A Cubs Fan Finally Gets His Championship Ring – And I’m Fine With It!

The Chicago Cubs are giving Steve Bartman a World Series ring this week for all the hell he's been through since that ill fated night in Wrigley Field 14 years ago. Bartman has led a sheltered and very secluded life after the death threats he received in the wake of the Cubs 2003 National League Championship Series loss. Cubs fans hit the radio waves to express discontent for the man they believed caused the team to never reach their destiny. A man who had to be escorted from the stadium after reaching for a foul ball.

Among many sports fans a debate has raged about whether the Cubs are breaking an unwritten rule of professional athletics by handing out a ring. Questions like Bartman didn't play with the team so why give him a ring? Or does doing this cheapen the accomplishment of the 2016 champs? What if the other clubs decided to just hand out rings to whomever? Should Bartman even accept the gesture in the first place?

For all the questions, the answers aren't as clear as one might think. No one can truly say but Bartman whether he should take the offer from the club. He is the one who has had to separate himself from the team he loved so dearly. Can you imagine your team winning after 107 years and not being able to be at the game to celebrate? Much less having the ability to show your face in public all because people thought you were the reason a team lost?

Teams can do whatever they want with their rings. If New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft can give one of his Super Bowl rings to Russian president Vladimir Putin how can we criticize a team giving one to a fan? A ring from a championship is merely a symbol of a win, something that most players simply lock up and put away in a safe only to come out at special events. A championship win by players builds bonds and families within a locker room that no piece of jewelry or banner can match. How is it any different than any other memorabilia that is sold after the playoffs? In fact, players sell them all the time.

I'm not sure if there is a team that doesn't do what it wants when it comes to victories. In 2016, the Denver Broncos took the Lombardi Trophy to a late fan's funeral. The 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers gave rings to janitors and food vendors. Why is everyone getting so excited about the Cubs? Give Bartman some peace finally, he's been through hell.

Last Chance U Part Deux: Buddy Stephens Revisited

When the first season of Netflix's football series "Last Chance U" ended we saw the JUCO program of Eastern Mississippi exiting the Mississippi state playoffs after getting into a brawl. Coach Buddy Stephens was berating his players as "thugs," much to the dismay of many of them.

The new season of the series promised more football and more drama. What I didn't count on was Stephens announcing that he was embarrassed watching the first season of the show and that he was going to be nicer to his players. Call me skeptical but I didn't buy it at the time and as the show went on, I was right.

The first couple of games he preached change, positivity and how he was a new man. His use of swear words in practice led to him having to drop down to crank out push-ups in front of the team. I was more stunned than impressed, he almost seemed to be embarrassing himself in front of the team.

As the wins mounted, so too did the immense pressure lofted onto Stephens' shoulders. Injuries hit star running back Isiah Wright. The defense struggled to stop anyone who ran right at them. When Coach would attempt to talk to a player it felt as if he was begging that person to say anything at all. One word and Stephens would snap.

I lost count the number of times he kicked Wright out of practice. As the defense struggled to find an identity he berated the Defensive Coordinator for not doing enough. When the refs asked Stephens to back up from the sidelines he freaked out on them.

"Don't touch me. I don't touch you." Stephens screamed at them. So much for the kinder, gentler coach.

Near the end of the season as the team played for the Mississippi state championship Stephens sent his offensive coordinator up to the press box. The same offensive coordinator that had been there for years. I thought that Stephens wanted to turn over a new leaf, but no.

Even though the team won the game and the state championship, Stephens had damaged his team in the process.

Team mother Brittany Wagner left Eastern Mississippi to form her own company to help students.

Offensive coordinator Marcus Wood stepped down from his duties after his interactions on the sidelines of that championship game.

Quarterbacks coach Clint Trickett left the program to work at Florida Atlantic University.

Defensive coordinator Ed Holly left to coach high school football in Florida.

Who else?

To paraphrase Isiah Wright, he said "I can tell when someone cares for me and when they want something from me." The former running back of Eastern Mississippi couldn't have been more painfully clear about the situation in Scooba, MS. It also becomes obvious less than halfway through the season that the head coach's driving factor is to win football games.

The series visits former players and examines their current situation. My favorite is Ronald Ollie who looked happy to have left Eastern Mississippi for Nicholls State. Even former quarterback John Franklin III smiles for the camera while explaining his situation as a backup quarterback at Auburn University. Their lives are drastic comparisons to what the athletes are experiencing back at the junior college.

Eastern Mississippi's defense shows a disconnect because of the malaise that starts at the top. The offense runs well only because former offensive coordinator Wood cares about his kids and sheltered them from Stephens' negativity.

By the end of the season even he can't keep away the drama and is swallowed up by it. I believe Stephens' lack of self control is ultimately going to be his downfall. Even if he wins football games, his lack of compassion guarantees he will never grow as a person. I feel bad that he never gets to understand the kids the way Wagner and Wood did but one day he'll realize that humanity is more important than wins.

Losing Faith Or Sports Is So Screwed

Apparently the Dallas Cowboys are so worried about a man named Lucky Whitehead supposedly getting arrested for misdemeanor shoplifting from Wawa in suburban Virginia that they cut him from the team. The same Cowboys team that has fielded players charged with domestic violence, gun charges, drug charges and DWI incidents. I'm guessing that as a Cowboy you are held to a higher standard- no shoplifting but plenty of beating, drinking, drugs and poor decisions.

I feel for Whitehead because the police now admit that it wasn't him who they arrested for shoplifting. All that drama from the Cowboys and it turns out he wasn't even there, imagine that. Jerry Jones is going to do what he's going to do. In fact Jerry's son, Stephen said that it was a "culmination of things over a period of time." You mean he missed a practice or skipped a meeting or claimed his dog got kidnapped? Sure, he's probably a knucklehead but he DIDN'T break the law.

The starting running back was questioned for domestic abuse charges. A linebacker was charged was assault for hitting someone with a truck. Another player was charged with DWI. In 2015 they fielded a player who was a repeat drug offender. Of course they signed Greg Hardy.

They are hardly the only team to put questionable people on the field. The NFL is full of players that are on the edge of falling off the cliff. The problem is that the league is all about money. When the only reason guys are on the field is because they can play a sport and normal people would be in jail it's because of power, money and influence.

I have a huge problem with the fact that a guy like Whitehead lost his gig over some arrest that never happened. He doesn't even have the ability to sue the Cowboys over wrongful termination because of the way NFL contracts are written.

I wonder what the arresting officers must feel today knowing they helped contribute to the man's loss of employment. Did they just say "hey he said his name was Lucky Whitehead and he had his information so we aren't going to look at his mugshot?" Isn't this a statement on its own? Lucky Whitehead's picture is easily found on the internet- is there no due diligence? If someone was arrested with my information would they verify that it truly was me? I'm scared for this world.

Uncle Mike Vick’s Cabin 

I recently saw a shirt that says : 

We march, y’all mad, We sit down, y’all mad, We speak up, y’all mad, We die, y’all silent.

Let those words sink in for a bit before you pass judgement on what they are saying.  

I’m not going to wade into the political world but this shirt reminded me of Colin Kaepernick and what he’s been going through with NFL free agency.  Whether you agree with him or not his actions have caused people to talk, something that is necessary in this country.

Unfortunately there are people like Mike Vick who went on FS1’s “Speak For Yourself,” and said that the reason why Kaepernick doesn’t have a job is because he is still sporting an afro.  Really Mike?  Vick went on to say it’s really not about his hair but about his last two years of play.  If he cuts his hair and goes back to the NFL with hat on hand and keeps on line, Vick thinks all will be forgiven.  Much like after he was forgiven for his dog fighting charges.  Vick reminded us all “it’s not about selling out.”

I’m not sure I buy that.  While it may not be that Kaepernick is getting black balled from getting a job in the NFL because of his beliefs, he’s causing questions to be asked of the culture and mentality of those that are in charge of signing players.  He’s reaffirmed my opinion that football is about money and the image of what is on the field.  Look at some of the white players who have long hair and long beards, why is that okay?  Is what Vick saying that Kaepernick’s hair cut reminds fans of the 70s and Black Power activists?  Mike Vick reminds me of a dog killer.  There are players in the NFL with weapons charges.  There are players in the NFL who have beat and abused domestic partners.  There have been players in the NFL that have killed others and still been able to come back.  You are going to tell me someone should cut their hair Mike?  Give me a break.  All Kaepernick did these past two years is express his right to protest.  He didn’t break a law and he didn’t break an NFL rule.  He can grow an afro and he can kneel for the anthem.  However you can’t kill or beat a human much less defenseless animals.

I have a real problems with the fact that it’s okay with guys like Rex Ryan to attend and even announce guys like Donald Trump at political rallies without their teams saying a word.  Meanwhile Kaepernick doesn’t say a word on the field but keeps to himself.  Each man expressed his right to protest or display his view only one of them has been chastised for it – I wonder why?

A League Full Of Losers

In the NFL, 31 teams go home at the end of the season as losers.  If you think about it that’s 97 percent of the league that doesn’t accomplish the ultimate goal every single year.  It doesn’t matter if your favorite team won their division if they didn’t win the Super Bowl, they still came up short.

As previously stated in earlier blogs, football is a business and owners do whatever it takes to make their product earn.  Unfortunately there are times when the monster eats itself or some teams just don’t have the structure in place internally.  Many times what’s seen on the field reflects that lack of planning by General Managers or Owners but at the end of the year when the results are in, the coach takes the fall.  

The coach may not be able to win with the lack of depth they were given or maybe the GM didn’t give them players that fit their system.  Too bad, the coach is the one to go.  Think about all the different parts of a football team and the number of players that have to do their job.  If one player doesn’t perform their assignment the whole chain will snap.  Many times the players don’t realize that the average career of an NFL player is less than 4 years.  Players see guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning that have longevity in a rough and tumble league.  However, because of the violent collisions injuries are common and career threatening.  

When these players drop their end of the rope, coaches have to scramble to find someone else to pick it up.  It’s what many refer to as a “next man up” mentality.  The problem is there are guys who aren’t able to deal with the pressure or the pace and they too fall.  Even though most players in the NFL are close to the same skill set in most areas, it’s the mental aspect that makes guys great.  It’s up to coaches to push men to find that.

But what happens when guys tune that out?  Or what happens when some guys don’t have the ability to push through that final wall?  Scouting players isn’t a science, as is evident by the many busts in the NFL draft.  These players can become what is known as “coach killers” contributing to the average length of a coaching career being less than 5 years.  Think about that player who was drafted and fizzled out within his first 4 years in the league even though the first year coach relied so heavy on him.  Now the coach might have one more year to prove himself, but more than likely that coach is already out the door.

When we watch football very few of us think of those guys that walk up and down the sidelines.  Not just the main guys like Bill Belichick or Mike Tomlin.  There are those men behind them, the ones that give their all to coach the wide receivers or the defensive backs that rarely have their names in the paper or the news.  When a defense plays lights out it’s normally the defensive coordinator who gets the credit even though that defensive backs coach gave up his free time and his life to be there researching and preparing too.  When the coach gets fired guess who is going to go too?  All those coaches.  Maybe some of them will never get another job in football even though they were great at what they did.  The problem is no one knew them except for that coach and now he can’t find another job.  But the players who let go of the rope, they might get another shot.  That General Manager who didn’t bring in enough players that were good enough to cover for injuries?  You can bet he’s still there.  

I understand that coaches watch film and prepare a game plan.  They call the plays and try to put the players in the right position to win however sometimes it isn’t the coach’s fault that a team loses.  Sometimes there truly are bad teams based upon the roster they’ve been given. Sure it’s up to them to make the best of hands they are dealt but I think many times fans, executives and the media expect way too much of coaches instead of realizing that players have to be held accountable too.  Coaches aren’t miracle workers, they are human and can only do so much- it’s time to stop blaming them for everything and start praising them.

Disappearing Hockey Heroes

Soon either Pittsburgh with Sidney Crosby, Geno Malkin, Phil Kessel and company or Nashville led by P.K. Subban et al will find their way to a Stanley Cup.

When they win they know they will skate around the ice and hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup drowning in accolades and praise.  Many thinking back to junior hockey or the hard work in the minors that took them to the peak of greatness.  For some, this is the hardest trophy in sports to win-beyond maybe the World Cup.

After the celebration in the locker room with champagne and showers of beer, they’ll relax for a while knowing they’ve brought that trophy home with them for one day.  They can show it off to their hometown for 24 hours or take it to a party or anywhere they want-as long as they don’t lose or destroy it.

But the other perk of winning the prize is eternal recognition in the form of a square on the side of the Cup.  Each year another team gets put on the ring that goes around it forever displaying those that worked so hard to bring home the championship.

You may not know that Lord Stanley’s Cup is almost 125 years old.  It was first given out in 1893 in the form of the bowl you see on top of the trophy now.  As the years progressed and the NHL was formed they needed more room and added the bottom or the base that it currently sits on.  In pictures the rings with the engraved names can be seen along that base.  

125 years is a long time to keep a running record of who has won and at some point time catches up.  After this year, the ring from 1953 to 1965 will have to come off to make room for the next batch of champions.  Included in those years are Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard and a host of other Hall of Fame players.  Imagine the talents during those years that many of us never got to see.

I think about the famous picture of 11-year-old Wayne Gretzky meeting the late Gordie Howe when “Mr Hockey” visited the young player’s hometown.  Who would have guessed that those two would change so much about the game?  Eventually we will have to take “The Great One”‘s name off the Cup to make room too.

I can’t imagine what the future will be like in hockey, there’s the Matthews, Marner, and McDavid future.  But who else is out there that we don’t know about?  Will there ever be another iconic photo like those two legends of the game?

The last time I went to the Hockey Hall of Fame, my daughter and I went into the Esso Great Hall where the Cup is displayed.  She wandered right off to the shiny trophy on its magical perch.  I immediately made my way to the vault where the rings are held.  Not the winner’s rings but the rings that had been taken off the Cup to make room for more Champions.  I wondered about those men that had been engraved there and what they went through.  The struggles and the pain to win this elusive Cup.  It’s been said that once you win you are winner forever because your name is engraved on the side.  But tell that to those men who will find themselves tucked away in a vault on 30 Yonge Street in Toronto.  One day Wayne Gretzky will find himself there too.

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.