, but the best comes from his old coaches son, Jim L. Mora. After a 34-17 loss to the Colts in 2009, Mora simply stated "we played greatness today". Yes, Jim, you did, and so did the rest of the NFL.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The #5 Athlete of the 2000s: Martin Brodeur

There have been six transcendant players in the last ten years, Federer, Duncan, numbers 3-1, and the simple doughy man from Quebec. Martin Brodeur is that good, the best really. For the last 15 years, he has done everything that has ever been asked of a man in a team sport, simply put, to lead a team devoid of tangible, long-term offensive talent and continiuty, and make them not only good but Stanley-Cup good. Brodeur has answered the bell, and answered it to the tune of 13 thirty win seasons (most all time), 7 forty win seasons (most all time), 591 wins (most all time), 108 shutouts (most all time), 23 playoff shutouts (most all time). He has backstopped New Jersey to eleven, and soon to be twelve straight playoff appearances, and all of this with a franchise that has let every good player they had, save for Patrik Elias, to leave. He's seen hall-of-famers retire or be shown the door out of Jersey (Scott Stevens and Scott Neidermayer, Bill Guerin, Dave Andreychuck), and seen other all-stars join them on the NJ Transit out of the Garden State, and the Devils have stayed not only afloat but also thriving. Brodeur is the reason, the reason that New Jersey cares about hockey, that three glistening large cups from Stanley sit in the coffers of the Prudential Center, and that Lou Lamorriello is hailed as a genius. Marty is Zeus in pads, with a lightning fast glove.

This decade has seen Marty at his best, dominating two different NHLs, the pre-lockout years when he led the Devils to three Stanley Cup finals in four years, and the post-lockout, where he was asked to play better and more often than any goalie in history. All the while, shots were stopped, points were gathered, and opponents left the rink feeling the same thing, "Damn, how is he that good?." Statistics cannot truly explain Marty's greatness, although the stats are there in earnest, with the fifth-best Goals Allowed a Game average (The NHLs form of ERA), and a top-10 Save Percentage for his career. Marty's greatness resides in one single stat: wins. Goalies are truly the only position in any team sport that wins should matter statistically. Sure, pitchers have their W-L record, but as seen by the BBWAA giving Zack Grienke (16 wins) and Tim Lincecum (15 wins) the Cy Young awards, it seems obvious that the wins for Starting Pitchers are terribly inaccurate ways of judging a pitcher's performance. Even Quarterbacks, who get too much credit for wins and too much blame for losses, are not as solely important to the success of their teams. Nothing is quite like a goalie. Goalies can single-handidly win games, series and Cups. Marty has done all three. He's a winner above all. In less games, he has more wins than any goalie ever. Sure, he's had the luxury of playing the last four years in an NHL without ties, but he's also had the unfortunate instance of missing out on 1.5 seasons due to strikes and lockouts over his career. Simply put, there is no better winner, and no better player in the NHL in the last decade.

Marty Brodeur's ability to play great every night, and play inspired is all the more amazing. He is not a butterfly goalie, eschewing the robotic goalie style that was popularized by Patrick Roy, where the goalie essentially only cares about taking out the bottom half of the net. Marty was different, unique, brilliant. He had no style, no method. He just did whatever it took to stop the puck from hitting the twine behind him. Whether it was going in the butterfly, kick-saving a puck away, flashing the quick glove, head-butting the rubber out of the air, going ground and stacking pads, or sprawling in a gymnastic routine to stop the puck. Whatever was needed, it was delivered. It wasn't necessarily graceful, but it was majestic, as the underratedly athletic Brodeur was flexible enough to assume any position if it allowed him a better chance of stopping the puck. This was only enhanced in the playoffs, where he turned his contortionist act into a Michelangelo artform. Every time a player took a shot, they had to know, I have very little chance, because if Marty had to stop the puck with his toes, he would. There is a reason hy Marty Brodeur is the best shootout goalie in the NHL. It is because there is no formula for beating him. He has no weakness, and he is equally good at stopping every shot. It is over before it starts. Marty will make the save, the Devils will win, and deep into May, New Jersey will have an active hockey team.

If anything can highlight just how brilliant Marty Brodeur is was his magnus opus, the 2003 playoffs. Marty was criticized for his "lacluster" play in the 2001 Stanley Cup Finals, losing head-to-head with Patrick Roy's Colorado team (the team that was all-around better, the favorite heading in, and in no way needed their goalie as much as the Devils did). Despite winning two Stanley Cups and taking the Devils to three, all in the previous 8 season, Brodeur was seen as a player fighting for the title of "best in the NHL" (which is more ironic since now he is pretty much the consensus "best ever"), fighting to overcome playoff demons. In the proceeding 24 games, Marty was unbeatable. He won 16 games, accrued 7 shutouts (a playoff record), with a .938 save percantage and an absurd 1.67 GAA. He was truly playing at a level never seen before. What was more interesting was that in those playoffs, there was another goalie playing at such a level through three rounds. Jean-Sebastian Giguere was carrying the 7th seeding Mighty Ducks on his back, doing his best Joshua Jackson routine with the quack-attack, culminating in the conference finals where he posted back-to-back-to-back shutouts. J-S Giguere was on top of the world when he entered the old Continental Airlines Arena for Game 1 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals. Little did he know that he was helpless, Marty was here.

In the seven games series, Brodeur gave up 12 goals, total. Three times, in Game 1, 2 and 7, he shut out the ducks, becoming the first goalie ever to record three shutouts in the Cup Finals. He was never better. Nothing got buy him. Even after he let in a soft, hilarious goal of his dropped goal-stick to help lose Game 3, he came back with 38 saves in an eventual 1-0 loss in Anaheim (the only game where he was outclassed by Giguere). Giguere stole Marty's MVP of the Playoffs trophy, but Brodeur had the most important trophy, and had it for the third time in 9 years, and the second time in the 2000s. Brodeur was king, and although the team has never gotten to those heights since, all Brodeur has done in the years since is win 38+ games, set an NHL record for wins in a season, and win four Vezina trophies as the league's best goalie.

Brodeur cemented his place as a Canadian hero, and also as a performer for the ages for the 2000s, in the 2002 Olympic Games. As the goalie for Canada, a team that had not won a Gold Medal since 1952, Brodeur was under massive scrutiny. Never a fan-favorite in Canada, except for in hometown Montreal, Brodeur unleashed his mastery on the world in Salt Lake City, giving up just 9 goals in the five games, ending it with allowing two to the hometown USA team in the Gold Medal Game. More than any of the acheivements that he ammassed with the Devils, however numerous and amazing they may be, nothing compares to that moment. Canada is the country where hockey means everything. For 50 years they had nothing in the Olympics to show for all of the hall-of-famers they had produced. Then, Brodeur comes along and all of that changes. He was St. Marty, and it has never really left him. Even after ridiculously being benched in the 2010 Games (for Luongo, a goalie who ended up playing like a nervous wreck in the Gold Medal Game), he still got the second loudest cheer in the Medal Ceremony for the Canadian faithful. He was complete, he had acheived it all: Three Stanley Cups, Two records that will never be broken (wins and shutouts), and a Goal Medal. What a decade it was.

Marty is the rare transcendant player, the one that gives every fan of the opposing team the feeling of "Man, if he's on, there is no way we win this game" and more importantly every fan of his team the feeling of, "It's okay, he's on our side". Devils fans have thought to themselves probably millions of times, "We got a chance, Maty is in goal" and really that is the highest plateau in athlete can achieve. Brady briefly reached it in 2004, Duncan reached it from 2003-2007, and Manning is there right now. Marty has been there for a good 15 years, but never moreso than this decade. He has carried a franchise on his back. The roster turnover in New Jersey is incredible. There are precisely three other players still left from the 2003 Title Team, and none of them play defense. Marty is the defense, Marty is the team and in many ways he is the greatest goalie of all time. Every Devils fan distinctly remembers a certain cheer that was elicited from the Continental Airlines Arena faithful late in Game 2 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals, with the Devils cruising to a 2-0 lead and a 2-0 series advantage. It was a simple chant, but one that was endlessly meaningful. The opposing goalie was the one getting all the attention, the goalie in red and white was the one that was better. "Marty's Bet-ter... Marty's Bet-ter... Marty's Bet-ter". It reduced J-S Giguere to solemn tears after the game, because he knew it was true. "Marty's Bet-ter" and who then knew that it wouldn't only be J-S Giguere that the chant was aimed at, but all but three athletes in the 2000s. Marty was, is and will always be "bet-ter".

The Man at his very finest.

Monday, March 1, 2010

What Hockey Actually Means

     Here is a statement: There is no sport that can bring the country together like hockey. This is not 1980. The USA Hockey team was not playing a bunch of men from a hated country that supported everything America hated. This is not 1980. The USA puts professionals on the ice, and so do every other country, including Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland and Czech Republic who all put more NHL players than non-NHL players on the ice. Yet, yesterday's game was seen by 30 million Americans, which was more than any non-NFL sporting event in 4 years. Why? Hockey still means something, and only because America is not the best at it.

    The only other two sports that America cares about to some extent that have an international tournament (Olympic or not) are soccer and basketball (The World Baseball Classic can go beat its head with a maple bat). American's will never be the best at soccer. It can put 10 billion dollars into youth soccer programs every year from now until 2020, and the US will not win the 2022 World Cup. It is not, and will not, happen. America watches the World Cup, and will watch it in large numbers if the US does well, like in 2002, but it will not garner 30 million. The Americans aren't good enough to care. In basketball, it is the opposite, as the USA Basketball Olympic team will be the prohibitive favorite for the next infinite Olympic competitions. If the US loses, it will bring shame and darkness to the collective pride of the country, but will not have a lasting impact, or draw nearly as many eyes to the TV sets. Hockey is the perfect mix of, "we are good enough to win" that soccer lacks, and "we still are underdogs, and the US should never be underdogs" that basketball lacks. Hockey is a perfect sport in many ways, but most of those ways are lost on Americans, such as its incredible physicality, end-to-end flowing action and pressurized moments, but the ability of the sport to captivate and bind a nation is not.

     The US loves to be the underdog, because in its mind, it never is and never should be. There are few things that the US is an underdog in, is a pitiable party. The greatest example is 9/11, where scores of countries that usually make fun of, in disallusioned envy, the US's pop-culture, ethnocentric obsession, came to the support of a scarred, fallen nation. Hockey is the other example. For once, America wasn't the bully, wasn't the bad guy, wasn't the favorite. The Canadians were all these things, the simple, docile, friendly Canadians (so friendly, their "own the podium" motto was met with terse laughter, rather than fearful spite) were the team that was so sure of itself, was so cocky. It was 1980 all over again, except with the fact that both teams were being paid millions, and the simple fact it was in Canada. That is also the difference between yesterday's classic and 2002's forgotten Gold-Medal game, where the Canadians waltzed into Salt Lake City, and behind the old guard (Marty Brodeur at his peak in goal, Joe Sakic, Paul Kariya and Mario Liemuiex flying around the ice, Wayne Gretzky GM-ing) and crushed USA 5-2. This was different, it was special. The US had the world behind them, had an entire nation that usually reserves the hieght of ambivalence towards puck, glued to their TV sets. They were the innocent lamb entering the slaughterhouse of Canada Hockey Place. This was all true, even though the US beat Canada on that same ice just seven days earlier, beating them so badly and sending Canada into such a state of abject panic that Canada benched a goaltender that led them to their first Gold Medal in 50 years and is the winningest Goalie in NHL History, for a guy who is .500 in the NHL playoffs for his career. The sides were already dealt, each team knew their place. Canada had the hopes of a nation, the US had the interest of a nation, for once.

    The game was hockey played at its highest level. Unlike the first contest seven days earlier, it was evenly played, with both teams fighting for every piece of ice, throwing shot after shot at the two goalies, hitting, skating and passing at high, high levels. What made the game perfect, though, was it mirrored the US's strange perspective as a country in hockey. The US were the underdogs, the team with less talent and ability, and it "showed" as they fell behind 2-0 halfway through. The team that already possessed less talent and 17,000 less fans than the other was behind, the ultimate dog. The USA has rare opportunities to play the ultra-underdog card, but for the first time since 1980 (a game the US trailed in 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2) they had the card in their hand, ready to spring it out. 18,000 Canadians on maple-syrup-highs were chanting "Ca-Na-Da" over and over again (The Canadians are a fearlessly creative people), the building was rocking and the US was dead, David was sprawled on the ground with Goliath standing on its neck. Then a strange thing happened, as the viewers started switching to NBC (the viewership of the game was around 18 millions when the Canadians scored to take a 2-0 lead, and rose to 30 million by the end of the third period), the Americans fought back.

    Americans never have to fight back; they are always in a state of being a eternal front-runner. American's never have to scratch and claw their way through adversity, as they emit glitz and glamour in every step they take, but here were 23 white-washed kids that did all of those things Americans never seem to do but always seem to love. They scored a soft lucky goal, as Luongo let a shot trickle by, one that the benched Brodeur never would have let get by him, and the place entered a stunned silence. The Americans were here to upset the day. That goal, and the silence it caused was nothing compared to Zach Parise (a handsome Devil, literally) knocking a rebound (something Luongo seemed to give up on any shot) past the Canuck goalie, tying the game with 24.4 seconds to go. The decibel level dropped a near 100 decebeliters (not sure what the exact term is there). Faintly, chants of U-S-A escaped the chasm of millions of Canadians shocked gasps. The Americans had ruined it all, and nothing makes American's happier. Sure, the Canadians ultimately won, with their Golden Boy scoring the Gold-Medal winning goal, a perfect, seemingly scripted ending to a great game (redeeming Kid Crosby, after he played soulless hockey for most of the game). However, America won, as in the country's collective people and spirit.

     It is the underdog mentality that makes sports great, and for a country that is rarely fitting of that bill but seeks it so badly, hockey is a welcome sport. The second the letters "U", "S" and "A" are put into the equation, the sport becomes secondary. The respective ability of the country is all that matters. Since the USA is at best the second best hockey-playing country in the world, the sport immediately means more. America is the ultimate underdog story. It is the country that fought the World's system, fought colonialism and targeted its greatest son, Britain. It was the country that made the first dent in the British Empire, it was the country that showed anything is possible. Ever since the real fall of Europe, the USA has taken its place at the top of the world, seen as the Gold Standard by many (and the country most despised by as many, with the hate being a chemically-religiously-altered form of envy), but every so often there are times when the USA is catapulted back to 1776. Every now and then, the USA becomes the scrappy underdog, fighting the redcoats (which ironically fits with the truly scrappy hardworking players of the USA Hockey team fighting the Canadians brilliantly skating in their red uniforms). It happened in 1980, with the USA Hockey team doing something so magical that it still elicits teary-eyed admiration 30 years later. It happened in 2010, when the USA Hockey team allowed the country to cheer collectively for once.

    The USA is in a time of political partisanship that has only been passed by the Civil War times (just to distance the comparison, the Civil War era partinship is about 10000 times more partisasn). Every vote in Washington can accuratel be predicted by just going with the party numbers. It is a fissured country, with two sides going in two opposite directions. And hockey, if only for a couple of days, brought that nation together. The sport that is generally seen as some novelty game played by Canadians and Americans who physically and linguistically resemble Canadians (the American team definitely says "eh" alot), is the sport that can connect, that can rebuild the burnt bridges. Hockey allows the USA to be the underdog, to believe in men whose destiny will most likely be failure, to believe that the country that already slayed Goliath in the form of the British Empire can slay Goliath in the form of a lithe, brawny hockey team. Hockey got its rebirth, its second chance with that game. Many think hockey will take a huge step back into its corner for the next 4 years, until the team travels to Russia and can fight "The Soviets" on their ice, but that might be an assumption too easy to be true. After the 1980 Miracle, hockey became more and more popular for the next 14 years that in 1994, when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup, there was a legitimate debate as to what is the country's third favorite sport, and the game was more underground in 1979 than it was in 2009. Hockey has a chance, because it gives Americans a chance... to love their country, one born as the ultimate underdog.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.