Tuesday, June 24, 2008

That's Disappointing

I like Ronny Cedeno. I have watched Ronny lock in for an at bat, fight off tough pitches and manage to squeeze in a base hit that was well-deserved. But his plate appearance tonight in the ninth inning against Sherrill with the bases-loaded and nobody out was pathetic. I would certainly not have done any better, but I am not a paid professional baseball player, and for a major leaguer swinging at two balls over your head against a pitcher struggling to find the plate in that situation is almost unforgivable. Eric Patterson may be substantially raising his trade value with his continued competent performance in the starting lineup, but any team considering picking up Mr. Cedeno ought to consider his time at the plate tonight when weighing his value.

Back in the Saddle II

I skipped the Italy-Spain match on Sunday to watch D.C. United take on the San Jose Quakes at RFK with some trepidation. If United regressed from its recent form, the frustration felt as an observer would have been augmented by the possibility of having missed an historic Spanish victory over the Azzurri.

When the game started, however, I was not terribly troubled by the decision. While I checked in back home for the status of the PKs, United's performance was enough to demand full attention. United are undefeated over their last five matches, having won four of those games, and have pulled themselves out of the cellar of the Eastern Conference. The results alone do not tell the tale of how the team has improved.

On Sunday, we watched what looked to be a comfortable backline of Namoff, McTavish, Peralta and Martinez protect a shaky Wells in goal. Wells' unfortunate bobbling of an easy ball denied the defense a well-deserved clean sheet, but other than at goal, the backs were incredible. Namoff chased down and won balls, tackled spiritedly, and effectively shut down one side of a pitch. With McTavish sacrificing in a move to center back, Peralta was able to mark any potential attackers for the Quakes and frustrate the hapless offensive assaults from San Jose. And then there was Gonzalo Martinez. Martinez's performance was a revelation. Freed from the obligations of a central defender, Martinez not only committed bone-crushing tackles, but presented a dangerous attacking option each and every time he was given space. D.C. United's second goal was simply brilliant. Martinez's maneuvers in the box to find space and then crack home a goal just inside the far post sent the crowd into delirium.

The settled back line, along with the continuing resurgence of a dangerous Luciano Emilio bode well for United as they move to SuperLiga play in July.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Events have conspired to prevent me from attending many live sporting events in the last month. No more evenings at Nationals stadium, half-paying attention to the events on the field; no quick trips out to see the Baysox (either for Bark in the Park or to take up our preferred seats on the first base line next to the bullpen); no use of the ill-conceived season ticket subscriptions to Crystal Palace USA (indeed, I have yet to set foot on UMBC's campus); nor any sojourns to the SoccerPlex to spectate Real Maryland or the Washington Freedom; and, most of all, no metro ride down to RFK to witness the resurgence of Emilio and DC United. While I hope to be able to catch the Quakes-United clash Sunday afternoon, I am not too terribly disappointed with my own state of affairs. First, the change in status (parenthood) is most welcome. Second, the paternity leave that has become available has corresponded with ESPN's broadcast of Euro 2008, innumerable World Cup qualifiers throughout the Americas, and a thoroughly entertaining Cubs season, all presented in the comfort of my living room.

The matches in the Euro 2008 that we've witnessed have exceeded all expectations, culminating in the insane quarterfinal match this afternoon between Turkey and Croatia. Going into the game, Croatia's run was nothing short of impressive -- humbling Austria, Poland, and Germany in the group stage. Truth be told, to the extent rooting interests were held, we were behind the Croats, with their picnic table strip and Kranjcar marauding near the Turkish goal. Further, for 115 minutes, there was little of distinction in the match, particularly in light of the proceedings the evening prior between Germany and Portugal. But, given what happened afterwards, who cares what the rest of the match looked like (the words "putrid" and "insufferable" leap immediately to mind)?

For my purposes, setting aside the terrific equalizer and horrific Croatian shots from the spot, the tale of the match was a single, solitary, silly blunder -- the pass that led to the offsides call resulting in Rustu's free kick. The moment it happened, my jaw dropped in disbelief. Given the limited injury time, why would the ball not simply be drilled down the length of the field? What was to be gained from an outlet pass to two streaking Croatian players when the winning goal had already been accomplished? Whatever else one might say about the match, there can be no question that if the ball was simply booted to the touch line, the game would conclude one-nil and Croatia would be preparing to beat Germany a second time. Given the circumstances, I was surprised by the lack of comment on this stupendous error. ESPN shot right by the correct offsides call and repeatedly went directly to Rustu's free kick, as if it could not have been avoided.

However many times the Turks are derided as lucky for their history in the tournament to date, there would not have been any opportunity to have moved on if not for a simple mistake that wiped out the gift that Rustu's wanderings had provided Croatia. Whatever the cause, the Turks capitalized and for a team that does not play an attractive style of football (I can't even watch Altintop play for Bayern Munich without grumbling), they have certainly made me a fan.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Much Respect Due

At the end of a short piece by Vaughn McClure on Kevin Jones' interest in playing for the Bears (an interest that I hope is reciprocated by the team), the Chicago Tribune noted that individual tickets for Bears games will go on sale through Ticketmaster on July 12th. Price? $68 to $350 per game. Though it is steep, I will (again) be tempted to venture out to Chicago this season for a game. In addition to their NFC North rivals, the Bears will also host the Buccaneers, Eagles, Titans, Jaguars, and Saints this season.

While I doubt that the team will be any good this season -- the turnover on the offensive side of the ball alone is staggering -- there is much that warrants the continuation of the annual pilgrimage to Soldier Field. For instance, rather than thinking about Ron Turner and descending into a white hot seething rage, it is useful to perhaps pause on the nice story that Marcus Robinson presented earlier this week. Robinson returned to the Bears to officially retire from football and, in his final press conference as an NFL player, explained "This is where I started. This is where I always wanted to end. I live here. This is my home." I would hope that most Bears fans share the same sentiments: Mr. Robinson was a tremendous Bear who had one glorious and wholly unexpected season for the team (1,400 yards and 9 TDs in 1999), who we were all sad to see hurt, and found it somewhat difficult to cheer against him when he was in a Vikings uniform. An undrafted player, Mr. Robinson did more in a Bears uniform than anyone reasonably expected. I proudly have a replica jersey of his hanging in my closet.

The warm memories rekindled by Mr. Robinson's return to Halas are further augmented by the fact that our receiving corps next year will feature Marty Booker, another overperforming, undrafted wideout who played opposite to Mr. Robinson in his final years in Chicago. Mr. Booker's first departure from the team was not amicable; he took shots at Lovie Smith and Jerry Angelo on his way to Miami. But Mr. Booker, like Mr. Robinson, were beloved Bears -- the perfect antidote to the malady of players like Cedric Benson who neither loved Bears' fans nor were loved by them. In return trips home, I have found myself consistently amused by the poster of Marty Booker prominently displayed in my wife's favorite Chicago pizza joint. Now the display seems particularly apt. For both Mr. Robinson and Mr. Booker, the city simply has been waiting for them to return home. Welcome back.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


I have been collecting baseball cards since I was a small child in the western suburbs of Chicago. As I have grown older, my collection of Cubs' cards has grown and required some careful consideration as to how I both maintain and display these prize possessions. They are in five notebooks: one for current players on this season's squad; one for Cubs' players who came up through the team's farm system (inspired, in part, by Joseph Bosco's The Boys Who Would Be Cubs); one of Cubs players from other farm systems; one for those Cubs who I consider to be the best to have ever put on a uniform; and one for Cubs players that had an exemplary single season for the team or were simply one of my favorites. The cards, in many ways, require a readjustment of my personal memories and countenance a more nuanced understanding of my visceral likes and dislikes of certain players. For example, Glenallen Hill has been, and remains, one of my favorite Cubs players, but his baseball card reminds me that, at least statistically, there is not much that makes him stand out in the annals of club history. In contrast, Les Lancaster -- who otherwise sported a career 4.00 ERA as a spot starter and middle reliever -- had an outstanding '89 season that, following the starting pitching performances of Greg Maddux, Rick Sutcliffe, Mike Bielecki, and Scott Sanderson, led to the team's second postseason appearance in my lifetime. Lancaster posted a 1.36 ERA for that team, giving up a mere 11 earned runs in 72 and 2/3 innings.

In any event, outside of the unwarranted fascination in the statistics of middle relievers, obsessively organizing the cards focuses attention on what appear to be statistical anomalies that jump out. As I watched Ryan Dempster win his eighth game of the season last night, I was reminded of one particular statistic that has always amazed me: the dearth of 20-game winners for the Cubs. This season, Dempster has already racked up 8 wins in 14 starts and Zambrano's managed 8 in 15 starts. Assuming a season of 34 or 35 starts, Dempster and Zambrano are on the cusp of potential 20 win seasons. Neither are likely to get to that landmark and another season where a Cubs starter failed to reach 20 wins will not be remarkable. The dearth of 20-game winners in modern baseball is a phenomenon commented on by numerous others, but, for the Cubs, it is particularly impressive given the talent that the team has had in its rotation over the last few decades. Since I was born, the Cubs have had three pitchers who reached the 20 win plateau in a season -- and each only managed to do it once. The immortal Rick Reuschel went 20 and 10 in 37 starts (252 innings pitched) in 1977 (he also managed 19 wins for the Giants in 1988, at 39 years of age). Greg Maddux managed 20 wins just once as a Cub, winning 20 games while losing 11 in 35 starts (268 innings pitched) in 1992 (he won another 20 for the Braves in 1993; thank you Larry Himes). After Maddux won 20 in 1992, only one other Cub pitcher has hit that mark -- the once and future Cub Jon Lieber won 20 in his incredible 2001 campaign when Lieber went 20 and 6 in 34 starts (232 innings pitched). In the 35 seasons stretching back to 1973, then, only three Cubs pitchers have won 20 games in a single season (to be fair, Rick Sutcliffe won 20 combined with the Indians and Cubs in 1984 but, for whatever reason, I don't recognize this as a 20 win season for a Cubs pitcher). In the six seasons between 1967 and 1972, Ferguson Jenkins won 20 games in a season as a Cub six times (and Bill Hands won 20 in 1969 as well). Now certainly Jenkins and Hands were part of an era where starting pitchers were used more and, most seasons, a good starter might be handed 38 to 42 starts. But that does not completely explain away Jenkins' achievements, since in 1972 he won 20 while starting 36 games (289 innings pitched).

But if there are not generally 20-game winners in the major leagues, why is it noteworthy that the Cubs do not have many? It may simply be my inflated sense of the Cubs' past pitching staffs, but I am at a loss to explain why the team does not boast more. Former Cub Jamie Moyer has won at least 20 twice in his career, both times with Seattle (in 2001 and 2003). Tom Glavine won at least 20 games for the Braves five times (1991, 1992, 1993, 1998 and 2000). Even the Chicago White Sox have had nine 20-game win seasons from their pitchers since 1973 (Jim Kaat in 1973 and again in 1974; Wilbur Wood had 24 wins in both those same years; Jack McDowell in 1992 and 1993; Richard Dotson had 22 wins and Lamarr Hoyt had 24 wins in 1983, when I spent considerable time at "old" Comiskey; and Esteban Loaiza did it most recently in 2003). That the White Sox have had three times the number of 20 game winners in the last 35 years is mind boggling.

The Cubs' relative drought with respect to this single statistic is unlikely to end this season (although I am slightly more confident that other, more important, droughts may come to a close in 2008), but Dempster's and Zambrano's success so far this year are slightly more compelling given the few Cubs that have achieved the single season glory that both have an outside chance at obtaining this year.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Back in the Saddle

A quick note on tonight's impressive away victory over the Chicago Fire: I have, unfortunately, found it difficult of late to drag myself down to RFK to watch the sorry performances that DC United has managed against far less talented opponents. I tuned into Fox Soccer Channel tonight half expecting University of Maryland alum Stephen King to run roughshod over disinterested visitors. Instead, to my pleasant surprise, I was treated to an inspired performance featuring long, threatening runs by Gonzalo Martinez, skillful handling by Clyde Simms, Jaime Moreno, and Marcelo Gallardo (who unfortunately allowed himself to be baited into a red card), and the resurgence of one Luciano Emilio.

DC's poor run of play has drawn substantial scrutiny for the former FC Koln prospect. To my shame, I have found myself questioning whether the 20 goals netted by Mr. Emilio last season were some type of fluke that unreasonably raised expectations on the team. And yet, tonight, while in mid-sentence attempting to explain to my wife why I believed that Luciano had lost touch, he took a ball at the top right hand corner of the goal box, attacked and broke down two Fire defenders while avoiding a third, and forced Jon Busch to redirect a shot right down to Jaime Moreno's foot for the equalizer. For the next half hour, Emilio was in impeccable form, culminating in an injury time run down the left side of the pitch where he single-handily broke the Fire's back on an impressive shot to the corner of the goal. Good times may be here again.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Political Animal

"Politics, at its best, is about bringing people together for the common good."
Sen. Chuck Hagel, America: Our Next Chapter

For residents of DC, the contrast between the performance to be staged in this city tomorrow at the National Building Museum and the performance staged outside a Marriott in Woodley Park last Saturday is likely to be remarkable. Another piece, perhaps, of absurdist theater as a parting gift to what is left of the Democratic Party.

I am looking forward to the turning of the proverbial page. The analogies and metaphors employed to describe political campaigns aside, politics is not a sport. Sports are designed to produce winners and losers -- indeed, there would be no point to a contest if there was not, ultimately, a defined winner and loser (whether determined in a single match or determined by where you are on the table at the end of the season). Politics can certainly be reduced to such a calculus. Government can be used to reward one's allies and punish one's enemies. Ultimately, however, this is not the government envisioned by the civics and history classes that enfranchised most American school children. The belief in government derives from a deeply held American faith that, however flawed, the convening of disparate (sometimes warring) viewpoints within a structured form of republican government can lead, through some magic formula, to a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The use of sport as a contextual tool to understand developments in political campaigns, then, demeans the process. Rather than focus on whether a particular candidate would be an exceptional public servant or whether a candidate will be able to effectively govern, we are immersed in analysis that tells us whether a candidate's campaign team has out-manuevered or out-performed their opponents' campaign teams. And certainly this is important -- after all, one must win an election to be an elected official -- but it is not the alpha and omega of campaigning.

A common derision aimed towards Senator Obama, particularly by supporters of Senator Clinton, is that Senator Obama has no record to support claims that he will bring a new style of governance to the White House. Scott McClellan's recent publicity (humility) tour for his recent book draws further attention to the criticism insofar as Mr. McClellan describes his disillusionment borne from an inexperienced political figure who promised widespread bipartisan appeal only to fail spectacularly and further drive a wedge between the two parties in this city. However, this criticism of Sen. Obama, I believe, is a creature of the failure to conceive of the Democractic party primary as anything other than sport. Chris Matthews famously harangued Texas state senator Kirk Watson over his inability to name Sen. Obama's legislative accomplishments in what was apparently brilliant television, but in the many hours that I have been subjected to Matthews' commentary, I have never once heard him try to inform his audience of Sen. Obama's accomplishments. That, apparently, is not brilliant television. It does not, then, seem terribly surprising that the conception that Sen. Obama is a blank slate, a political novice, has seen such widespread acceptance.

Reading Senator Hagel's most recent book, the Senator briefly discusses his work with Sen. Obama to enact nuclear non-proliferation legislation. Senator Hagel's discussion of the bill fills only a paragraph and while Sen. Hagel profusely praises Senator Biden in discussing a trip the two took to Northern Iraq, no similar fulsome complimentary words are thrown Senator Obama's way. Moreover, it is, perhaps, not remarkable that a Democrat is working with Senator Hagel, given his outspoken criticism of our current Administration. However, working with Senator Coburn, particularly on improving government transparency and accountability is remarkable. These two examples don't overcome the criticism of a thin record, but what they do is provide an indication of why some Republicans (like, for example, well, me) have crossed over and thrown their support behind someone who seems to be willing to listen to other viewpoints and, perhaps, bring people together for the common good.

Now, certainly, the sport coverage aspect of campaign coverage has been utilized masterfully by Senator Obama's campaign, as the underdog, david vs. goliath, narrative has controlled for the entirety of the primary season, increasing interest and the level of commitment in his campaign. But perhaps now is the time to spend some time for us to ponder how either of the two Senators running for President may govern rather than how they might win. But perhaps not.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Building Ties

I grew up as a rabid fan of the Cubs and Bears (eventually adding the Bulls to that group later in childhood) largely as a product of the western suburb culture of Chicago. My neighbors were Cubs and Bears fans; our local Catholic parish priest would provide updates on Bears' scores during mass and during the 1984 NLCS against the Padres, to prevent widespread absences from our elementary school, the administrators decided to set up a tv in the gymnasium so we could all watch a day game in Wrigley. However, I never had a connection to the players per se. I had never obtained an autograph from a Cubs player in all the time I spent at Wrigley; the only football game I ever saw in Soldier Field featured the USFL's Chicago Blitz and not the NFL's Bears; and to the extent there was any personal relationship, my sisters and I once met Wilber Marshall at a Sears where he was signing autographs. That was it. My loyalty to these teams was unrelated to the players or their personas; it was, instead, a connection to other fans.

Now, in my thirties, I have taken advantage of the opportunity to experience another side of being a fan. Spring trainings and frequent road trips to see these teams play has built a connection both with the franchises and the players that people them. When Carlos Marmol is dominating on the mound, I can turn to my wife or sister and remind them of watching him pitch in a AAA spring training game against the Brewers and the quick exchange we had as he signed a baseball and demonstrated his command of the english language.

The remoteness of fan from player seemed perfectly natural as a kid. As a fan of a "big" club, one was simply just another face in a crowd of 30,000 or more. There's nothing wrong with it and the distance certainly never impacted the rabid nature of my affinity for the teams. Nevertheless, I find everyday things like shopping at the same Babies R' Us as Coach Brenda Frese, eating lunch a table away from Greg Maddux and David Wells, playing golf at the same tournament as former Nationals reliever T.J. Tucker, and hanging out with NFL players at charity events at Union Station to be no less thrilling than when I got the attention of one of the Bears' outside linebackers for thirty seconds as a nine year old (only I am old enough and wise enough to recognize how pathetic this all is). For these reasons, I love being a fan of D.C. United.

On Sunday, for the second year in a row, we went to D.C. United's "meet the team day" at RFK. The first year we went, I spent much of the time embarrassed about how excited I was just to be there standing in front of a number of players that I paid significant sums of money to watch run around a field chasing down a spherical object. This year, with last year's experience behind me, I was much more able to enjoy just being there. In particular, I was in a far better position to appreciate how much children enjoyed the opportunity to make a connection, however brief, with D.C. United's squad. The attendance -- and patience -- of the players was impressive. Attitudes are generally great and some of the players seem to genuinely enjoy the chance to interact with fans. Marcello Gallardo, Jaime Moreno, Gonzalo Martinez, Franco Neill, Jeremy Barlow, James Thorpe, Mike Zaher, Ben Olsen, Santino Quaranta, Luciano Emilio, Fred, Jeff Carroll, Pat Carroll, Jose Carvallo, Ryan Coredeiro, Rod Dyachenko, Zach Wells, Marc Burch, Dan Stratford, Quavas Kirk, Domenic Mediate, Devon McTavish, Bryan Namoff, Clyde Simms, Coach Tom Soehn, Coach Chad Ashton and Coach Mark Simpson made themseleves available for three hours and tolerated all reasonable requests from fans in attendance. Only Francis Doe, Gonzalo Peralta (for good reason), and Dane Murphy were not in attendance.

The three hours these players spent, even if only for a few hundred fans, clearly has an important impact on many of the children in attendance. For me, on the verge (precipice) of starting my own family, I am an even more committed season ticket holder because of the promise of one day bringing my daughter to a "meet the team day" event. Sunday was a credit to the organization, D.C. United's players, and D.C. United's fans and I am very appreciative of having had the opportunity to once again participate.