Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The boys of spring are cold out there

The temperature will reach a high of about 45 degrees on Tuesday in Janesville, with a low of 35. It will rain and it will be windy. Wednesday's an even better day for the tourism bureau - high of 44, chance of snow.

And somewhere in Minnesota on those days, at around 4 in the afternoon, at about the time the temperature heads toward what will eventually be its low mark of the day, a pair of high school baseball teams will meet on a near-frozen diamond in front of a handful of bitter parents and fellow students, all of whom will wonder what in the hell they're doing sitting there watching a baseball game in the middle of, well, winter.

I loved playing high school baseball. I especially loved it when we had blue skies and 75-degree weather, which means I especially loved it about twice a season. Spring high school sports operate in an odd environment in Minnesota. For the most part, schools, coaches, students and parents do not seem to take them as seriously as they do fall and winter sports. The intensity falls, along with the stakes. Our baseball season always seemed to last about as long as the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs. Start the games in April, finish them by mid-May. By the time you get settled in, the season's over. When it's your senior year, your high school athletic career is over and you've barely even noticed.

In cold weather states baseball actually begins in the school gym, the exact date determined by when the basketball teams' seasons end. When people complain about indoor baseball it's usually when talking about MLB and domes. Before it came down, the Metrodome often came up in those discussions. People bemoaned the roof, the turf, the fans in the stands and the (alleged) ones that helped the Twins hit homers or kept foes from hitting them. But that indoor baseball is paradise compared to practicing in a gym. Groundballs off the basketball floor. Hitting inside a giant net. Pop-up drills where fielders run in a straight line as the coach lobs a ball over their head. Then it's time for some more grounders, perhaps a "mini-clinic" on how to come off the bag while turning a double-play. Now we're practicing how to take a lead off of first base. Our coach tries to "hold" us on, an action that's helpful and useful until it becomes ludicrous when he pretends to be a left-handed pitcher, holding his right leg up in an absurd Andy Pettitte impression before fake-firing to an imaginary plate, a motion that would cause anyone watching to say he throws like a girl, and an unathletic one at that.

But the only thing worse than practicing indoors during those early weeks is actually playing outdoors, when the temperature struggled to reach 50 and you could actually discuss wind chill in addition to the opposing pitcher's stuff. Being in the field was the worst, of course. When hitting, we could at least huddle in the dugout together. Standing in the infield you're exposed, helpless, forced to shuffle side to side in an attempt to keep warm, if not feign complete interest in the proceedings. Fortunately our pitchers always possessed decent control, apparently subscribing to the Twins' method of focusing first on throwing strikes (the flaw in that method, as our pitchers often discovered, is that you need a quality defense supporting you). There's no more helpless feeling than watching opposing hitters take four balls and then trot on down to first while their teammate jogs to second. You can plead with your struggling pitcher and disguise it as old-time baseball chatter - "Come on One-Six, throw strikes, big guy, come on now!" - but the parade will continue until the coach mercifully calls in a freezing replacement, who's probably been standing stiff in right field the first three innings. The walks continue.

You gotta throw strikes in cold weather. Make 'em swing, because hitting always seems ten times harder in cold temperatures. The bat feels heavier, your muscles weaker. And if you do make contact the sting sort of makes you wish you'd just had the decency to strike out. There's no sweet spot with an aluminum bat in the cold, only a sore spot. And if you manage to survive the pain and stroke a base hit you now have to run the bases, instead of retreating to the pseudo shelter offered by the aging dugout.

High school games are seven innings but in a Minnesota spring it feels like seventeen. Even better? Double-headers.

Baseball's a great game. Just don't try and tell that to Minnesota high school players today and tomorrow.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The playoffs begin - tell the Lakers

Some thoughts on the NBA playoffs while I pull a Nixon and magically make 2 hours disappear from the tape of today's Lakers game.

* The Knicks can testify about the importance of the 3-point shot in today's NBA. But it wasn't always such a crucial factor. Check out the leaders from the 1982 playoffs, a season I picked randomly, which had nothing to do with the fact the Lakers won their second title in three seasons with a 4-2 victory over the Sixers. Look at the top long-range shooters that postseason:
1. Brian Winters, Milwaukee - 5
2. Mike Bratz, San Antonio - 5
3. Frank Johnson, Washington - 5
4. Andrew Toney, Philly - 5

Four guys, with five three-pointers. The next season Johnny Moore led the way with 9. Last year? Ray Allen made 56.

The champion Lakers made two 3-pointers the entire playoffs in 1982. They took 12 of them.

* Of the 16 coaches in the playoffs, who was the worst as an NBA player? Eleven of them played in the league, from the sharp-elbowed, joint-smoking Phil Jackson to the defensive-minded Nate McMillan. I originally thought Scott Brooks might get my vote, but the little guard and still-tiny Oklahoma City coach cobbled together a decade-long career in the league, including a few years with a young Timberwolves franchise. But I think the choice is Rick Carlisle, current Dallas coach and former Celtic. Carlisle played five seasons with three teams and averaged 2.2 points per game. He did pick up a ring with the '86 Celtics, as part of The Big Three, along with Bird and McHale.

* Speaking of McHale. Here's the old Hibbingite nearly killing Kurt Rambis in the 1984 Finals. Unfortunately for old Clark Kent, there are thousands of Timberwolves fans who would like to do the same thing to him now. When this play happened in Game 4, a mini-brawl broke out but McHale, ridiculously, was not thrown out of the game. Today he might be personally executed by David Stern at dawn, or at least suspended three games.

* The playoffs are my favorite time of the sports season, ahead of October baseball and March Madness. Just look at this first weekend of games, when six of them went down to the final minute. You had young teams like Memphis beating the veteran Spurs and you had the old guys in Boston holding off a revitalized Knicks team. You had new superstars like Durant and Rose lighting it up while seen-it-all guys like Dirk Nowitzki lifted their teams to victory with a limp and a fadeaway. And we get to watch those types of games for the next two months. But the playoffs also bring out my least-favorite people: conspiracy theorists. The NBA's always rife with conspiracy theories - having a ref involved in point-shaving scandals tends to lend some credence to those ideas. During the postseason, though, everyone sees black helicopters hovering overhead, or at least the evil hand of Stern.

I'd need a dozen sociologists, 10 mathematicians, Ralph Nader and Alex Jones to diagram the conspiracies that are supposedly at play. Who benefits? It depends on who's playing and who's complaining. An overview:

-The league wants LeBron and Wade in the Finals so they'll get the benefit of all foul calls. The league has promoted LeBron and Wade for eight years and this year will be no different. To beat LeBron, you'll have to beat eight guys - the five players and three refs. Conspirators often go silent when it's mentioned that these same fears were dragged out the last two seasons when James played for the Cavs yet somehow didn't make it to the Finals, despite the evil machinations of Stern's minions.

-The league doesn't want a big man dominating the game - it's too boring watching all those jump-hooks and dunks - so the refs will go out of their way to put Dwight Howard in foul trouble, or they'll just go ahead and T him up the first time his mouth opens or his eyes widen. This is the modern-day equivalent of the NCAA outlawing the dunk so Alcindor wouldn't dominate.

-The league wants the Knicks in the Finals. Of course. Conspirators will ignore the fact the Knicks were the victims of a ridiculous offensive foul call on Carmelo Anthony in the closing seconds tonight. Don't you see, they only called that so the conspiracy isn't so obvious.

-The league wants the Lakers in the Finals. Obviously. So Kobe can push off, Gasol can whine, Bynum can travel with every drop step and Artest can manhandle offensive players. There's no way the league will allow a small market team like the Spurs, Thunder or Hornets to win the West. Did the Spurs win four titles since 1999? Yes. But again, if you're following along with the complicated chart, that's just to make things look good. Each time the Spurs won, Stern wept - and plotted anew how to keep San Antonio out of the Finals and off of our TVs in June.

-But even Lakers fans get in on the fun. Incredibly, a fan base that has watched its team in nearly half the Finals in league history believes the league is out to get their favorite squad. Why? Because the NBA is - supposedly - sick of their dominance. Stern wants to promote young stars like Rose and Durant and is tired of Kobe winning titles so he won't get the benefit of any calls. As I type this people are creating threads on Lakers messageboards claiming these very things. In other news, Major League Baseball doesn't want the Yankees and Red Sox making the playoffs.

* Here's Magic hitting an 80-footer against the Nuggets in the 1987 playoffs. My favorite thing about this video is Chick Hearn calculating the length of the shot. He comes up with 80 feet. When they return from break, he's perturbed to find out it's not the official number. Perturbed and a bit incredulous.

* Former Laker stiff Travis Knight holds an NBA playoff record. As you could have guessed, it's not the type of record that will be on his resume when he earns entry into his high school's hall of fame. Knight has the fastest disqualification in NBA playoff history. It took him only six minutes to rack up six fouls in a 1999 game. The record had previously been held by a player who shared many of Knight's qualities - Will Perdue, who needed seven minutes to foul out.

Bizarrely - or not - there's youtube of Knight when the Bulls drafted him. Weird reaction from the crowd; it almost seems like the broadcast pumped in action scenes from some previous draft - perhaps when Jordan himself was drafted in 1984 - for Knight's selection. Why would there be this much noise for the 29th pick in the draft, a center who was a bit "slow afoot."

Rick Pitino provides the commentary on the Knight pick. He doesn't sound too impressed, but he was actually playing possum. In 1997, after Knight enjoyed a workmanlike campaign with the Lakers (he never played for the Bulls), Pitino, now with the Celtics, signed Knight to a seven-year deal worth $22 million. He averaged six points for the Celtics. Two years later he was back in LA, fouling out in six minutes. Somewhere, Jon Koncak smirked.

* Michael Jordan holds nearly every conceivable playoff scoring record. For all of Wilt's dominance with the regular-season scoring marks, it's Jordan's name that appears everywhere in the postseason. He has the most 20-point playoff games with 173 - in 179 games. He scored at least 15 in every playoff contest and holds the records for most 50-point games (8), 40-point games (38) and 30-point games (109). But one record he doesn't have is most consecutive 40-point games. In 1965, Jerry West hit the 40-point mark in a remarkable six straight games - all against the Baltimore Bullets. He averaged 46.3 for the series.

The playoffs continue Monday and the Lakers return to action Wednesday. If they don't win that one? Blame the conspiracy.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

School lunch memories

I have to be careful about how I say this.

Louise is, in many ways, the best cook I've ever known, and certainly the best one I've been married to. But a more accurate statement would be that Louise is one of the two best cooks I've ever known, because she has to share the top spot with my late grandma Bernice. Choosing one to hold the top spot in this mythical ranking would be impossible; I'd have to deal with either a hurt wife or a guilty conscience.

Grandma worked for years as a school cook in Fulda, but my memories - and her ranking - have everything to do with what she conjured up in her tiny kitchen, and nothing to do with the meals she helped create for the town's youth. I'm sure grandma made good food for the kids. But those offerings couldn't possibly compare to the french toast, chocolate chip cookies, and roast beef she expertly crafted at home. I bet even grandma would have admitted she did not do her best work within the school confines.

School lunches have been compared to prison food service but that's unfair - to our nation's penal system.

But now, school lunches are in the news, as a Chicago school banned kids from bringing lunch from home. They'll eat in the school, and they'll like it - or not. But they will eat it, unless they have an allergy that requires a special meal from home, and can't you just imagine a host of children being diagnosed with allergies by the start of the next school year? The principal says it's about nutrition. Kids can't be trusted to make healthy choices so the school makes them. Some people are upset because it robs parents of their ability to parent, although in some cases that seems like it'd be a good thing. Yes, mom can order a kid to eat disgusting broccoli at the dinner table, but a school has no right to do that. So goes the argument. Others say it's simply a money grab from the school trying to get kids to pay for more lunches.

Regardless, there can be no doubt that, ultimately, as is the case whenever a child eats a school lunch, it's the kids who suffer.

We had a small cafeteria in Janesville, nothing like the ones I'd see in classic '80s movies like Just One of the Guys, Better Off Dead or the outdoor facilities in Can't Buy Me Love. In those, hundreds of students wandered around a giant area, gazing out at large windows. They chose from a large variety of options, which looked like something out of an Old Country Buffet ad. They wore roller-skates or baseball uniforms. It wasn't like that in Janesville, or many small schools.

To enter one way at Janesville, students didn't even actually stand in line in the cafeteria. Instead we lined up in a hallway that doubled as our tornado shelter, then turned into a short walkway that took us to the actual food line. The setting in that hall was more like a scene from a DMV, and, depending on if it was the day we ate butter sandwiches and soup, more depressing.

You could also line up inside the cafeteria against a wall, just inches away from some of the tables where the upperclassmen sat. It felt like being up against a wall facing a firing squad, only instead of silver bullets fired from rifles, the weapons of choice were green peas fired by forks.

To me the milk always proved especially disappointing. I'm a longtime milk aficionado but even I could barely stand to drink the school-lunch milk. Those tiny blue cartons that never opened correctly in the front. Instead of peeling back cleanly and correctly, mine often ended up mangled, so any drink of milk also contained the taste of that fluffy white material that would cling to the carton, tainting the already below-average taste. On special occasions we received chocolate milk. All that did was make us aware of how much we were missing every other day of the year.

The cafeteria was divided into a pair of sections. On one side the round tables with the upperclassmen, discussing weekend party plans and the easiest girls in the school. On the other, long tables with tiny round seats that seemingly hovered only a few inches off the ground, where the elementary kids talked about birthday parties and the relative grossness of boys and girls.

We consumed our pizza burgers and mashed potatoes, dreaming of those days when we'd take field trips and everyone had a reason to pack a sack lunch.

In seventh grade I became a part of the system, working a few days a week as a dishwasher, or, more accurately, tray washer, manning my station with the other kids in a job that seemed designed as a work-release program, if not something that should have been done by a chain gang. We labored - as children - in stifling temperatures as the steam enveloped everything. Our fellow students - who enjoyed firing their trays filled with half-eaten food into the wash area - regarded us with more contempt than respect. I don't remember how much I made, although, coupled with my work as a paper boy during that same time period, I probably saved up enough money to buy a dozen packs of baseball cards or a single offering from the traveling Bookmobile.

By the time eighth grade rolled around, my days in the cafeteria were over. I started making the two-block walk home, where I could spend my lunchtime eating and watching afternoon game shows. Mom and dad were at work so I had to piece together my own meals. It wasn't hard, since I wasn't interested in variety. Every day of every school week I'd make the same thing: peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some potato chips, a pickle and a couple of slices of Velveeta cheese. I topped it off with a glass of milk - real milk, from a real glass, not cardboard - and a can of pop. Chicago school administrators would surely frown upon such a diet.

Did it damage me? I grew to 6-3 in high school, have never suffered a broken bone in 35 years and now, as an adult, when those wretched meals from the past should perhaps be sneaking up on me and doing a bit of damage to my skin, locks or internal organs, I remain perfectly healthy. Good heart, good lungs, strong bones, full head of hair. Am I saying the pb&j, chips, cheese and Coke deserve all the credit for my health? No. Not all. But I wouldn't be doing any better if I'd spent all of those days trudging through line like a white collar crook at a minimum-security prison, dreading that day's offering.

Certainly some kids in school could have benefited from forced nutrition. One classmate went to lunch every day at the bowling alley. To the best of my knowledge, he ate nothing but candy for four straight years. He'd return to school with his cheeks bulging and his pockets spilling with all types of assorted sweets, from bubble gum to Skittles. Kid could have used an apple.

Today I'm not sure that, in a post-Columbine world, students at JWP schools are even allowed to leave school grounds at lunch hour. Hopefully they can still bring sack lunches.

I definitely went to school at the right time. And I was lucky that it took me about three and a half minutes to walk from school to our fridge. No one should be forced to eat a school lunch. I don't think I could have handled five more years of them. Not even if the best cook I've ever known - one of them - had been the one serving them. Sorry, grandma.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

For those still suffering from Butler-UConn

A lot of people suffering hangovers today from that NCAA title game last night, either because they drank too much to celebrate its outcome or imbibed too much in order to endure it.

There are great coaches who focus primarily on defense and would be happy with 50-45 games each night. Even they must have been squirming on their couches a bit last night. In low-scoring games there's often a question of whether it's great defense or bad offense. The CLANGING sound you heard from those CBS mics attached to the rims provide overwhelming evidence that this was all about the guys shooting the ball, and not the ones defending. I'd say it set the game of basketball back 60 years but that'd be unfair to the 1951 Kentucky team, which defeated Kansas State 68-58 in the title game.

Thousands of junior high girls basketball coaches watched last night's game and thought, "Man, and I thought our team couldn't shoot."

Partly I blame the setting. Final Fours will never return to regular basketball arenas and they shouldn't. If you can get 75,000 people to attend a basketball game, compared to 15,000, you should take advantage of the opportunity and when's the last time the NCAA failed to take advantage of an economic opportunity? But domes remain nightmare places for shooters, the background different from anything the players see all year. The teams might have had better shooting percentages if they played on an outdoor court on the prairie with 30 mile-an-hour winds swirling around a hoop with no net. It's not an excuse. But going back to the Houston-UCLA game in 1968, basketball just looks odd played in a dome. And it must seem even stranger trying to shoot in one.

So here's a bit of an anecdote for last night's display. Some offensive basketball, slightly different from last night's offensive play.