Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Another Racing Loss

Darrell Russell died this past weekend. You may have missed the story on Russell's death. There are probably two reasons for that. First, Russell was a NHRA racer. The drivers on that circuit, and the association itself, are hardly household names. Second, it seems like we lose drivers on a fairly regular basis and the loss of yet another is, unfortunately, not unexpected. In fact, it borders on commonplace. That's where I have a problem with auto racing.

Death not only seems to be accepted amongst drivers, teams and fans, but it remains hauntingly part of its lure. There is that edgy, I-may-die-today, bravado amongst the sport's participants that, for me anyway, crosses the line between sport and Russian roulette a little too often.

Ernest Hemingway once suggested there were only three real sports "bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games". If life and death encounters accurately define sport, than Hemingway was certainly right about auto racing. The sport offers us reminders of this struggle on a far too regular basis.

Racing lost another life this week and all the its proponents can do is shrug their shoulders and say "That's racing". They are correct, of course, but that's why deaths like Darrell Russell's get left on page six of Monday morning sports sections. We've just come to expect it. Perhaps, that's almost as big a tragedy.

Monday, June 28, 2004

Weekend Wrap

Did anyone else watch the NHL Draft? If so, you can safely call yourself a geek. (If you've seen, in whole or part, the NFL, NBA and NHL Drafts this year, you can rightly be classified as nuts or a blogger or both.) The draft itself wasn't terribly exciting, however I was struck with the difference in perception between the three sports who care to televise their entry draft.

The boys over at the NFL are fighting to keep college underclassmen out of their draft activities. The NBA honchos long ago gave up that fight, but now are drafting high school players with tons of remorse (mostly for the potential of lost investment income). The NHL, conversely, drafts just about everyone at any age. Well, that's an gross overstatement, but the fifth pick overall, Blake Wheeler, is a high school junior.

In stark contrast to Dick Vitale's laments during the NBA draft, the TSN guys covering the NHL entry draft were more surprised the kid went so early, not that he was so young. Wheeler was considered a late first round, early second round choice, before Wayne Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes made him the fifth selection overall. The announcers didn't worry about Wheeler's future or the devastating effect his departure left on the college game, no, they wondered if Wheeler would skip his senior year of high school and head for the Canadian Junior system instead. (If the NBA starts to draft high school juniors, Dick Vitale will need even more medication than he is on now.) Different sport, different perspective.

Another interesting hockey note came in the form of Ottawa's move to ship Patrick Lalime out of Canada's capital. The Sens have always been considered a Stanley Cup contender except between the pipes. Lalime has caught most of the criticism over the Sens premature exits, so his trade alone isn't the story. What makes Lalime's sudden removal raise an eyebrow is that Dominik Hasek is rumored to be the Sens new goalie. I would think a press conference is forthcoming. The Dominator returns, Part II. Or is that Part III, now?

On to golf, where I am left to consider what exactly a Booz Allen is? I realize it's a company that bought naming rights to this past weekend's PGA Tour stop, but I had never, ever heard of it before. Now, their marketing half suceeded, as I now recognize the name, but I still think it sounds more like a stop on the Pro Bowlers Tour or NASCAR circuit than a PGA Tour event.

In the tour stop, Adam Scott outdistanced Charles Howell III. Scott and Howell are nearly clones. Tall, young, thin, owners of trendy clothes, picturesque swings and tons of talent. While the golf world awaits Tiger Woods' return (I didn't know he was gone), youngsters like these could be golf's second biggest continuing story within two years.

Then there is our national pastime, where the San Francisco Giants remain atop the National League West. They are doing it with smoke and mirrors. The smoke is commonly known as Barry Bonds and the mirror is Jason Schmidt. Bonds is, well, Bonds and Schmidt has peeled off ten straight victories and is probably the best pitcher in the league over the last two seasons. One great hitter, one great hurler and a cast of veterans picking up the pieces in between.

My local nine, the Detroit Tigers just spent the weekend sweeping the Arizona Diamondbacks out of town. The Tigers, the worst team in American League history last year, have thirty-five wins thus far in 2004. They had forty-three all of last year. An even lousy July would yield enough wins to surpass last year's total. Thankfully.

Then there are the Texas Rangers. The Rangers were awful last year. Not Detroit awful, but still really bad. They were just as bad the year before. So, what do the Rangers do? They ship out Alex Rodriguez, the highest paid and arguably best player in the game, this off-season and lo' and behold Texas finds themselves in first place in the competitive American League West.

Texas can flat rake with Michael Young, Alfonso Soriano, Hank Blalock and company and are getting enough pitching to contend. Kenny Rogers has been amazing and should be an all-star. I can't decide which of the three teams is the best story this year, but it's nice to have a choice.

Overseas, Euro 2004 is down to the semi-finals. The final four are the Czech Republic, Greece, Holland and Portugal. My head thinks the Dutch will finally emerge as champions, but Portugal is the host and my heart likes them. So, we can expect either the Czechs (who are very, very good, as well) or the Greeks (think heavy underdog, like Villanova's hoops title) to claim victory. This tournament has been topsy-turvy since the opening match and I guess I should expect more of the same in the semis.

Finally, from the I-know-you-don't-care department, the Edmonton Eskimos lost their second straight CFL game to open the 2004 season. The defending Grey Cup champions are one of my favorite teams in sport and I hate to see them look so bad, so early. Especially, when losing to British Columbia and at home to boot. However, I am still thrilled about the title, so this year I may just have to enjoy my memories of the 2003 crown.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Enough Already, Dickie V.

If ESPN continues to cover the NBA Draft next year, let's hope they give Dick Vitale the night off. Vitale's role during this evening's coverage amounted to whining about all the high schoolers taken and crying over all the college kids left behind. Does anyone who regularly watches hoops, which would probably include all of us watching the draft, not understand Vitale's opinion on this matter? If you didn't before the draft, within the first thirty minutes, you certainly did.

Dickie V. doesn't like the system. He doesn't like high school kids getting drafted ahead of veteran college players. He doesn't like high school kids not going to college. Vitale thinks the high school kids are nothing more than potential and are coach killers, where college players are more "sure things". He doesn't think drafting high school kids helps the kids, the colleges or the NBA, it only prospers agents. Mr. Vitale is probably half right. The problem is he is half wrong, too.

I think lots of the high school players are doomed to failure. However, Vitale would have us all believe that every college prospect became a NBA all-star. Not one four year college player ever washed out of the league. No college all-americans failed to live up to the hype on draft day. Only those stinking high school kids fail.

What I find so entertaining about Vitale's endless complaining about the high school entries is that he loves them all when they chose to go to college. He raves about the freshman class each season almost as much as he decries the freshman class that got away to the NBA. Either they are really good or they aren't, Dick. Which is it?

Then there is the system Vitale wants revamped. He laments the current NBA climate and strongly supports Commissioner Stern's desire for a minimum age requirement. However, Vitale doesn't seem to mind the climate around college basketball. That environment, one of illegal recruiting, ridiculous made-for-athlete degree programs, academic fraud, out-of-control booster clubs, big money shoe deals for coaches, universities and players, doesn't seem to faze old Dickie V. a bit.

Most of us are used to Vitale unrelenting cheerleading for the college game, but when it's a NBA broadcast and all he can do is complain about the product for hours on end it gets really old, really fast. Even Jay Bilas finally grew weary of Dick's refrain and wondered aloud if Vitale liked "any high school or foreign player"? Vitale was quick to embrace LeBron James, but went no further.

After reviewing his performance tonight, the folks over at ESPN and the NBA, for that matter, should kindly thank Vitale for his input this year and tell him he doesn't have to work this day next year. Everyone will be much happier.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Happy June 23rd!

Editor's Note: The following post has nothing, zero, nada to do with sports. I apologize in advance. It will happen again, but it won't happen often.

As I live in an area that is just a river away from Canada, those of us living in Michigan celebrate our Independence Day with our neighbor's own holiday, Canada Day. It only seems logical as Canada Day is July 1st and, of course, we celebrate the United States' independence on July 4th.

Part of this annual festival is a huge fireworks display. Again, a fairly reasonably proposition. However, in recent years the explosions seem to be getting closer and closer to Flag Day. (June 14th, in case you didn't know.) This year, June 23rd is the day for the big blowout. Now, this seems plain ridiculous.

It's over a week until Canada Day and closer to two weeks until the 4th. Why not have the fireworks on Flag Day? Or August 7th? Or October 16th? None of those are anywhere close to either holiday, either.

Yeah, it's an over-reaction on my part, but shouldn't we "celebrate" the holidays in the same week as they take place? Is that really asking too much? I could see June 30th. Maybe even June 29th depending on how the calendar falls, but we in Metro Detroit are having our Fourth of July celebration on June 23rd?

I'm sorry our nation's founders, and their Canadian counterparts, didn't have the foresight to plan these holidays around our busy schedules. I'm getting really tired of making holiday convenient for our banking industry and to accommodate our hectic lives.

Somehow Adams, Jefferson, Washington and the gang managed to tend to their affairs at home, design a country around a form of government yet unprecedented and fight a war at the same time, but we can't even get a stinking fireworks display within a week of the day we remember their accomplishment?

Thank you for reading my tirade. I will now return to the sports world. Happy June 23rd!

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Are You Ready For Some Football?

Ready or not, and I know most of you are ready, it's football season, again. Don't believe me? Have you been to your local bookstore lately? All the big time football annuals are out on the shelves. The Sporting News, Lindy's, Street and Smith's, Athlon's, they are all available.

While I've only linked the pro editions, the college annuals are on store shelves, too. The always popular fantasy football guides are starting to show up, as well. (Although, I remain in sticker shock, I figure around twenty-one dollars should get you one each of pro, college and fantasy guides for '04.) With all the preview mags out, can the games really be that far behind?

Need more proof? A quick trip to your local sports shop should yield the first look at new NFL jerseys for 2004. Your team's first round draft choice should have his jersey for sale a solid month before he even puts it on for the first time. Does your team have a nice uniform change this year? I suspect the revised logos, hats, jerseys or whatever are probably on sale right now. Where would the obsessive fan be without new threads for the new season? (Let's see, I'm out $21 on magazines, a new cap is probably another $20, then there are those fantasy football league dues, and if I break down and get that rookie's jersey.... I could be out quite a bit of dough before even one game is played.)

While the NFL and college kids are still almost two months away from actual games that count, the Canadian Football League is now heading for Week Two of their regular season. They have an impressive collection of goodies available for sale as well. (Do I want that green Edmonton Eskimos Reebok cap or the white one?) If the CFL boys are playing for real, the boys here in the States must be next.

While free agency, NFL Europe, the Draft and mini camps make it seem like the NFL season never really ends, much as continuous recruiting news and spring football keep the college game in the headlines year round, the arrival of a new football season for me has always been the sighting of those first football annuals each summer. It may not even be July 1, but it looks like the boys of the gridiron have returned. Now, I just have to figure out where I am going to get all this money.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Across The Pond

Forty-seven year old Martina Navratilova won her opening round match at Wimbledon today. There is only one problem with this. She won. The nine time Wimbledon champion not only advanced, but won 6-0, 6-1. Now, we are left wondering just how bad these opening round opponents are. I mean how could anyone take a decade off, then just pop in to win a match at Wimbledon? Anyone know how old Bjorn Borg is?

Before the tennis elite come after me, I realize Navratilova is still playing doubles at a very high level. Admirable and impressive as it may be, it's still doubles. There are many fine doubles players who can't compete at anywhere near the same level when going solo. The difference between singles and doubles is enormous. That's why Navratilova is still playing doubles.

Navratilova is probably the greatest women's player ever, but running out to play singles at Wimbledon this year was a lose-lose proposition from the start in my book. She wins and we are left wondering just how bad the tennis is. Martina loses and we all wonder what the heck she was thinking and feeling kind of sorry for her.

I really want to embrace the spirit of competition, but this isn't the "Olympic Ideal" here. It's Wimbledon. It's professional tennis' biggest stage. Having a retired star emerge from basically nowhere, after a ten year hiatus, to dust off some kid in a match diminishes the level of play in women's tennis.

Her quote today at ESPN.com illustrates the problem. "When people say 'Why are you doing it?' I guess the answer is because I still can, bottom line". She's right, of course. It's just I don't think John McEnroe or Mats Wilander could do the same. Is that because Navratilova was/is a better women's player than either McEnroe or Wilander were men's players? Or is it that women's tennis is just that bad at it's lower levels that a retiree can return and win a match at the All England Club? Playing, I should saying winning, has opened that door of debate.

What happens if she wins, again? Sure, the media circus will begin in earnest extolling the wonder-of-it-all, but eventually Navratilova is going to run into someone she can't handle. Are one of Williams' sisters or Lindsay Daveneport going to have to "go easy" on their sport's all-time biggest star? It's one thing to run over some punk kid looking to take your spot in the next few years, it's a whole other thing to disassemble a living legend on world-wide television. Why should either party be put in that position?

Navratilova certainly has every right to play if the folks running Wimbledon ask, as they did. It's her life and legacy, not ours. I just wish Navratilova would have saved women's tennis from what could be a nightmare by knowning when to say when.

In other sports news from Europe, I see Euro 2004 has had an outbreak of good old fashioned, new world bad manners. Francesco Totti of Italy and Alexander Frei of Switzerland have both been suspended for spitting on opponents. Apparently both players are looking for future employment in the NFL.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Pistons, Pistons, Pistons

Less than twenty-four hours after capturing their third NBA Championship, the Detroit Pistons are still no better than the third biggest story in pro basketball. The Pistons unexpected victory sits comfortably behind the excuses for the Lakers collapse and the future of the Western Conference Champions as topics of discussion.

While no one is sure what's in store for the Lakers this off-season, I do know we can stop looking for reasons (and excuses) why L.A. looked so horrible in The Finals. The Pistons were the reason.

Forget Kobe's selfishness, the officiating, the poor surrounding cast. No one was crying about the "dysfunctional" Lakers when they dispatched Houston, San Antonio and Minnesota. L.A. stopped functioning properly immediately after running headfirst into the Pistons defense. That's not a coincidence. Nor is it a conspiracy theory. It's a pattern.

The Pistons have been playing this type of hard working, defense first basketball for three years. The style of play that Rick Carlisle introduced and Larry Brown elevated has been causing fits around the league. As evidence, the Pistons just set the NBA record for holding opponents under seventy points in consecutive games this year.

While most disregarded the Pistons path to The Finals, their destruction of the Lakers coupled with their regular season performance should give rise to the thought that the '03-'04 Pistons are, perhaps, the best single season defensive team ever.

That title can be debated, the Pistons championship cannot. The Lakers can and will dominate the headlines, but the Pistons dominanted the basketball floor.

Another thought on the Pistons title run. I owe Chauncey Billups an apology. I never thought he could be effective enough as a point guard to lead the Pistons to a championship. I loved him as a two guard, but thought he would never be comfortable enough distributing the ball as his first priority to lift the Pistons to this level.

Chauncey, I apologize. I was wrong. Congratulations on your MVP award and championship.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Post Number One

Welcome to Beyond Boxscores. This is the first of what I hope will be many posts. The focus of this blog, as I hope the title implies, will be sports.

Of course, I first need signficantly more html knowledge to get this blog rolling. Your patience is appreciated. My patience is mandatory.