Bryce Harper and The Search For A Hero

Recently Washington Nationals outfielder and probable National League Most Valuable Player Bryce Harper was hit by a weaponized fastball.  San Francisco Giants pitcher Hunter Strickland decided that he would throw in and tight to the lefty slugger to send a message.

It seems that back in the 2014 NL playoffs Harper made mincemeat of a couple of Strickland’s pitches and let the veteran hurler know with a mean mug.

Harper decided that he wanted to dance with the  right handed flame thrower.  He grabbed his helmet and tossed it like he was playing frisbee golf while running to the pitcher’s mound.  

Strickland had an inkling that Harper was on his way so as the helmet was being tossed he started his warmup and began to fire punches at the batter.  

Harper fired a few in return like two battleships next to each other with their guns pointed too close they only made incidental contact but no direct hits.  Bullpens and dugouts ran to the field and everyone acted like they were auditioning for a part in West Side Story- you’re either a Jet or a Shark baby.

After all the crazies had left the field, it was up to  me to ask: was Strickland seriously pissed about those two home runs for three years?  Come on dude you won a World Series with the Giants in 2014.  Did you not see Frozen?  Let it go already.

But it’s not just Strickland, there have been numerous incidents where batters were thrown at or hit by pitchers because they took them deep.  Maybe they also put a little “jump” in their step too when they rounded the bases, but it’s a sport isn’t it?  When was the last time you played or watched a sport you cared about and didn’t get emotionally involved?

One of my favorite players lights up the radar because he tends to hold on to his bat “too long” or toss it “too high.”  In case you aren’t sure, I’m referring to Jose Bautista, or “Joey Bats” as he is lovingly called,  of the Toronto Blue Jays.

During the 2015 American League Division Series, the Jays were tied with the Texas Rangers 3-3 in the decisive fifth game.  The series had been a grueling nasty affair and neither team liked the other.  With two men on base, two outs and relief pitcher Sam Dyson on the mound, “Bats” saw a 97 mile per hour fastball and crushed it over the left field fence.  

He watched the ball fly reminding me of Roberto Alomar’s 92 ALCS home run off A’s pitcher Dennis Eckersley.  Alomar put his arms out as he ran to first, he had never hit a bigger home run in his career.  He would never hit another as big as that.

Bautista however paused, watched and then threw his bat as if to say “you can’t throw a 97 MPH fastball by me.”

The Rangers however were none too impressed. Most of baseball wasn’t impressed.

But I wonder, in a sport where we celebrate the home run and passion behind it why is it so wrong for hitters to show emotion?  Haven’t we moved past the point where our home run slugger gently places a bat down and runs as fast as he can around the bases?  Why are we so afraid to “show up the pitcher?”

If the pitcher didn’t want to be shown up, throw a better pitch.  The pitcher holds all the advantages in this game- he can fire pitches at someone’s body and ruin a career.  If Sam Dyson faced Joey Bautista again and wanted to “send a message,” he could throw the ball at the Jays’ slugger’s head.  If he made contact it could be lights out especially at 97 miles per hour.

Letting pitchers “send messages” only serves to create more conflict, cause injuries and take away the passion in the game.

I’ve Gone To Look For America

While watching the Penguins and Capitals play the favorite game of our neighbors to the North, an ad for a German car company included a tune from the folk duo of Simon and Garfunkel.

America.

I don’t remember the first time I heard the song that the two recorded almost 50 years ago that is almost the same age as the Pittsburgh Penguins.  What I do remember is that the song has haunted me every time I heard it.

A tune about a couple’s journey through tumultuous times trying to find themselves while discovering the wide world outside the places they once knew.  Everyone lives in their own fishbowl until they decide to jump out and swim in a different pond, taking that trip from different state to state or city to city.  Discovering ourselves.

Ironically the song mentions Pittsburgh as well – a place I’ve seen only from an airplane.

I was just a kid when I went looking for America – it felt like every summer my parents would pack up our car and head in every direction on the compass to some out-of-the-way destination.  I spent hours in the backseat of a car reading and sleeping on Interstate highways as we traveled the East Coast from Bangor, Maine all the way down to Daytona Beach, Florida.

In those trips, I found my America.  I found the parts of the country that excited me from the sports stadiums to the national monuments to the quirky foods to the dark and lonely roads that scatter this country.  I developed a love of french fries, an obsession with soda, a desire to see where pro and college teams play, the love of the cold from dipping in the Atlantic Ocean in Maine and a need to understand.

I found America when I saw the crack in the Liberty Bell, viewed the ships in Philadelphia harbor, looked up at Lady Liberty and saw the places where men fought over war that has been labeled “civil.”

I discovered different foods like clam chowder or carolina barbecue or shrimp scampi or fried catfish or pizza that wasn’t made in the South.  Although along the way I discovered that there are so many great things you can find in convenience stores like beef jerky and slurpees.

I also saw the Meadowlands, Veteran’s Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Camden Yards, Fulton County Stadium, Memorial Stadium in Baltimore and many college fields.

Most of all along the way I saw different things and different ways of life.  It was the need to understand the culture that I enjoyed so much.  Going to New York and seeing the fast pace of life after coming from the South where things moved so slow.  Or even going to Maine to see how vast America is.

Then there was the plane flight from Virginia to Pittsburgh to Seattle, flying over so much of the country to get to a place on the map that looked so far away.  Talk about culture shock for me – going from the sunny South to the dreary Northwest.  I admired the floating bridges of Seattle, the rain forest that was just hours away, the mystery of Snoqualmie Falls and the intrigue of Mount St. Helens.  The more I heard about Seattle the more I felt like it was so far away from Virginia even though it was America.

America.

The same America where sports teams will draft players who have multiple arrests: just recently the Minnesota Vikings who took Dalvin Cook and the Jacksonville Jaguars took Cam Robinson.  The Cincinnati Bengals who will draft a player, Joe Mixon, that knocked a woman out because she slapped him.  Or the Cleveland Browns who took Caleb Brantley even though he’s accused of battery on a woman like Mixon.

This is America.  America where sports has become so interwoven into our culture that baseball’s World Series is known as the “Fall Classic.”  College football is a religious day in the South only proceeded by high school football and followed by church.

Unfortunately we’ve become a product of our entertainment.  We’ve let ourselves be bought by glitz and glamour.  We’ve sold our souls for the promise of athletic achievement while giving up on common courtesy and humanity.  We are happy to use public funds to build sports arenas but balk at helping those who have nothing.  All the while sports owners use their funds to return to their mansions and luxury cars.

It’s the worry that our team might lose or we may never see them win a championship that keeps us hoping for next year yet we miss life passing in front of us.  We miss the things that Simon and Garfunkel went looking for on their trip through America.  We don’t enjoy the wire that we all walk in life and how much joy can be found in the little things.  We don’t understand the pain that everyone else goes through.  We don’t appreciate others.  We don’t value other parts of America.

America isn’t just a piece of land, or an ideal, it is people.  It’s humanity but it should also giving and caring.  It’s time we all went looking for that.

2017 Quick Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions

April 12, 2017 marks the opening night of the Stanley Cup playoffs, with the hope that one of the 5 playoff bound Canadian teams will win the Cup.

Sadly – I’m not sure that it is going to happen.

EASTERN CONFERENCE-

Montreal(47-26-9, 103 points) vs. New York(48-28-6, 102 points)

The Rangers are one of the NHL’s highest scoring teams (253 goals, 4th in the league) and the Canadiens are one of the stingiest teams at (198 goals against or 4th best).

Montreal is lead by 29-year-old goalkeeper Carey Price whose season Goals Against Average, 2.23, and Save Percentage, .923, are better than his career averages.  Price’s health, the trade of P.K. Subban for Shea Weber and the firing of Michel Therrien on February 14 and subsequent hiring of former Bruins coach Claude Julien have all led to Montreal’s success.

New York on the other hand, has seen goalkeeper Henrik Lundqvist, 35,  struggle at times.  His 2.74 Goals Against Average and .910 Save Percentage have left Rangers fans wondering if the King is showing weakness.

The King is a money goalkeeper in the playoffs but so too is Carey Price.  These two have little to separate them but looking back to their March 4th match-up, the Canadiens won 4-1.  I’d like to think the Rangers could take this series but Price and company are going to have more than Lundqvist can handle.

Ottawa(44-28-10,98 points) vs. Boston(44-31-7,95 points)

Between these two Boston has the best Penalty Kill percentage and the 7th best power play percentage.  Boston is coming into the play-offs hot winning 5 of 7 in the two weeks leading up to the season finale that they lost at Washington.  Included in that span is a loss to these same Senators.

Ottawa has beaten Boston the last three games the teams have played but they went 9-10 during that span struggling against non-playoff teams Tampa Bay, Winnipeg, Philadelphia and Detroit.

Ottawa’s struggles to score and defend will likely be their downfall – especially since Boston is hot.  Ottawa’s 2.51 Goals For a game is 22 and their 2.56 Goals Against Average proves this team relies on getting timely goals and defense.  To be fair that 2.56 GAA is 10th in the NHL.

Boston will eventually come out on top but it’s going to be tight.

Washington(55-19-8,118 points) vs Toronto(40-27-14, 95 points)

I want to pick the Maple Leafs – I do but I simply cannot.  The Capitals are just that good and the Maple Leafs are in Year 2 of their rebuilding effort.  As a Leafs fan, I didn’t expect them to make the playoffs but now it’s time to enjoy the fact that it’s the second week of April and they are still playing hockey in the ACC.

I don’t see the Leafs slowing down the Capitals for maybe more than 1 or 2 games but it may be the time to see Auston Matthews’ star shine.

Pittsburgh(50-21-11, 111 points) vs Columbus(50-24-8, 108 points)

It would normally be a pretty easy pick to say the Penguins would take the series however the loss of Kris Letang is devastating.  Letang’s role in the Pens’ Cup run last season cannot be understated, his goal clinched the trophy for the skating birds.

On the other hand, Columbus brings a wild card in coach John Tortorella.  Torts and Pens’ head coach Mike Sullivan are ironically friends.  Torts brought immense changes to a team that under achieved in the prior season.

I think Pittsburgh have just enough to push past the Jackets.

2nd round – Montreal vs Ottawa

The battle of two Canadian hotbeds of hockey that will come down to goaltending – something that is always the story in the postseason.

The Canadiens are also built tougher and deeper to progress through the playoffs. Ottawa’s scoring from the blueline and struggles to score will be their downfall in this series.

Washington vs. Pittsburgh

The year that Ovi finally passes Crosby to get to the Eastern Conference Finals.  The Capitals are going to find their way past the depleted Pens.

Eastern Conference Finals – Montreal vs. Washington

Washington not only has a great goalkeeper but they have strong defense and incredible scoring.  While it may be a lengthy series, Ovi will get the monkey off his back and take his team to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Western Conference

Chicago(50-23-9,109 points) vs Nashville(41-29-12, 94 points)

The number 1 seed in the Western Conference takes on the team that just made it into the playoffs.  That being said at the beginning of the season it was questionable whether Nashville would even have the chance to make it this far.  The off-season trade of former Nashville captain Shea Weber to Montreal for P.K. Subban didn’t start off well for the Preds.

Once you put the Blackhawks in the playoffs they turn into a juggernaut.  This season will be no different.  As much as I’d like to think Subban will spark the Preds, the Blackhawks are led by arguably the most talented playoff duo in Kane and Toewes as well as the best coach in Quenneville.

Chicago will come out on top thanks to all of these factors.

Minnesota(49-25-8, 106 points) vs St. Louis(46-29-7, 99 points)

There is something to be said for a revenge win in a series and for coach Mike Yeo of the Blues there has to be some desire to beat the Wild after years of coaching there.  Yeo says his focus is not on revenge but on the playoffs but I think he’ll have his team fired up.

I’m going with the Blues.

Anaheim(46-23-13,105 points) vs Calgary(45-33-4,94 points)

Every year it seems there is one team that falls apart in the playoffs and doesn’t live up to their ranking or expectations.  For me, that team is Anaheim and the team that takes them out is Calgary.  Of course I have a thing for Canadian teams so take it for what you will.

Edmonton(47-26-9,103 points) vs San Jose(46-29-7,99 points)

Welcome to the year that Connor McDavid wins the Hart Trophy and pulls the Oilers through the playoffs starting with the first round series win against San Jose.  Edmonton buckle up, you are in for a long ride.

2nd round – Chicago vs St. Louis

An immense rivalry that Chicago will come out on top thanks to their stars – but don’t believe that it’s going to be easy.

Calgary vs Edmonton

This my friends will be a dandy.  I can’t wait to see these two Western Canada teams play this series out.  However for Calgary, Connor McDavid and company will be just too much.

Chicago vs Edmonton

Did I say Edmonton fans were in for a long ride?  It’s going to keep getting longer after winning this series against the Blackhawks.

Stanley Cup Finals -Washington vs Edmonton

As much as I’d like to pick the Oil to be the Cinderella and win it all, Washington is just too much.  Ovi will get over the hump and cement his legacy as one of the best players to ever suit up in the NHL.

 

Time To Pay The Players

With the NHL playoffs upon us (and the Maple Leafs hopefully being in them), I’ve been playing NHL ’17 on Xbox One to deal with the fever.  As a gamer and sports fan, the greatest addition to games is the “Be A Player” mode where I created myself as a young center in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

My virtual self suits up for the Sherbrooke Phoenix, because my favorite hockey player of all-time, Jocelyn Thibault is the General Manager.

Anyway, as the season progresses your general game play is “graded” based upon certain categories and of course your skills develop based upon the grade.  The end goal being that you get a call that you’ve been drafted into the big show to play for the grand prize – the Stanley Cup.

Along the way you are given the chance to fight if you are challenged (or you will be pushed into fighting if you deliver a brutal hit on a defenseless opponent), the opportunity for more ice time if you are passing and scoring well, a disappointing paragraph on a menu from the coach if you don’t defend and other chances to make an impact.

Midway through your draft-able season, you may get the call to the CHL top prospects game as my player did.  I was assigned to the white team and I drew the top line against the red team.  Somewhere during the first period after a stoppage in play, I began to look at the “Be A Player” mode differently.

One of my linemates must have disliked someone on the other team and a fight broke out.  Hey – old hockey joke huh?  All I could think about was 17 year olds fighting in front of NHL scouts to show that they should be drafted.  I have never been or seen the real CHL top prospects game but I know that as a teenager you want to be in the NHL and you’ll do whatever it takes to get there.

But these aren’t just any teenagers.  These kids are being paid a stipend and they cannot accept a scholarship to an American school because of it.  Think about that for a moment.  This is a double edged blade.

It’s wonderful that they are getting paid for bringing in revenue for their club but at the same time it comes with a consequence.  They must now realize they can’t go to the States and play college hockey.  Most realize their options are better in the CHL, however should that not pan out, there has to be some consideration for the future too.

This past week I saw former Houston Texans running back Arian Foster talk about the NCAA and how he can’t even watch college football anymore.  The NCAA system is broken.  In March, billions in revenue are generated for the NCAA by advertisers in what is known as “March Madness.”  The basketball players for the schools do not see any of that money but some of the coaches at these schools are paid millions to do one thing: teach x’s and o’s.

Then there is college football.  The college bowl system is the same way and some coaches are the highest paid state employees.  They also get athletic gear contracts and some coaches even have radio shows.  Meanwhile, athletes on scholarship can’t participate in work study or accept the same things that normal students could.

In fact, Foster has spoken in the past about asking his former coach at the University of Tennessee Phillip Fulmer to bring him something to eat because the dining hall was closed and he had no money.  This was against the NCAA rules but Foster came from a family that was poor – if it wasn’t for the scholarship he wouldn’t have had the funds to go to college.

We hear the stories of athletes going from college or high school to the NFL or the NBA and blowing it all.  They end up being broke but why can’t they get a stipend in college to help them understand how to manage it?  Getting that money in the CHL helps the young players know that when it is gone, it is gone and no one is going to give you anything.

The NCAA is no longer an amateur league and it’s not going to go back to being one.  With advertisers involved and athletic companies sponsoring everything there’s no way to believe that money doesn’t run college sports.  It’s long past time to let the kids who help print the cash for the “amateur” system get their piece of the pie – or else we need to take the money out of the system.

I’ve Had Enough Of The Blood

Human conflict has been going on for as long as history has been recorded and people have been arguing over everything. Obviously in the beginning it wasn’t over things like cars and televisions.  
I never began this blog to talk about politics or current events – only sports. However, I’m fed up and I’m tired of the scenes on social media and other screens showing horrible sights of needless injuries and deaths.  

Why the hell do these “acts of terror” keep happening?

Life is so short on its own – no one needs to take it from the innocent there is enough to deal with already. With cancer, accidental incidents, diseases and many other events there is plenty of ways that humans come into contact with crisis.

I’m tired of being concerned that someone I know halfway across the world could have been hurt in an incident by some crazed “terrorist.”

What is the point of taking a life? What is the point of violence?

I realize that violence is part of sports and many of us have enjoyed that violence, whether it is in football, hockey or even in sports like mixed martial arts. That violence I’ve questioned on multiple occasions as well because it reduces humans to their primitive roots. However it is a form of entertainment not a way to truly injure one another, or so I’d like to hope.
But when it comes to “acts of terror” the point is to kill, maim and destroy the way of life of people that do not share the same beliefs. I’d like to ask why everyone can’t get along but I know there’s no way that everyone will be able to get along-many can’t get along on a basketball court.  

All of this doesn’t mean that our differences need to be resolved by running people over with a vehicle, blowing them up or even shooting them. Humans have the advantage of a large brain and the ability to comprehend and communicate unlike other creatures on Earth. When we kill each other instead of using our brains we revert back to being just like an animal. We are no better than the lions and sharks that we see on television. I would hope that one day we advance past our desire to see blood and gore but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. In the meantime, know that we should all come together as humans and look out for one another.

It’s Time To Stop Bitching About The NHL Refs

The fastest skater in the National Hockey League’s skills competition this past January, Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, completed a lap around the ice in 13.310 seconds. Imagine what you can do in 13.310 seconds. By the time you’ve read to the end of this sentence McDavid has already completed his turn around the ice.
For the average fan, we miss out on that speed when viewing the game on television. Everything blends together and at times the play can be quick but most times we get used to the pace of the players. That is until the ref misses a call and we wonder how they could have missed something right in front of them?

As someone who has been a ref for high school soccer games, there’s something to be said for making sure the game is called properly but not making the game about the rules. If you stop the game for every little infraction it could be a drawn out affair. Then again if you go into the game knowing the teams have a heated rivalry it’s important to let them know you are watching and by calling them out it improves the chances of level heads prevailing.

If you ref young kids, there’s the temptation to call everything as well. The best refs can “feel out” the game and speak to the players during the game to instruct them on what is going on.
“Hey number 8, stop pushing off. If you keep doing that I’m going to have to call it.”

Even when you blow the whistle as a youth ref it’s important to let the child know what happened and how to improve. I find that children get a lot of pressure from parents and coaches (even themselves) and sometimes as a ref it’s helpful to give them a little lift.

Getting back to the NHL, when it comes to being able to skate with these guys as well as watch everything that is going on on the ice-I’m in awe. These refs are truly amazing. If you think about the fact that some of them take pucks off of their bodies with no padding and skate the entire game with no line changes-they are some incredible individuals. Not only that but to see and break down the play of men who skate at speeds close to 40 mph according to some estimates, you have to cut them some slack.
I don’t want refs to be perfect. I don’t want them to be robots that get everything right. Bad calls and missed calls are a part of sports since their creation. Turning refs into computers and every play into instant replay slows down the speed and flow of the game. It makes coaches rely too heavily on fighting with the refs rather than coaching their players.  

I know I’ve bitched about Doug Gilmour getting high sticked in the playoffs and I’ll keep bitching. This is just the way it’ll always be. To be fair, the Leafs could have done more to not be in that situation to rely on that call. Good teams recover from bad calls and no calls. Sometimes it all comes down to luck and sometimes it’s just meant to be. Sometimes the better team wins-then again you can’t convince me the Kings were better!

Tony Soprano Made Me Believe In Jean-Paul Sartre

I don’t remember how many years ago it was when I heard “got yourself a gun” playing as James Gandolfini pulled into his suburban New Jersey playground.  What I do remember is being absolutely fascinated with the life of David Chase’s fictional mob boss who fought with the demons that danced in Gandolfini’s character, Tony Soprano’s head.

I didn’t have HBO when the show came out, but I can remember people around me talking about the ducks and how Soprano took care of the ducks.

I can remember thinking, “the hell are the ducks?”

After watching the series for the first time, I never got the connection that Soprano’s therapist, Dr. Melfi, proposed was the reason that Tony worried so much about the water fowl.

“They’re just ducks,” I thought, “who cares?  I’m more worried about the cannoli and the sfogliatelle.”

You know, “leave the gun take the cannoli,” Godfather style.  It’s that part of America that Chase dipped into when he created The Sopranos.  Guns, money, pastry, prosciutto and RICO – all part of what some would consider the lifestyle of a mobster.

I got so caught up in the smoke and mirrors that I missed the point that Chase was trying to make.  It’s a message hidden underneath the bodies that Soprano leaves in his wake, all six and a half seasons worth, even though during the series leaves us clues.

In the second season while talking with Dr. Melfi, Tony produces one of the most prolific existential statements one could expect from the troubled character:

“What’s the point? You go to Italy, you lift some weights, you watch a movie-it’s all a series of distractions til you die.”

I didn’t understand the existentialism the first time I watched the show. Years later, after reading Sartre I get where Tony is coming from. What is the point? All his choices that have been bothering him only matter because he made them matter to him.

At the same time, he’s responsible for his world, whatever happened around him was caused by his decisions. If he hadn’t killed Christopher’s shooter,Matt Bevilaqua, he wouldn’t have had to worry about being fingered for being at the scene.

For all the money and fancy things that Tony has he experiences the pain of a man that doesn’t understand himself. He struggles with a world devoid of happiness. The people that he runs with are just like him-brutal, dark and broken. But this is the only world that he knows and he can’t go into the “witness protection program” because that’s not his life plus he lives by omerta.

Even his family experiences this realization during the series. His mother, Livia, tells her grandson, Anthony, Jr.:

“Why does everything have a purpose? The world is a jungle. And if you want my advice Anthony, don’t expect happiness. You won’t get it. People let you down. And I’m not naming any names, but in the end you die in your own arms.”

Anthony, Jr learns about Friedrich Nietzsche at school which starts a revolt at home when he doesn’t want to be confirmed in the Catholic church.

“God is Dead,” he says.

Tony takes this to Dr. Melfi who tells him:

“When some people first realize that they’re solely responsible for their decisions, actions, and beliefs and that death lies at the end of every road they can be overcome by intense dread.”

There is the good doctor explaining to the world what happens when people read and understand existentialism for the first time. I could be forgiven for confusing Dr Melfi for Sartre, who said:

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

Yikes. While there is an ultimate search for truth, the place to start is truly inside of us all. In many ways I think Tony represents so many people’s search for what “it’s all about.” Another person’s world could look so intriguing and something that we may want to get into from the outside but it’s probably not. Things aren’t as black and white as they seem. Scrape away at the paint and you might not like what is underneath.

Then again, should we take our lives to the bright lights of the silver screen with hip hop beats and fancy CGI maybe we would like it better. It could be the perspective that matters. I thought when I first watched The Sopranos that Tony died way too soon. There had to be more things for him to do and more for the viewer to see.

Years later I’m convinced that Tony did what he was supposed to do, he showed that life is short and it’s supposed to be lived to the fullest. We have to ask questions-of ourselves and others-and search for the answers to whatever it is that we want to know. At the end of the day, it is us that answers to ourselves and it is us that are free.