Monday, August 23, 2010

How I want to write

I love great sportswriting. This is not surprising, given that I enjoy both sports and writing. Today I got to looking up two of my favorite examples of sportswriting, both of which have been tied to recent events in the news. One is about Brett Favre, who you may know, and the other is the great Red Smith's column about Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" pennant-winning homer. Thomson died recently, and Smith's piece is considered one of the best examples of sportswriting ever. I thought I'd post a bit of both, something you can read in just a minute or two, because re-reading these excerpts stirs my show-and-tell impulse. 

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

First, the Favre article, written by Jeff Macgregor in 2006, as the uncertainty about how long he would play swirled about Green Bay. Looking back now, it seems silly that we might have thought it would have ended way back then, but the fact that this drama is still playing on only keeps the message fresh. It's a sensational, fresh take on the old idea the "athletes die twice." The writer poignantly implores readers to root for Favre to be able to keep playing, because him facing the end of our career mirrors with uncomfortable similarity the struggles people face as they age and fade. It's powerful, moving, sobering, beautiful, gallant. It's quite possibly the best story I've read in my 10 years as a Sports Illustrated survivor. I mean, it opened with a Dylan Thomas quote, one I used in my book: "Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright. Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Yes, Favre is 12-2 all-time against my 49ers, and Number Four has dealt them a ridiculous four playoff defeats, so we've had our differences. Plus there was his last-gasp touchdown pass vs. San Francisco last fall that made me lose my cool yet again. But still, every time I read part of this story, I kind of root for him. Well, not quite, but I do tolerate him just fine. And I can hardly look away when he plays. Here's the link the full story (quite long), and then the last two paragraphs of the story below:

"There will come a time when Brett Favre can no longer play. This is not that time. But at the end of this season--or the next or the next or the next--he will step away at last, having earned the peace of an endless off-season. The cold and the snow will overtake Green Bay, and the stadium at this edge of the world will stand empty behind us, the last thing we see in the rear-view mirror as we cross that river, the light at last failing in the trees.

"But until that moment, Brett Favre will be throwing, in a way, for us all. Throwing hope forward, in a single clean step or with a motion as rushed and awkward as man falling out of the tub, as hurried and off-balance as the rest of us. Banking on the past while trying to read a second or two into his future, drilling clean arcs on our behalf into the weakening light and the rising odds, every stand he makes in the pocket another little long shot fired against the infinite and inevitable. Every throw a moment for hope, a defiant line, bright in the air, against chaos and diminishment and the final goodbye."

Red Smith's Classic

Maybe the best sportswriter writing about probably the game's biggest home run ever, the New York Giants' Bobby Thomson off the Brooklyn Dodgers' Ralph Branca to win the 1951 NL pennant, completing a massive Giants comeback down the stretch. Just about as good as it gets. Here's the link to the full story, and then his sublime lede (yes, that's how we journalists spell it) and ending:

"Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again." 

And the end: 

"The second pitch -- well, when Thomson reached first base he turned and looked toward the left-field stands. Then he started jumping straight up in the air, again and again. Then he trotted around the bases, taking his time. 

"Ralph Branca turned and started for the clubhouse. The number on his uniform looked huge. Thirteen." 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Mizzou football season preview: Three keys to Missouri's success this fall

As we enter the final season for the Big 12 as we know it, Missouri is entrenched in the role of No. 2 in the North Division, the primary challenger to Nebraska. Can they feed off the underdog role and win a division, or even, dare I say, a conference title? Here are what I think are three key issues that will determine this.

The Gabbert Question

Junior quarterback Blaine Gabbert certainly had an eventful 2009 as he took over for Chase Daniel, the school’s all-time leading passer. It was certainly an eventful year. 

His first four games, against weaker competition: 11 TDs, no interceptions, team goes 4-0. Next four games, beginning with the Nebraska game in which he suffered an ankle injury: four TDs, seven picks, team goes 1-3. Last four regular-season games: eight TDs, no picks, team goes 3-1.  Then came a poor game in the bad bowl loss to Navy.

The Gabbert Question isn’t so much will he succeed or fail, but rather how good can he be. Will he be merely a serviceable quarterback who racks up stats against the weaker opponents and then falters against big boy defenses? Or will he be the big-time quarterback who wins games with his arm, his legs and his composure? Where the answer lies will likely determine the giddiness or grouchiness of Tiger fans on Saturdays this fall.

Tiger fans are understandably excited about the potential of a healthy Gabbert. This year should be a telling indicator. The early guess here is Tiger fans will be pleased.

Improving the Defense

Last year’s Tiger defense was average to below average, ranking eighth and seventh in points allowed and yards allowed, respectively, in conference play. However, the pass defense was a severe problem, ranking dead last in passing yards allowed in conference games.

I’m hopeful the Tiger coaches can figure out ways to fix this, possibly rolling the dice with more press coverage as opposed to playing way off the line to protect against the deep ball.

Besides that, my simplistic way to help out that pass defense starts with a strong pass rush. If the sensational Aldon Smith (11.5 sacks in 2009) can make opposing quarterbacks even more uncomfortable, that struggling secondary could look a lot better.

The Midseason Exam

As we know, a team’s success is often tied to the breaks of the schedule. Missouri faces a stern four-game midseason exam that will likely determine if this is another good-but-not-great year, and if the Tigers will compete for a North Division title.

Starting Oct. 16, Missouri plays at Texas A&M (Home of the 12th Man), Oklahoma at home in the Homecoming game (yikes!), at Nebraska (North championship game?) and at Texas Tech (likely a 50-50 swing game).

During this stretch, right in the height of the glorious, crisp Midwestern fall, these Tigers will play a parade of crucial games. Many other intriguing games dot the schedule, starting with the opener against Illinois in St. Louis. Football has arrived. Here we go. 

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Excitement about the Royals! In August!

When you're a Royals fan, you become accustomed to certain routines, especially when you live in a town with divided loyalties. (Yeah, we'll call it that.) You laugh off poorly-crafted mockery of your team, even if it's so unimaginative, because A) most of the mockers are just ignorant of what's really going on with the Royals and B) the blanket mockery is still largely accurate. They aren't very good, haven't been since I was eating Graham crackers in Kindergarten. Also, you have a canned set of responses ready for banter with waitresses or strangers who see your Royals shirt: "Well, they need all the support they can get" or "We're always rebuilding (insert dry, patronizing chuckle)" or "Hey, Greinke's lights out." You also balance tempered optimism with a pessimistic attitude, because pretty much everything of consequence for the team has gone wrong during the days of my fandom, except for maybe a Cy Young here or a Rookie/Manager of the Year Award there. 

And, perhaps most commonly, at some point when the summer heat just seems like too much, at some point that's arbitrary but that you can still clearly feel, you put baseball definitively on the back burner and turn your attention to football. I don't want that to sound wrong, because the grim loyalty of Royals fans is admirable if not crazy, but the team has only been within shouting distance of the playoff race after July once since baseball's 1994 strike, that year being the quirky 2003 season, in which they blew a seven and a half game lead at the All-Star break, still the only time in the wild card playoff format that a team with a lead of five games or more at the break has not made the playoffs. 

It just gets to be too much. They are hopelessly lost, the heat makes you pine for fall, training camp rolls around, and suddenly football fever locks in its grip. It's natural. 

This year feels different, however. Several of the old, depressing, no-place-here veterans have been traded. Some were having decent seasons (Podsednik, Callaspo, Farnsworth), others were having just the kind of bad seasons that were expected (Okay, that's really just Rick Ankiel), but the point is they are gone. Roster spots are opening up for the kids, exactly what the fan base has screamed for all year. Now if they could just move Jose "F--- the Fans!" Guillen, we'd be rolling. The Star's Sam Mellinger wrote in a fine column on Monday that he believes Guillen will be traded, benched or simply released (oh, the joy) within a week. Fingers crossed. 

Kila Ka'aihue, the Royals Hawaiian cowboy who has been buried in Triple A Omaha for, well, years now, started today. It seems he will finally get some regular big league playing time. For the record, Kila had one of the Royals' four hits in today's loss, and he narrowly missed a home run on a leaping catch up against the wall. 

Kila combines a skill the Royals have long seemed to undervalue (getting on base) with one they have historically lacked (power, given their quaint single-season home run total of 36), meaning he could produce in the two statistical areas the Royals are weak in: on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Heck, he even started at first today, why not see if he can play the position better than Billy Butler, who has become admirably adequate at first, but nothing more. 

Also, Alex Gordon is back up from Triple A Omaha, reborn like a Phoenix, rising from Arizona. Actually from Nebraska, but I couldn't pass up even a reach opportunity to quote Frank Costanza. He mashed a walk-off homer on Friday, added a couple more HRs, and scored the winning run in the ninth on Tuesday night. 

Kila and Gordon represent the first wave of youth to hit the beach. They are 4-2 dating back to Gordon's walk-off last Friday (July 30, 2010), which kicked off the final day of frantic trading and roster-clearing, a blast that really may be a day of significance if this group of youth turns things around. The record, of course, probably doesn't matter a ton right now, but the arrival and progression through the minors of the Royals young hopefuls is happening rapidly, almost daily in a game that otherwise takes months and years for the destinies of franchises to play out. Mission 2012, as Mellinger calls it, is coming into focus, ever so slightly. 

This has been building for years. Despite the abject failure of General Manager Dayton Moore's unacknowledged plan to keep the big league club respectable while building for a sustainable future of success, the system has been stocked, and the path to big league starting jobs has been largely cleared. The team could get worse before it gets better, so we've got to use another KC fan routine: patience. But hey, maybe they'll play better, play inspired at the opportunity. In any event, the players that matter to the future of this team are beginning at long last to fill up the roster and impact roster moves (maybe, just maybe, no more Mike Jacobs signings). And that, my friends, is exciting and worthy of attention. Even with football winding up.