Sunday, June 4, 2017

Roger's 18th

The first time I really started to think Roger Federer might be done winning majors was way back at the 2011 U.S. Open, when for the second year in a row Federer lost in the semifinals to Novak Djokovic after being on the brink of victory.

Of course, the very next summer Federer roared back to the pinnacle of the sport, winning Wimbledon for the seventh time, his 17th Grand Slam title.

But time doesn’t stop, and four and a half years after that Wimbledon triumph, I wondered if it was time to stop calling it Roger’s “most recent” major title and instead start calling it his last.

There was the challenging 2013 season when Federer started to seem old. But then came his switch to a larger racquet head and a resurgence in 2014. 
There were agonizing near misses; a gutting five-set loss to Djokovic in the 2014 Wimbledon final, a semifinal loss at the 2014 U.S. Open when the path seemed clear, four-set losses to Djokovic in the 2015 Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals.

I was thrilled to see my favorite athlete playing so well so late into his career, but it felt like the last sands were slipping through the hourglass. After a knee injury, Federer had a gasp-worthy fall to the Centre Court grass in the fifth set of the 2016 Wimbledon semifinal. It was a shocking fall for an athlete known for his graceful, gliding style, especially on grass. It felt like too perfect of a metaphor. The chorus of voices saying they didn’t think Roger would win an 18th major grew louder, understandably so.

He missed the rest of the 2016 season to rest the knee and rehab. I saw his notice announcing the time off while riding in a car near Yosemite National Park, in the Stanislas National Forest, and I was just glad it wasn’t a retirement notice.

Roger Federer is my favorite athlete of all time, and I don’t know that that will ever change.
Like so many fans, I’ve enjoyed the graceful, artistic, brilliant way Federer plays tennis, at his best seeming to float above the surface, hammering forehands and those work-of-art one-handed backhands. He was great, of course, ridiculously so, at one point making the final in 18 of 19 Grand Slams. But adding to that, he was a nice guy, a fierce competitor but a sportsman and an extremely decent human being, a family man who constantly offered to mentor and help younger players. He loves tennis, loves being Roger Federer, loves his hordes of fans. He was GQ’s 2016 most stylish man, but there’s always been an endearing goofiness about Roger, cracking up filming promos with Rafa Nadal, taking stabs at humor in post-match interviews, his obsession with emojis on social media.

Ah, social media. On New Year’s, Federer posted a tweet, saying goodbye to ’16, welcoming ’17, and saying he was hoping for 18. Accompanied, of course, by an upside down smiley face emoji.
For four and a half years, I’d been rooting desperately for Federer to win his 18th Grand Slam title, and I’m a little embarrassed to say the idea of it crossed my mind, however briefly, pretty much every single day during that stretch. When I run, I use mental tricks to keep going, and they are often tied to step counts and Federer’s major total, including imagined future triumphs, and the Grand Slam calendar. I also listen to music. In one song on my starred playlist, Bruce Springsteen sings, “So you’re scared and you’re thinking we aren’t that maybe we ain’t that young anymore; show a little faith there’s magic in the night…”

* * *

There would be magic at the 2017 Australian Open, the first major of the year.

Federer came in ranked 17th and hadn’t played since Wimbledon six months earlier. He later said just being there felt great, and a run to the quarterfinals would be a fantastic result.

He won in the first two rounds but didn’t look particularly great. But he was out there, playing and getting cheered.

Federer faced Tomas Berdych in the third round, a top-10 player and a real test. I was visiting a friend in Arizona, and I got up to check on the match only to see it was already over. Federer had destroyed Berdych in a rapid hour and a half. People raved that it was a vintage performance from Federer. So whatever happened, he’d had a good match Down Under.

In the fourth round, Fed faced another top-10 opponent, Kei Nishikori. Federer prevailed in five grinding sets, finding a way in the deciding fifth set as Nishikori faded.

Federer won in straight sets over Mischa Zverev in the quarterfinals, a welcome respite, and then survived another five-set classic in the semifinals against fellow Swiss Stan Wawrinka, his third win over a top-10 player in the tournament.

But there would be one more top-10 player to face in the final.

Rafael Nadal.

Roger and Rafa have engaged in a storied rivalry for over a decade now. Nadal has so often had the upper hand, a lefty hitting high topspin bouncing up high to Federer’s backhand, and playing with an unnerving tenacity. Of course, off of clay, Nadal’s best service, their rivalry was pretty even, but some of Federer’s biggest defeats had come against Nadal. In short, I’d rather Roger had faced about anyone else in the final. But it was Roger vs. Rafa Round 35, with enormous stakes. Both players were seeking to end long major title droughts, and the match would have a big impact for the endless Greatest Of All Time debate.

It was a little after 2:30 a.m. when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal began playing in the 2017 Australian Open men’s final, possibly the most anticipated tennis match of all time. It was the middle of the night, but I was too nervous to be sleepy.

Roger took the first set and we Federer fans around the world were fired up. Nadal roared back to win the second set and I started stress-eating Golden Oreos. Federer was brilliant in the third set, winning it 6-1, to take a two sets to one lead. But Nadal, ever competing, won the fourth set.

A fifth set to decide the title, to add to and alter legacies. The tension was crushing, almost paralyzing.

That fateful fifth set began like so many Federer-Nadal matches, with Rafa going into wall mode, just grinding and grinding and covering the entire court until his opponent has to crack. Nadal broke Federer’s serve to start the set. Federer put enormous pressure on Nadal’s first two service games, but the Spaniard was unyielding, stretching his lead to 3-1.

I was fairly distraught at the thought of having to stomach another stinging loss to Nadal.

Uh oh, here we go again…

But Federer went to work, holding serve to get to close within 3-2 and keep the scoreboard pressure on Nadal.

The first point of Nadal’s next service game was a long, bruising rally, the type Nadal so often has won to demoralize his opponent. Federer dug in. This time he wouldn’t yield, and finally won the point with a crushing cross-court backhand.

Roger had been playing aggressive tennis all tournament, stepping in closer to rob his opponent of split seconds. It was especially helpful against Nadal, as he was stepping in and smashing backhands before Nadal’s vaunted topspin rise could take as much effect. His biggest weakness against his biggest rival had become a devastating weapon.

Federe won the next point for a 0-30 lead as a Nadal forehand went into the net.

“Chum jetze!” Federer shouted, Swiss German for “Come on!”

Nadal saved a break point and even regained the lead in the service game, but Federer kept attacking fearlessly. Another smashing backhand to earn another break point. The crowd, lively all night, was getting louder and louder.

After failing to convert his first five break points of the set, Federer got the break on his sixth, and the match was back on serve, 3-3 in the fifth.

Federer held serve at love, with the crowd at Rod Laver Arena growing louder with each point: ace, winner at the net, serve winner, second serve ace. 4-3 Federer. Standing ovation at Rod Laver Arena, including Rod Laver himself.

Then came the game of the match, two legends on serve deep in the fifth set of a major final. Federer jumped to 0-30 lead with a brilliant point.

“Federer is flying around the court now!” ESPN announcer Chris Fowler said.

A double fault gave Federer a 0-40 lead, but Nadal showed his legendary competitiveness to get the game back to deuce.

Then came an interminable rally, Federer and Nadal racing around the court, Nadal’s shrieks reverberating, both players hitting remarkable shots. For 26-shots they battled before Federer reached out and flicked a forehand winner.

“You gotta love this!” Fowler shouted.

Nadal fought off a break point, but Federer forced another, and converted this one, digging deep. I leapt off the couch and shouted. 5-3.

After four and a half years, Roger Federer was serving for his 18th major.

It wouldn’t be easy. Not against a champion and a battler like Nadal.

Nadal took a 0-30 lead. Federer calmly boomed an ace up the middle to get it to 15-30. But then Nadal won the next point to set up two break points. Oh boy.

Roger drove another ace up the middle to save the first break point. Then he won a five-shot rally on a powerful forehand to save the other and get the match back to deuce.

“We are all really fortunate to be seeing this right now,” Fowler said.

Nadal saved one championship point, but on the second one Federer hit a great serve, raced toward the net, and then popped a forehand on the line for the championship. Nadal challenged but the replay showed it was on the line, and upon that ruling Federer jumped and shouted in pure joy, along with millions of his fans around the world, defying time zones to watch an enduring memory unfold. The crowd thundered and fists raised in triumph across the arena and around the world. At last!

“The remarkable Roger Federer!” Fowler said, nailing the call. "A victory has never been sweeter."

Roger had his 18th, in a match for the ages against his biggest rival, no less.

It was one of the best moments I’ve had as a sports fan, and a reminder to keep dreaming, to keep trying.

Roger was gracious after the match, saying he would’ve been happy to share the title with Nadal if such a thing were possible. You could sense the genuine admiration between the two old rivals. Months earlier they’d been hanging out at Nadal’s tennis academy, lamenting that they were too injured to even have a charity match. Now they had played an epic match in a Grand Slam final. Now the middle-aged father of four had turned back the clock, had become the oldest man in over 40 years to win a major, had found a little magic in that Australian night.

One last line from Federer after the match summed it up so well, a good reminder for the things we all want and chase.

“The moment when you wait for something for a long time, it feels that much better, doesn’t it?”

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Crossing

Okay, fine, I first checked it out for the girls, partially. I was bouncing about, hunting for a church in Columbia, and a college friend suggested the Crossing. Among other noble and interesting things about the church, he mentioned the girls.

The Crossing was and is, of course, full of beautiful and fantastic women. But I quickly noticed other things. Sermons where it felt like pastors were speaking right to my life. Music that stirred the soul. People of all stripes wanting to live for God.

There were certainly times growing up when church felt like a bit of a chore, but the Crossing was something I didn’t like missing. I brought the phrase “appointment television” or “appointment viewing” to my friend group. As in, when an event, usually sports, was so big that you blocked off time on the calendar to make sure you saw it. We usually use it sarcastically, when a game is ridiculously unimportant. But the Crossing actually felt like appointment viewing.

Along the way, slower than I’d like to admit, it became not just viewing, but participating. I joined a small group and loved it. I decided to take the Discovery Class to learn more about the church and eventually become a member.

One of the only other people I knew in the Discovery Class was a girl from my small group, and she liked to sit on the front row, so I sat on the front row. It was like having Keith Simon and Dave Cover talk in your living room while you sat on your couch, which feels fitting, as Dave used to live in the house where I now reside.

Toward the end of the class, Keith talked about serving in the church. He talked about the need to get involved, and the phrase “get your butt in the two-year-old room” of Crossing Kids stuck with me. They handed out cards where we could check areas we would be willing to serve. Buoyed by Keith’s bluntness and the person next to me checking they could serve in Crossing Kids, I took a leap and checked that box as well.

Having no discernible skills with kids, I told the staff to put me wherever they needed me, so I ended up in the Fourth Grade room.

Whatever personality type is not Type A is mine. I can often only hit the extremes of being socially reserved or saying whatever ridiculousness comes to mind. Stepping into big, new situations can be a nervy experience for me; big group 20-Somethings functions, my new small group, that Crossing Kids classroom. But all you can do is step out in faith, a super poor man’s Abraham leaving his home country and the familiar. I prayed God would put me to good use.

My Crossing Kids experience has been wonderful. I met fantastic people. I played Sorry and chess and remembered how marvelous Chutes and Ladders is. I chatted with kids about their faith and their lives and their schools and their families and their pets. I’ve had numerous chats with the boys about being a man, which is kind of preposterous.

A few months ago, I found myself teaching Psalm 23, talking about it with a table of kids. It struck me that older believers have been teaching younger believers this psalm for thousands of years. I hoped I wasn’t letting that chain of believers down.

Of course, I’ll freely admit in my Crossing experience I’ve been more of a learner than a teacher. I remember sermons about relationships and how we treat other people, and the focus was not on legalism but on treating people like they have a soul and are created in the image of God. I remember sermons about our longing for God, often without realizing it, and how we try to fill that void with all kinds of things. I remember sermons about doubts and struggles.

Last August, kicking off another school year, around which Columbia’s heart beats, the Crossing had another terrific service. The music team was on point, and Dave Cover preached a sermon titled “Intimately Acquainted” from Psalm 139.

“The same God who created the universe is intense and intentional about you and about every detail of your life,” he said.

Dave contrasted our plan for our lives vs. God’s plan; my chasing the wind for a wife and material riches and prestige contrasted with God leading me to what He wants. That one’s still a challenge.

Earlier this year, Keith Simon preached a sermon titled, “Jesus is the Light in a Dark World.” It was so powerful. Sometimes, a lot of times even, things don’t work out. But Jesus’ light shines on, pointing to hope and redemption.

I sometimes feel like I’m the last Christian who should be writing a blog post about faith, accustomed as I am with my own shortcomings. But God has so blessed me with the Crossing that I felt the need to write. I’ve met remarkable people there who make those delightful Sunday services happen and make the world a better, brighter, more beautiful place. I love my church home.

On Sunday, we ended the service with communion, a beautiful moment of orchestrated chaos as we all come forward. We sang “Every Hour I Need You” and “King of My Heart” during that time.

A refrain from the latter song stuck with me.

You’re never gonna let, never gonna let me down...

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Spartans and Hawkeyes

For hours, neither the Iowa Hawkeyes or Michigan State Spartans could score a touchdown in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. Twitter, ever-snarky, produced tweet after tweet saying this was a “typical game” for the supposedly offensively blunted Big Ten.

But even then it was riveting theater, as the teams traded field goals. Everything was on the line, a conference championship, a berth in the College Football Playoff, seasons for the ages for two proud programs.

Michigan State is a bruising, blue collar program that beat rival Michigan on a miracle play and then muscled past Ohio State to the top of the heap. Iowa’s schedule had been widely criticized as soft, but they had won every game by not beating themselves and competing relentlessly. Now they were proving themselves against an elite team.

Iowa led 6-3 at the half after a long Spartan field goal hammered off the crossbar, sending a booming sound throughout the stadium.

Michigan State kicked its way in front with two third quarter field goals, taking a 9-6 advantage into the final quarter. The game to this point had been gripping, but that had just set the table.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard heaved a deep pass, which cut through the air and into the hands of Hawkeye receiver Tevaun Smith, who raced free down the field for a stunning 85-yard touchdown. Watching the game in Columbia, Mo., I all but heard the roars from the delirious state to the north. 13-9 Hawkeyes.

The teams traded punts one more time, for old time’s sake.

Then Michigan State began a drive at its own 18 with 9:31 to go.

The Spartans converted a third down with a Connor Cook pass, and they were on the move. Slowly. Another third down, running back L.J. Scott got four yards when he needed three.

A replay review turned a catch into an incompletion, forcing a third third down situation, this one at the 50. Cook fired a pass to Aaron Burbridge, the receiver who had just had a catch taken away. Burbridge caught it and hung on despite a punishing hit from an Iowa defender.

First down Michigan State at the Iowa 34. The Iowa defense dug deep. The defense had been sound all year, but this second half had been a grinding test at the edge of a cliff. In the second half, Iowa would run no plays in Michigan State territory. However, the Spartans would run 30 plays in Iowa territory in that second half.

The Iowa defense was a chef preparing a world-class meal in a kitchen that was on fire. Still, they kept dishing out punishing hits, following their assignments, making the tackles.

Following the Burbridge catch, Michigan State began hammering away, running it 12 straight times, some by Cook but mostly L.J. Scott. The minutes slowly faded away. Everything was on edge.
Cook for seven yards. Scott for three yards. Scott for three yards. Scott for six yards. Scott for two yards on 3rd-and-1. Scott for three yards to the Iowa 10.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, resolute in his team keeping the Spartans out of the end zone, nevertheless began calling timeouts to preserve time for a rebuttal, always covering his bases just in case. He hammered away at the gum in his mouth, as he had all game. Whether it was to calm nerves or simply an outlet for intensity, his jaw churned endlessly.

Scott for five yards. Scott for no gain on third down. 4th-and-2 at the Iowa 5. Everything on the line. The tension was unbelievable.

After Iowa’s third and final timeout, Cook ran it on an option keeper on fourth down. Right at the line to gain an Iowa defender smashed into him. Cook was driven to the turf right at the line. The refs measured... first down. After 19 plays, the drive was still on. Less than two minutes to go.

First and goal from the Iowa 3. The Hawkeyes, winners all year, were in a dire spot. Some sportswriters on Twitter said Iowa should maybe let Michigan State score so they could have time to respond. But Iowa’s offense had mostly struggled in the second half against the steel Spartan defense, and Kirk Ferentz and his Iowa Hawkeyes weren’t going to simply let any opponent in. They would have to earn it. The game would be decided here and now.

Ferentz looked out at his gallant, probably exhausted defense, like a father looking at his sons. His face was etched with reminders of the effort big-time college coaches pour into their craft. He kept pounding the gum. Making eye contact with his team, he made fists with both hands and lightly shook them at his sides. It was the understated, Midwestern way of standing on box and shouting through a megaphone to leave it all on the field.

On the other sideline, Spartan coach Mark Dantonio stared at the action. He had built and built and built Michigan State. Despite his stern exterior, he is a man capable of transformative smiles. But not now. His face was also etched with hard lines, his stare carrying a ferocity. He seemed unblinking.

First and goal. Scott, on his 12th carry of the drive, slammed ahead with all the force and fury he had. The Iowa defense stopped him just short of the goal line, after a gain of two yards.

Second and goal. Scott, on his 13th carry of the drive, slammed ahead with all the force and fury he had. The Iowa defense stopped him just short of the goal line. Less than a minute to go.

Third and goal. Scott, on his 14th carry of the drive, slammed ahead with all the force and fury he had. The Iowa defense stopped him just short of the goal line.

But not quite. After the initial stuff, Scott, kept surging forward, sliding off one, two, three, four would-be tacklers, finally in desperation sticking the ball where he could not get his body, across the line into the end zone.

Touchdown.

The Michigan State fans erupted. There were no longer seats, rows and aisles, just one jubilant, tumultuous mass of green and white and noise.

It was a drive for the ages. 22 plays, nine minutes, touchdown for a 16-13 lead with the season and the conference title and the playoff hanging in the balance, against a defense making a courageous stand.

Iowa’s final frantic effort with the remaining 27 seconds didn’t go very far. The Spartans had won.

Whether it mattered to the Hawkeyes or not, they finally had widespread national respect, having gone down to the wire against one of the nation’s best teams. As the Iowa players gathering in the corner of the field to jog to the locker room together, the Iowa fans stood and cheered and applauded, on and on, thanking their players for the remarkable season.

Michigan State was moving on to the College Football Playoff, and Iowa to the Rose Bowl. Both teams, and the Big Ten in general, had put on a show, a battle of wills, college football at its finest. In the end, it was anything but a typical game.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The night the Royals won the World Series



On Nov. 1, I settled in to watch the Royals try to win the World Series. I sat on a blue couch, wore a blue Royals shirt, and kept my blue Royals hat within arm’s reach. I had loved the Royals even though they were pretty awful for all my life, like you might love an ugly dog. But over the last 15 months they were a juggernaut. It was bizarre and wonderful. The Mets started Matt Harvey in Game 5, and he was cruising, hanging up zero after zero. The Mets led 2-0. Perhaps the series was going back to Kansas City.

It was August of 2005. I was about to embark on a major change in life, going off to college. The Royals lost 19 games in a row. I remember listening to a game in the upstairs of the house where I grew up, and Denny Matthews saying Chip Ambres had dropped a routine fly ball that would’ve ended the streak. It was all ridiculous. 

Initially it appeared Mets manager Tony Collins would take Harvey out of the game after eight scoreless innings, but Harvey pretty much refused. Collins let him go back out. Leading off was Lorenzo Cain. The Royals offense hadn’t done much all night, but Cain churned out a walk, and then stole second. Hosmer then belted a double to left and Cain raced home. 2-1. The Royals had life.

It was September 30, 2014. Maybe the best game I’ve ever seen in person, the AL Wild Card game. Three times the Oakland A’s took the lead, and three times the Royals rallied, twice when they had to score a run or the season was over. The Royals won in 12 innings, near midnight, with Kauffman Stadium roaring. That launched a remarkable postseason run that didn’t end until the unyielding Madison Bumgarner shut the Royals down to win Game 7. It was epic theater to be there, but it was crushing. They’d been so close, and there were no guarantees they’d ever get there again.

After Hosmer’s hit, Mike Moustakas grounded out to first, moving Hosmer to third with one out. Salvador Perez hit a grounder to third. As soon as the Mets’ third basemen threw to first for the out, Hosmer charged home like a madman. It was an audacious move, and Lucas Duda’s throw home was wild and Hosmer slid in safely. My shouts could presumably be heard all over northwest Columbia. Tie game. Extra innings.

It was June 6, 2006. I was raking hay on my parents’ East Farm, listening to Sports Radio 810. It was the day of baseball’s draft, and the Royals had the first pick. They seemed to be a franchise that had reached its Armageddon. Operating without a general manager (Dayton Moore had been named but supposedly wasn’t involved in the draft), picking on 6-6-6, the Royals took Luke Hochevar, a pitcher who had thrown a year in independent ball the year before. He was historically bad as a starting pitcher, just abysmal. Still, he kept digging. The Royals tried him as a reliever in 2013, and he was terrific. But then he was injured for the season heading into 2014. A devastated Hochevar said he was sad he couldn’t be involved in the celebratory dogpile at the end of the season. I thought that was kind of a crazy thing to say. That fall, the Royals had a celebratory dogpile as American League champions. Only the Giants and Bumgarner kept it from being a World Series champions dogpile. 

Luke Hochevar trotted out of the bullpen to pitch the 10th inning of a tied World Series game. He threw two scoreless, hitless innings. To the 12th inning the game went, still tied 2-2.

It was December 19, 2010. The Royals’ best pitcher, Zack Greinke, asked the team to trade him, basically because they were bad and he was tired of pitching for a constantly rebuilding team. He wanted to win. Among the four players the Royals got were shortstop Alcides Escobar and centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, starters in the 2014 and 2015 World Series. A Royals broadcaster once said he would be a special player, and I ranted to my friend Caleb Barron at a Royals game in early 2014 that he had been anything but a special player so far. Since then he has indeed been special. 

It was November 1, 2015. The 12th inning of World Series Game 5 was full Royals. Perez singled. Jarrod Dyson, a 50th round pick, pinch ran. He stole second and then went to third on an Alex Gordon groundout. Then with Dyson at third and one out, Christian Colon, batting for the first time in about a month, lined a single to left with two strikes to put Kansas City ahead. The slow drip of the Royals offense continued. A Mets error. An Escobar double to make it 4-2. The versatile, incredible Ben Zobrist was intentionally walked. With the bases loaded, that special player, Lorenzo Cain, hammered a double to clear the bases. 7-2 Royals. Start the party. The overwhelming Wade Davis closed things out in the bottom of the 12th, and the Royals were World Series champions. Hochevar was the winning pitcher. I was on sensory overload, watching and listening to the FOX broadcast of the final outs while also listening on my phone to Denny Matthews and Ryan Lefebvre call it on the radio. I’d imagined the Royals winning the World Series many times through the years, but none of it prepared me for that moment when they actually did it. I was stunned, euphoric, and so proud of Kansas City and its Royals.

There were so many great memories from this championship season. They came flooding back that night, along with memories through my decades as a baseball fan. Going to my first game of 2015 with my mom and dad and sister. Going to a game with Caleb Barron before he moved to Arizona, a far cry from the awful game in 2012 the first time I dragged him to Kauffman Stadium. Going to a Royals-Cardinals game with my great Columbia friends, blue and red enjoying the game together. Watching the Royals win on a perfect spring day at Wrigley Field. All those nights listening to games on the radio or idly watching on TV, the air outside warm and heavy and sweet. My brother’s friend pounding the steering wheel of his cheap car when Dan Reichert gave up a devastating home run in some lost season. Turning double plays and catching fly balls out in the yard as largely forgotten Royals players from a largely forgotten team. Games at Kauffman Stadium from snow flurries to crushing heat and humidity. Postgame fireworks. Postgame ice cream with Kansas City girls we met. Sluggerrr starting rallies with the slow clap. Buck night hot dogs and taking your life into your hands. Hats and shirts gradually worn out. The desolation of that Game 7 loss, which Dayton Moore said “haunted him.” The incredible rally in Game 4 this year against the Astros, facing elimination, when I went on a text rant to Barron just before the Royals punched five straight singles to crawl back from the grave. Listening to Denny call the clinching of another pennant. Going to Game 2 of the World Series with my sister and brother and sister-in-law, when Cueto went the distance and the Royals poured it on, white and blue jerseys a blur on the basepaths, knocking the ball all over the park with two-strike hit after two-strike hit. And at last, November 1, 2015, the night the Royals won the World Series; a night and a season to cherish forever.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

100

Columbia never ages.

Or so it seems. Restaurants change. Towers of downtown apartments keep popping up. Mizzou switched conferences. They tore down Shakespeare’s, for goodness sake.

But the college town remains fairly timeless, Missouri’s fountain of youth. College kids still arrive every August, their youth and energy giving Columbia a second spring each year. The quad is still regal and Columns-y. Downtown still buzzes on Fridays and Saturdays and really Thursdays, too, because the week is pretty much over anyway, right? And students and alumni still flock to the old bowl south of campus for football games in the fall, like they have for 90 autumns now.

We all get older, but Mizzou Homecoming can trick you into thinking time has turned back and you’re a student again. Visiting the familiar old places and taking part in the traditions, the years melt away. Homecoming is a time for reflection and nostalgia.

So in a thoroughly satisfying quirk, Saturday’s Homecoming game against Florida is my 100th Mizzou football game. This will make it 75 games at Faurot Field, 15 neutral site games and 10 road games. (Some of those neutral site games were not entirely neutral; sharing the Georgia Dome with hordes of raucous Auburn and Alabama fans comes to mind.)

My first Mizzou game was another time, the last game of the 2002 season. Kansas State hammered Missouri, 38-0. It was the last game with a grass field at Faurot. East stadium tower renovations. The official attendance was 47,000 and change. There are links to then, obviously, but life then is almost hard to recognize now. I wore a 49ers shirt to the game and was more into the NFL back then. I had no clue what Facebook would be and how it would shape aspects of my social life in the years to come. I didn’t even know who Roger Federer was, something that makes the 2015 version of myself purse my lips and slowly shake my head.

But for all the changes, Faurot Field was still Faurot Field; the same bowl where Missouri fans have congregated in cold and heat and rain and perfect fall days for generations, with the Rock M on one end and trees peeking over the stands on the other end, ablaze with color in the fall.

Missouri alum Tom Shatel, now an outstanding columnist for the Omaha World-Herald, once wrote that Faurot was a “portrait of autumn,” and that it was where he fell in love with college football.
It’s also where I fell in love with college football, with a tough loss in the 2004 Homecoming game, Game 6, and seeing the Columns for the first time after the game.

The football has been wildly entertaining, but college football has always been about more than just games. It’s a lifestyle, memories with friends and family, a good time. It’s road trips to experience new college towns and tailgates and beautiful women milling about and going out the night before games and games in the student section and chatting up girls at halftime and the buzz around town heading into a big showdown and endless idle chatter about how the team will fare. It’s how quiet exiting the stadium is after losses and how festive it is after wins. It’s a steak grilled perfectly and pop in glass bottles as the pregame hours slowly melt away. It’s thrilling and colorful and goosebump-inducing and musical and something you share with friends, friendships you maintain long after college.

These 100 games have filled page after page in the photo album of my memory. Game 13, my first Homecoming as a student when Chase Daniel led Missouri to a comeback win. Game 24, when some friends and I rode a bus to the Sun Bowl in El Paso and Rhianna performed at halftime even though it was a mid-tier bowl in the middle of nowhere and we (the busload of students, not Rhianna) got into a snowstorm and had to spend the night in Roswell, New Mexico. Game 33, the epic Border War win over Kansas, when intensity hung in the cold, clear air at Arrowhead Stadium; truly one for the ages. Game 45, when I shot a buck that morning and then some of us drove up to the game at Iowa State and it was so incredibly cold half the stadium yelled “Wind!” and the other half yelled “Chill!”

Game 51, when it rained relentlessly and the stadium sound system wasn’t working and Nebraska came back from nowhere to beat the Tigers. Game 61, when College Gameday came to Mizzou and Gahn McGaffie ran back the opening kick for a touchdown and the Tigers beat BCS No. 1 Oklahoma.

Game 72, Missouri’s first SEC Conference game, against Georgia, a massive change and a departure from 100 years of history; a wild, frenzied scene. Game 84, a road trip to magical little Oxford, Mississippi, with its courthouse square and its Grove and its Rebelettes, and I fell in love with all three and fully embraced the SEC. Game 85, when Mizzou beat Texas A&M to stunningly win the SEC East and “Georgia on my mind” played on the stadium speakers. Game 90, a fantastic road trip to South Carolina for a thrilling win, and Game 94, a fantastic road trip to Tennessee for a thrilling win that included me seeing Tim Tebow the night before and saying, “Hey... Tim!” Game 95, a comeback win against Arkansas to clinch another SEC East title as a gorgeous sunset lit up the sky above Faurot Field and everything was magic and the stadium was rocking.

Games 34, 47, 86 and 96, the sound and fury of conference title games, each excruciating losses. Gary Pinkel got so close to the brass win and was turned away, only to keep chasing.

And now, Game 100 under the lights, a big divisional game against those surging Gators. I realize it’s kind of nerdy and perhaps even self-aggrandizing to have kept track of each game I’ve attended, but I’ve learned that as fun as college football is, it’s at its best when you share it with the people you love. I’ve been fortunate to be doing that for several years now.

Here’s to the next 100.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

An Afternoon at Wrigley



I gazed up at the iconic red marquee over the main entrance to Wrigley Field, one of those moments where you see something in person that you've seen in photographs a hundred times, and it's at the same time like a dream and also more real than real.

As I looked around for someone to take a picture of me and my sister, Abbie, with the sign, a tall Cubs fan asked if I would take a picture of him and his girlfriend with the sign. I said sure, and as he handed me his phone, he leaned in close and said, "I'm going to propose, could you take video?" As the voice in my head yelled, "Don't screw this up!" I filmed as he got down on one knee. She overflowed with joy, hand to mouth, then managed a "Yes!" Their friends and family poured out from the crowd and hugged and hugged.

Of all the places possible, the guy chose in front of this old ballpark to get engaged. Not many things in our 2015 day-to-day lives link us to 1914, but Wrigley Field does. It remains a gem, a national treasure, an outpouring of culture and history. I held high hopes for my visit to Wrigley, and on a warm, sunny late-May day, the ballpark still exceeded my expectations.

My first sight of 101-year-old Wrigley Field reminded me of seeing Wimbledon's Centre Court for the first time; you wander through a charming little neighborhood and then it just sort of arrives. The flag-lined upper tier of the stadium represented a definition of a grandstand, an old-time grandstand you might see at a dusty old county fair. My sister and I ate some lunch right across the street from Wrigley at the Cubby Bear. The Blues Brothers' version of "Sweet Home Chicago" poured from the speakers and a brief shower poured outside and I wondered what this place was like the night of Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS.

We walked a lap around the ballpark before going in, traversing the relatively narrow thoroughfares separating Wrigley from Wrigleyville, the collection of bars and apartments and rooftops and trees; a cocoon of daydreams and good times around the Friendly Confines. Outside of right field, workers laid brick as part of the ongoing renovations.

We went inside. I'm trying not to gush here, but it was a dream. We bought scorecards and strolled down the concourse to left field. I found the Steve Bartman seat and posed for a photo reaching over the railing for an imaginary foul ball, unable to resist recreating the bizarre scene from the 2003 NLCS Game 6. An imaginary enraged Moises Alou was unable to make the catch.

We navigated the ramps up to our seat, near the front of the upper deck on the infield. I was struck by how close the front of the upper deck was to the field. A portrait of baseball sprawled below; ivy on the brick wall, the green manual scoreboard in center, the bleachers where the party had already started, trees and rooftops of not-that-tall buildings peering over the bleachers, the very batter's box where the real live human Babe Ruth hit his epic "Called Shot" home run in the 1932 World Series, his 10th and final Series and his 15th and final World Series homer.

We bought concessions and gazed at the downtown Chicago skyline from an upper deck patio area.

My sister and I filled out our scorecards, pencils scratching names and positions on paper as they had for generations in this neighborhood of Chicago. The first number/name/position, "2 Escobar SS" led off in brilliant sunshine. With the wind blowing out, he smacked a homer into the left field bleachers. I stood and applauded.

For all the sights and sounds and smells, Wrigley remains relatively minimalist. The ads are understated. The massive new video boards are unavoidable, but they present information in an uncluttered, simplistic way, with a green background to match the outfield's dominant color. You have to look to find where the score is listed (on the small ribbon video board down the line, between the lower and upper decks).

An older Royals fan and his wife were seated to our right. He said that day was his 80th birthday and that he had been to the home ballparks of all 30 MLB teams. Wrigley was his among his favorites, along with Camden Yards in Baltimore. He added that before the game, at the Wrigley Field marquee, he ran into another Royals fan also celebrating a birthday, who happened to be starting leftfielder Alex Gordon's mom. In the second, Gordon belted an opposite field homer to left. 2-0 Royals.

A few scattered rain clouds rolled in during the third. The lights came on at Wrigley Field, recalling an old Statler Brothers song, "Don't Wait on Me." ("…When the lights come on at Wrigley Field, I'll be coming home to you!" It used to be code for never, but I guess a songwriter somewhere had an awkward, belated homecoming when the lights finally did come on in 1988.) As far as I could tell, there were only lights on top of the grandstand on the infield. Good luck, outfield.

The Cubs got a run in the third, but Royals pitcher Edinson Volquez then started reeling off strikeouts, nine total that day. Salvador Perez crushed a homer to put the Royals up 3-1, and a "Let's Go, Royals!" cheer rang out from among the massive Kansas City contingent at the game. A Cubs fan in the bleachers threw the home run ball back on the field, per tradition.

By the fifth, the sun was out in force, heat and humidity chased by cool breezes. I got a good rubber pencil going as I kept score. At one point, a fairly sharply hit foul ball zipped up toward us, but a dad two rows in front of us, hopped up, caught it with one hand, didn't spill his beer, and casually handed it to his daughter. The crowd cheered with approval.

The game had been ideal as a Royals fan, but in the sixth Wrigley showed it's feisty side. With Kansas City up 4-1 in the bottom of the fifth, facing a wilting Volquez, Jorge Soler jolted a two-run homer and the Cubs crowd. They roared with approval and that familiar, catchy song blared from the speakers…

Come on, baby don't you want to go, 
Back to that same ol' place, 
Sweet home, Chicago

In the seventh inning stretch, everyone belted out "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." In the bottom of the seventh, Addison Russell homered to tie the game. More "Sweet Home Chicago." Wrigley was going crazy.

The Royals answered with three runs in the 8th on just one hit, a Lorenzo Cain double to the wall. Wade Davis struck out the side in the bottom of the 8th, as he is prone to do.

A brief rain shower drifted across the ballpark in the 9th as the Royals added a run in the top half. A rainbow developed down the right field line, near where we could see the tiniest sliver of Lake Michigan. Royals closer Greg Holland retired the Cubs in order in the 9th, with two strikeouts.



The Royals had won, and the tradition-bound Cubs, as only the Cubs can do, ran up the blue L flag in center field to let everyone know they had lost a baseball game. Abbie and I met up with my brother, Seth, and his wife, Tiffany, for photos with the field. We spilled out into Wrigleyville after the game for pizza.

*          *          *

After two years hosting a Federal League team, the Cubs began playing in Wrigley in 1916. This year is their 100th season playing there. They have, ahem, never clinched a postseason series at Wrigley. Even with much of Wrigley's history coming before baseball's expanded playoffs, that staggers me. The team's last World Series title predates even ancient Wrigley; coming in 1908. The Cubs have lost six World Series at Wrigley, the last of which came in 1945, when a guy who was crazy enough to bring a goat to the World Series supposed cursed the Cubs for not allowed said goat to take in the game. Since then there has been plenty of angst, plenty of lost seasons, plenty of near misses, from the Black Cat Game to the 1984 NLCS collapse vs. the Padres to the Bartman incident, which was just part of a choke job of an 8th inning. The Cubs have come by their Lovable Losers moniker honestly, but Wrigley Field is no loser. Certainly on a perfect late-May day, the old ballpark still puts on quite a show.


Monday, May 25, 2015

The night the Royals lost the World Series



Years from now, I might go up to the top of old Kauffman Stadium, sit in Section 421, row ZZ, seat 25, and be transported back to October 29, 2014.

Game 7.

Baseball is a game of slow boiling building to a resounding conclusion, so Game 7s stand out. The season is a marathon of thousands of games and incremental success and living to fight another day. Game 7 is finality, those fairly rare occasions, out of hundreds of thousands of Major League Baseball games, either team can win the game and win the World Series. The winners have climbed as high as you can climb in baseball; the losers wear the defeat for the rest of their lives.

October 29, 2014, was Game 7 at Kauffman Stadium. It took a remarkable series of events just to get here. Derek Jeter homered in his final All-Star Game to help the American League win and secure World Series home field advantage for the AL. If Game 7 had been in San Francisco, I almost certainly would have watched on TV.

As it was, even getting to the game in Kansas City was no easy task. My sister and I spent, ahem, $770.20 each for our top row tickets, bought during Game 6 as the Royals routed the Giants to force Game 7.

But the All-Star Game win was merely the first step. The Royals seemed to be fading then, but they got white hot down the stretch, winning game after game with dramatic home runs, crazy speed on the basepaths, and all manner of soft or ground ball singles.

The Royals rallied three times against the A’s in the Wild Card game, the best game I’ve ever seen in person. Then they annihilated the favored Angels and Orioles, going 8-0 in the postseason en route to the an American League pennant. After a lifetime of rooting for a team that almost always had losing seasons, to call that pennant unexpected is the height of understatement. Unbelievable is better, and yet there it was, like a dream after decades of monotonous failure. I listened to Denny Matthews, broadcaster since the team’s inception in 1969, call the pennant-clinching out.

After a thrilling, back-and-forth series, the Royals and Giants headed to Game 7 tied 3-3. I was at Kauffman for Game 1 with family, and then watched Games 2-6 on TV with friends and family, basically all people who are very special to me. Now it was back to Kauffman for Game 7 with my sister, Abbie. My brother Seth and his wife, Tiffany, had seats in a different area. I was sitting right behind Power Mizzou writer Gabe Dearmond and his son. I once gave Gabe’s dad, Mike, a card at one of his final games covering Mizzou for the Kansas City Star.



I took pictures of the stadium before the game, and it all glowed with the gold of an autumn evening. The grass hills behind the stadium, across I-70, were a canvass of gold. The weather was perfect, just a hint of crispness so it felt like classic October baseball. The last Game 7 in Kansas City, in 1985, was a party and a rout. Kansas Citians ecstatically counted down the outs until Denny yelled, “No outs to go!” on the radio.

This one would be tighter. The Giants got two in the second. Kansas City answered in the bottom of the second. Alex Gordon doubled home Billy Butler. I screamed, “Run, Billy!” over and over until the not-particularly-fast Butler slid home safely. Gordon later scored on a sac fly. 2-2.

After a scoreless third, Royals manager Ned Yost brought starter Jeremy Guthrie back out for the fourth. Many people wanted him to go to with Kelvin Herrera instead, and go two innings each for Herrara, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, Kansas City’s killer bullpen trio. Game 7s are so weird when it comes to pitching. You expect a patten of pitching management for most games, but with no tomorrow, it’s like a long race where the runners almost immediately break form and begin sprinting for the finish.

The Giants 1-3 hitters would go hitless, and the 6-9 hitters would go 1-for-9. But the middle three of Sandoval, Pence and Belt were a menace, going 7-for-11. In the fourth, Sandoval, dubbed “the Panda,” singled. Guthrie stayed in. Pence, who looks like Marv from Home Alone, singled. Guthrie stayed in. Belt flew out, but Sandoval tagged up and advanced to third. In came Herrera, needing a strikout or a popup to preserve the lead. He got to an 0-2 count on Mike Morse. But Morse singled to left.
3-2.

Herrera got out of the inning with no further damage, but Royals fans will think about that fourth inning for a long time.

With the Giants up one, and Herrera-Davis-Holland essentially shutting down any hope of San Francisco scoring again, the game became all about Kansas City finding a way to score a run. The top of each inning, Royals fans metaphorically held their breath and the remarkable relievers slammed the door on the Giants again and again.

After former Royal Jeremy Affelt threw a scoreless fourth, Giants manager Bruce Bochy went back to his bullpen for a familiar face, Madison Bumgarner, on just two days rest after he shut the Royals down in Game 5.

Bumgarner is one of the greatest pitchers in World Series history, and even in the relatively early spot of the fifth inning, his loping in from the bullpen to pitch was foreboding. The crowd almost gasped. Then, as Kansas City had done all season, the team and fans and city and region steeled itself to somehow get the job done.

The first hitter to face Bumgarner, Omar Infante, singled, and the crowd thundered. But then, beginning with an Alcides Escobar sac bunt, Bumgarner retired the next 14 batters he faced.

Inning after inning the Royals hope waned. The orange glow from the Midwestern sunset faded behind the red-lit Arrowhead Stadium I could see from my seat. A rising crescent moon took its place in the late-October night sky.



Before the seventh, Royals fans sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch. The 106-year-old song, a staple of the American summer, references a girl with the initials K.C. in its full lyrics. (“Katie Casey was baseball mad…”)

The crowd roared and cheered... and Bumgarner set the Royals down in order. It was getting late.
Before the eighth, Kansas City native Eric Stonestreet appeared on the massive video screen in center field, as his character Cam from “Modern Family,” with the actor who plays Mitch, both wearing Royals hats and encouraging the fans to get loud.

The crowd roared and cheered... and Bumgarner set the Royals down in order. It was becoming one of the most remarkable athletic performances I’d ever seen. Panic and anxiety and hope hung thick over the stadium.



Before the ninth inning, I took a quick picture with my sister, for memory’s sake. I wanted to get it before the final result, so we could still be smiling either way. Royals fans screamed and waved signs and rally towels. Another baseball girl with K.C. initials, St. Louis Cardinals Team Fredbird member Katie Christopher, tweeted, “Hoping for a walk off (blue heart) #Royals #WorldSeriesGame7”

It was as if each inning the team and fans and city and region and even a nation yelled and charged at some great seemingly immovable obstacle, surging ahead with all the hope and courage and might available, only to be beaten back again and again. Yet they kept charging, with the final, frantic push of the night.

Eric Hosmer, who we scarcely dared to dream about batting in the World Series when he was a top prospect and the Royals were awful, struck out. Billy Butler, beloved “Country Breakfast” in his final Royals at bat, popped up to first.

Then... the great immovable obstacle wobbled. Alex Gordon, who grew up in Nebraska and has a brother named Brett in honor of the Royals’ greatest player, dropped in a single. The Royals had life, and then some. The ball skidding past the Giants centerfielder, and Kauffman Stadium erupted as the ball bounded out to the wall. I yelled and jumped with all I had as Gordon raced around the bases. It was a wild, screaming, dizzying few seconds; literally so for me. As Gordon rounded second and headed for third and the massive upper deck seemed to be shaking and I had yelled out all my air, I suddenly felt very light-headed and maybe slumped just a bit. Whatever it was, I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to faint during the pivotal moment of Game 7 of the World Series, so I managed to stay upright.

Royals third base coach Mike Jirschele held up Gordon at third as the Giants were getting the ball back to the infield. It was almost certainly the right call, as only Bumgarner’s dominance was the only reason to even think about sending Gordon. It would have taken a severely botched play for him to score. Still, the play was rehashed over and over, like I’m doing now, and it won’t be easy to forget.

Salvador Perez battled gamely as Bumgarner kept throwing pitches up. Perez had been hit by a pitch earlier and probably would have come out of any other game. Had he hit a homer, it would have been one of the biggest in baseball history.

He did not homer. Perez popped up in foul territory on the third base side. I effortlessly remember seeing Sandoval move under it and the exact moment I knew the Royals would lose the World Series. Sandoval caught the popup, and the Giants poured out onto the field. Some fans chanted “Let’s go, Royals!” in appreciation for the remarkable season. Many of us just watched the scene in silence. I remarked to my sister we had seen on the other greatest World Series performances with what Bumgarner did. But she summed up the situation: we would have rather seen the Royals win.

Still, the Royals run gave us some great memories: that win over the A’s and my grandma calling me after, long after midnight to tell me she’d stayed up to see it all; sharing the playoff wins with my favorite people on earth; finally getting to experience the postseason; when the Royals won the pennant and I got congratulatory messages from France and Argentina and Iowa and my mom and dad.

The Giants may have the World Series title; well earned, and congratulations to them. But I have some wonderful memories, and the American League pennant, and my baseball team is alive again.