Archive for March, 2006

Baseball Is Back. But Is It Better Than Ever?
March 31, 2006

So baseball is back, albeit embroiled in yet another public relations disaster. But we’re not surprised. Baseball has the worst public image in sports and probably the worst public image in business except for ImClone, Tyco, and Enron, and those folks who make Starburst. (OK, that last one is personal — I’m still upset about the discontinuation of the lime flavor.)

Here we are on the brink (or cusp if you prefer) of Opening Day, and what story is dominating the sports pages and sports blogs like this one? Not which team is most improved, which team is going to win it all, which division is the toughest, or even which side is to blame in the Kris Benson/Anna Benson divorce. No, everyone’s talking steroids. Again.

What’s worse than this “new” investigation is the fact that yet again commissioner Bud Selig seems to be taking action not because he’s passionate about baseball or about cleaning up the game but because he’s being publicly shamed into it. And by another book. Last year it was Jose Canseco’s, this year it’s Game of Shadows, the new tell-all by two San Francisco Chronicle reporters that details BALCO’s infiltration into America’s Pastime.

Selig reminds me of the married guy who, after being caught cheating, is dragged on the Dr. Phil show by his wife in a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage. The embarrassed guy sulks, avoids eye contact, and generally accepts his verbal beating by Dr. Phil and his blood-hungry, largely-female audience. Inevitably, Phil M.D. says to the guy, “You’re not sorry you cheated. You’re sorry you got caught.” Selig isn’t sorry he’s spent years avoiding the issue of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. He’s just sorry he got caught.

For the good of baseball, Selig needs to resign. That would be much better for the game than anything this latest investigation could uncover.

I’ll be back on Monday with my fearless predictions for both the 2006 MLB season and the men’s championship game. But for now — look for George Mason — yes, George Mason — and UCLA to win Saturday night.

Badger Hockey, The IRL, and George Mason: The Good, the Bad, and the Favorites To Win It All?
March 28, 2006

With apologies to Larry King and Hank Kingsley, here are my thoughts from a busy sports weekend . . .

As memorable as Sunday night’s UW men’s hockey game was, you have to wonder if that is the kind of contest that will have a positive impact on the overall popularity of the program. Casual Badger fans will likely take the fact that over 100 minutes of game time elapsed before any scoring occurred as validation that they’ve made the right decision to not follow hockey with the same enthusiasm they do football and basketball. (Although during the Dick Bennett era, it sometimes seemed as if the basketball team would go 100 minutes between scores . . .)

For those who watched or attended, however, the game was simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating, as was watching the women’s hockey team bring home their first national championship. Talk about a shot in the arm for a program that many are still only peripherally aware of. Here’s hoping that the University can cash this championship season in for years of heightened interest and popularity (to hopefully coincide with more titles!). Obviously, the time to sell the Badger faithful on women’s hockey is now.

Regarding the horrific accident that killed driver Paul Dana on Sunday while he was participating in warm-ups for the IRL’s season-opening race, what’s shocking is not that the accident occurred — I’m amazed that tragedies like that don’t happen more often given the nature of the sport — but that the subsequent race went on as planned. This tasteless decision to continue with business as usual despite knowing of Dana’s death prior to the scheduled start of the race reminds me of the World Wrestling Foundation’s equally atrocious decision to continue with a Pay Per View event even after wrestler Owen Hart had fallen to his death performing a stunt. I personally don’t consider racing any more of a sport than I do professional wrestling, and how the IRL handled itself after Dana’s death certainly did nothing to make my feelings of the “sport” any more positive. I’ll continue to be ignorant of it as long as IRL executives continue to be ignorant of basic human kindness and decency.

Since all but maybe four people in the country have had their brackets busted, George Mason has to be the heavy emotional favorite to win the NCAA men’s basketball championship. But I think they also have to be the flat-out, odds-on favorite to win the entire thing anyway. Who’s really going to pick against a team that has beaten tourney favorites (and winners of three of the last six championships) Michigan State, North Carolina, and Connecticut? Any fears that George Mason would eventually let up due to a sense of self-satisfaction at simply going further than they were supposed to go were dispelled after they beat UConn. They were simply better than UConn and there’s no reason to think they won’t be better than Florida, UCLA, or LSU.

As good a tournament as it’s been for George Mason, it’s been a bad one for CBS’s team of college basketball analysts. First Billy Packer’s rant against the number of mid-major schools securing invitations to the Big Dance was proven to be ridiculous as the likes of George Mason, Bradley, and Wichita State advanced into the Sweet Sixteen and beyond. Then Clark Kellogg’s assertion that this would be the first year that all number one-seeded teams would advance to the Final Four turned out to be completely laughable, as no number one-seeded teams advanced to the Final Four. Luckily for CBS, the excitement of another spectacular tournament has completely drowned out the ineptness of some of their commentators. Now if the network could get someone to drown out the ineptness of Ghost Whisperer . . .

64-48=Zero Big Ten Teams
March 21, 2006

So last time I tore myself away from watching “The Wonder Pets” on Nick Jr. long enough to write a blog entry, I gave detailed advice on how to succeed in your NCAA men’s basketball tournament office pool. Turns out I could have saved all of us a lot of time with this simple nugget of wisdom: Treat Big Ten teams like you do Rob Schneider movies, Jo-Ann Fabrics outlets, and vending machine sandwiches. In short, avoid them.

Fortunately for me, I didn’t trust the conference as much as many did, but I still had the Spartans, Buckeyes, and Illini in my sweet sixteen, with Tom Izzo’s team going to the Elite Eight. I correctly predicted Wisconsin’s defeat to Arizona — although the embarrassing beatdown the Badgers took was surprising — and foresaw Northwestern State upsetting Iowa. The only Big Ten squad to outperform my expectations was Indiana, who I didn’t see getting past San Diego State.

So what happened to the Big Ten? Was the conference so good (need I remind anyone that it had the highest RPI rating of any conference prior to the tournament?) that the teams simply tired of beating each other up for months on end and were exhausted come tournament time? Or has the conference taken an incredible dive just one year after placing three teams in the Elite Eight and two in the Final Four?

Well, I don’t buy that first argument. All teams have to battle fatigue come March Madness, and good teams — the single-seeded ones, which all the Big Ten teams were — don’t forget how to play lesser teams. They simply beat them.

And I don’t buy the overnight demise of the Big Ten either: Despite what Billy Packer says, there is an increasing degree of parity in college basketball, as power conference teams see more and more players leaving school early to begin NBA careers and mid-major conference teams are able to keep more and more juniors and seniors on their roster.

Also, as everyone knows, the one-and-done nature of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is tailor-made for upsets. Even considering the convincing manner with which Georgetown dispensed of Ohio State, I would still bet on the Buckeyes to prevail in a best-of-five series.

So with the increasing parity of Division I men’s basketball and the single-game elimination structure of the tournament — elements that combine to make March Madness one of the best sporting events of the year if not the best — it’s not completely surprising that one power conference could be so decimated. Next March we could just as easily be talking about the downfall of the SEC or the ACC and the reemergence of the Big Ten.

Or maybe one Monday night in April in the not-too-distant future we’ll be previewing an all-SWAC Championship Game. Alcorn State vs. Prairie View A&M, perhaps? Ridiculous? Not any more ridiculous than imagining just a few days ago a Sweet Sixteen with George Mason, Wichita State, and Bradley, and without Michigan State, Illinois, and North Carolina. March has a way of making the ridiculous reality.

Face It. You’re Going To Lose Your Office Pool.
March 15, 2006

I’m excited. And not just because Todd Rundgren has joined with the members of The Cars who are either not producing Weezer albums (Ric Ocasek) or dead (Benjamin Orr) to form something unimaginatively named “The New Cars.” (Although I am a little excited about that.)

Sidebar: I was introduced to Todd Rundgren by a boss I had when I was 17. I never became a Rundgren fanatic, but I own several of his CDs and anytime I hear his name or music I am immediately transported back to my halcyon days of working the box office at Movies at Burnsville II in Burnsville, Minnesota. I realize this means nothing to most of you, but my life without that year would be like The Price is Right without Bob Barker or The Cars without Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr.

It’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament time. It’s time to stop pretending to work and fill out your bracket, probably on company time. (To be followed by two days of following games on-line or on your cell phone, also probably on company time. Come to think of it, the opening Thursday and Friday of March Madness are two of the most unproductive days of the year for most male workers, perhaps topped only by the day that the annual Maxim 100 Sexiest Women list is released. Oh, how the debate can rage on that day. Personally, I don’t know how they can always leave off Joan Rivers.)

Most columnists will take some time this week to tell you how to fill out your bracket: Remember that a 12 seed will always beat a 5 seed, no Final Four has ever consisted of four number one seeds, guard play is key, yada yada yada.

I’m here to tell you that, while it’s fun to play — for recreational purposes only — chances are that by the time the field of Sweet Sixteen teams are set, your bracket is going to be messier than my father’s shirt after Barbeque night at the Old Country Buffet.

So here’s my advice: Take all of the teams seeded 13 and lower and bounce them immediately. Take the 12th seed that conjures up the most pleasant thoughts and pick them for an upset. (For me, that would be Montana, because it reminds me of the Big Montana sandwich at Arby’s.) Take the two eleventh-seeded teams that you can make the funniest-sounding anagrams with and take them to the next round (I like “Tease Gina’s Dot” for San Diego State.) In honor of former Minnesota Vikings great Fran Tarkenton, take all teams seeded number 10. In the eight/nine matchups, take the team playing closest to home and then pick the opposite team because as we all know, home court doesn’t mean what it used to mean.

For all subsequent rounds, take the team seeded higher, except when they play a team with a coach born in a leap year. When you get to the Final Four, make sure you don’t have more than two #1 seeded teams. If you do, immediately replace one of them with last year’s women’s NIT champion. For the championship, go with Duke, North Carolina, or Connecticut, whichever of the three teams has student athletes with the highest grade point average in classes meeting in the afternoon on alternate Wednesdays.

Should you follow this advice, you’ll probably wind up right where you would have anyway in your office pool. Just out of the money. But should a miracle happen and you actually do well, my advice would be to take your winnings and buy a Todd Rundgren CD, preferably Something/Anything? You’ll thank me later.

Culpepper Catastrophe
March 10, 2006

There is an NFL quarterback for an NFC North team that is causing major offseason headaches for his team and its fans. And no, I’m not talking about Brett Favre. The understandable indecision coming from Favre over whether to retire or not looks very minor compared to the wacko behavior coming out of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper.

At the time of this writing, it appears that the Vikings have had enough of Culpepper’s increasingly bizarre antics and have decided to trade him before free agency begins at 12:01 AM Saturday. The team likely to acquire Culpepper appears to be Oakland, where Culpepper would be reunited with former Viking teammate and fellow headcase Randy Moss. Not only does it make sense for Al Davis to reunite the Culpepper-Moss combination, but it is logical for the Raiders to take on Daunte. The Raiders are, afterall, probably the only team more consistently dysfunctional than Minnesota.

Imagine that you flip burgers for a fast-food restaurant with locations nationwide. Now imagine — and this is the fun part — that you were involved in an incident in which you and several of your co-workers ALLEGEDLY participated in public sex acts with strippers flown in from out of town. The incident results in your company being the butt of jokes from coast to coast. Now imagine that you accidentally burn yourself on the french fryer and are unable to flip burgers for a year. Do you think that you would have the cajones to ask for a significant raise? Do you think you would have the cajones to ask for that signficiant raise on three different occasions? Of course not. But that’s just what Daunte Culpepper has done following his ALLEGED involvement in the Vikings sex boat scandal and his subsequent major knee injury when he failed to slide before being tackled during a October 30 loss at Carolina.

It’s not just the wrong-headed demands for more money after a horrendous injury and weeks of truly awful play that have the Vikings and their fans prepared to throw Culpepper overboard. It’s his decision to rehabilitate his injury in Florida and not in Minnesota, a decision that has cost him a chance to make nice with the Vikings’ new coach. He has also made the questionable decision to fire his agent and, with no training in such matters, represent himself. His ridiculous contractual demands and moronic public statements since that decision have underscored what a disasterous mistake that was.

In the latest in a series of e-mails sent to the media, Culpepper makes it clear that information he’s received from an “outside source” has led him to demand a trade or release from Minnesota. It’s funny that he’s relying on an “outside source” since earlier he unleashed rage on “people with knowledge of the situation” and “anomymous sources” who had been spectulating that he was about to be traded.

Those sources now appear to be correct, as a trade appears eminent. Viking fans are likely to sigh “good riddance,” and turn their attention to Brad Johnson, Brad Childress, Brad Pitt, Brad Paisley, Brad Garrett, or anyone that can help them forget Culpepper. Packer fans unfortunately will lament the Vikings ridding themselves of another instable influence and will turn their attention to their own star making trouble in Green Bay. And no, I’m not talking about Brett Favre. I’m talking about Javon Walker.

Tourney Time
March 8, 2006

It’s here. Time to inform the spouse, kids, and pets that it’s been nice knowing them, but you won’t be able to see them much for the next four weeks. Turn off the cell phone, stop answering the e-mails, and bolt the door. It’s NCAA basketball tournament time.

Actually, it’s Big Ten Tournament time, which is close enough for me. In college terms (and this is college basketball, after all), it’s the preparty to the party that is March Madness. (Do college students use that term anymore? Does that date me? Are the “kids” still into that “rap” music?) I know some complain that no matter what happens in the tourney, the true champion (this year it’s Ohio State) has already been crowned, and that the only interesting development that can come out of the tournament would be if one of the lower seeds won the whole thing and won a spot in the Big Dance. Not to mention that these are teams that have been playing each other repeatedly for the last two months already. I don’t care. Give me a Big Ten bracket and let me fill it out. Better yet, give me three brackets so I can fill ’em all out differently. I’m ready.

Although the matchups in the Big Ten tourney may not be unique, often the results are. Since its inception in 1998, only once have the first and second seeds played in the title game — in 2004, when your Wisconsin Badgers defeated top-seeded Illinois. Just last year, Iowa reached the semifinals as a number seven seed, and in 2003, Ohio State made the finals as the ninth seed. And despite the tournament’s short history, every team in the conference has won at least one game.

So, who do I, Jeff Robbins, participant in many and victor in zero bracket pools over the years, like in the tournament? Here’s how it shakes out:

Northwestern, Michigan, and Michigan State will win on Thursday. Ohio State, Indiana (sorry Badger fans), Iowa, and Illinois will win on Friday. Ohio State and Iowa will survive Saturday and Sunday will see Iowa as your Big Ten champion. Wait, that’s number one and number two playing in the title game. That (almost) never happens. I screwed something up. Give me another bracket.