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Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Best I've Ever Seen

Friday morning, I learned of the passing of the great Ron Santo. My grandfather, who saw more than his share of baseball from the 1930's through the 1980's (and beyond, on TV), always claimed that Ron Santo was the best third baseman he had ever seen in person. Now, my grandfather was a huge Cubs fan, but we're still comparing Santo to the likes of Eddie Mathews, Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt, and many other legends. When bladder cancer took Santo's life, he stood out as the most egregious omission from the Hall of Fame. Fifteen times, the writers had failed to elect him. The Veterans' Committee passed on enshrining him four times over eight years. While I believe Santo will eventually be enshrined posthumously, the voters should be ashamed that their snubs have cost him the chance to stand on the stage, make his speech, and enjoy the sport's highest honor.

All of this made me think: if I ever have grandchildren, what will I tell them? Who are the greatest players I have ever seen on the diamond? Over the past thirty years, I have seen roughly ten or fifteen major league games per season in person, for a total in excess of 300 games. By virtue of growing up in Chicago, I have had access to players in both leagues since well before interleague play began. So, I decided to rank the top five players at each position, limiting myself to only players I have seen in person. I will name and write a bit about my #1 choice, then rank my #2 through #5. My standards are subjective. I have placed players at the position with which I associate them most. In the case of players proven or highly suspected of using PED's, I rank them on the basis of how good they were before/after/negating the extra power. I'll also have some one-player superlatives. Finally, I will list the top five players active during this era (1980-2010) whom I have somehow never seen play in person. I would love to hear your choices for the best you have seen, in the comments below!

CATCHER: Johnny Bench. While I saw Bench play near the end of his career (just before the Reds started playing him at 3B to squeeze a bit more out of him), he was still the greatest. His quickness was diminished, but he was still an excellent defensive catcher. His offensive skills were on par with the younger Pudge Fisk. Plus, and I may be a bit biased here, he was the host of one of the greatest TV shows ever, The Baseball Bunch.

2. Carlton Fisk, 3. Ivan Rodriguez, 4. Mike Piazza, 5. Gary Carter

FIRST BASE: Todd Helton. First base was a tough call for me, as it took a while for me to settle on Helton over Jeff Bagwell. I love Helton's sweet swing, and he was the best defensive first baseman of his generation. His power numbers are nothing special (not quite 350 HR in 14 seasons), but his line-drive and on-base capabilities are superb. His OPS of .979 trumps Bagwell by 30 points or so, and he has walked considerably more often than he has struck out in his career.

2. Jeff Bagwell, 3. Eddie Murray, 4. Andres Galarraga, 5. (tie) Mark Grace and Pete Rose

SECOND BASE: Roberto Alomar. This was actually a three-way race for me, with Robbie edging Sandberg and Biggio. Alomar was smooth. His fielding got the notoriety, and he doesn't have the reputation of the other two as a feared hitter. Even though he had less power than the others, he still managed to tally 210 HR over his career. His OPS was actually higher than either of the other two, he stole the most bases, and he won the most gold gloves (10 to Ryno's 9). I was tempted to knock Robbie down a bit for the bouncing around he did to drag a bit more out of his career, but my memories of seeing him are from his best years, especially in the early 90's, when he was a huge part of the Blue Jays' mini-dynasty.

2. Ryne Sandberg, 3. Craig Biggio, 4. Jeff Kent, 5. (tie) Brandon Phillips and Robinson Cano

THIRD BASE: Mike Schmidt. This was one of my easiest calls. Schmidt had it all. He hit almost 550 HR, he was one of the best defensive 3B of all time, and he even had a bit of speed (averaging more than 10 SB per season). He was one of my first favorite players, as my baseball memories really start with the Phillies' magical 1980 season, in which he won the MVP. I didn't see him in person until a few years after that, but he was still in his prime into the mid-1980's, winning his third and final MVP award in 1986. The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) rated him the 16th greatest player in the history of MLB, and he and Johnny Bench (#19) are the only two in the top 25 to have played into the 1980's. The call of Schmidt's 500th home run, by the great Harry Kalas, still gives me shivers. "Swing and a long drive, there it is, number 500! The career 500th home run for Michael Jack Schmidt!"

2. Chipper Jones, 3. George Brett, 4. Wade Boggs, 5. Evan Longoria

SHORTSTOP: Alex Rodriguez. If this were an award for role models, he wouldn't be allowed in the same area code as Ripken. Still, if you look at the player he was before the years in which he admitted to steroid use, I've never seen a shortstop with more all-around talent. A-Rod is the classic five-tool player. He finished second in the MVP voting as a 20-year-old and already had three consecutive years of 40+ HR and 110+ RBI by the age of 24. If his body holds up, he should finish as the all-time HR champion. His numbers will be tainted, but not nearly as much as those of the current record holder.

2. Cal Ripken Jr., 3. Robin Yount, 4. Ozzie Smith, 5. (tie) Barry Larkin and Derek Jeter

LEFT FIELD: Rickey Henderson. Aside from Bonds in his most juiced years, I have never seen a single player affect the opponents' game plans more than Rickey. He is, by far, the greatest leadoff hitter of all time. He could hit for power, owning the most leadoff home runs in MLB history and 297 total. He got on base, as he is second all -time in walks. Once he got on base, the fireworks began. He is the best base-stealer of all-time, holding both the single-season and career records. Rickey also has scored more runs than any player in history. Sure, he did hang on way past his prime to pad some stats, but the guy led the AL in stolen bases with 62, at the age of 39! He was, by most accounts, an egotistical jerk. Still, he had no equal from the #1 spot in the order.

2. Tim Raines, 3. Barry Bonds (pre-juice), 4. Bo Jackson, 5. Kirk Gibson

CENTER FIELD: Ken Griffey, Jr. "The Kid" was an absolute joy to watch. Hi sweet, fluid uppercut swing was a thing of beauty, an effortless and classic lefty power stroke. His glovework was amazing, and he often went above the wall to rob opponents of homers. He had some speed, a solid arm, and the personality to be a fan favorite. He won ten straight gold gloves and surpassed 40 home runs in six of seven consecutive seasons. He had one of the most outstanding (non-juiced) offensive seasons of my era. posting a .304 average, 56 HR, 125 runs, 147 RBI, and 15 SB on his way to the AL MVP award in 1997. Of course, this was all in the first half of his career, with Seattle. Once he turned 30 and joined the Reds, injuries began to wear away the man who was on pace to be the best baseball player of the past 50 years. He showed flashes of greatness over the next 7-8 years and eventually ended up with 630 HR. I saw more of him in the first half of his career, and I choose to remember the sustained excellence of his days in Seattle.

2. Kirby Puckett, 3. Torii Hunter, 4. Andy Van Slyke, 5. Jim Edmonds

RIGHT FIELD: Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro wins a close one over Larry Walker and Dave Winfield. Simply put, he does things no one else can do. His throws from right are legendary, and he covers an immense area of the outfield, both of which have contributed to him winning a Gold Glove each of his ten years in the majors. He has averaged over 220 hits per year, setting the major league record with 262 in 2004 and leading the league in seven of his ten seasons. Ichiro also contributes almost 40 SB per season and high single-digit homers, although those who have watched him over the years in batting practice claim that he could double or triple the longballs if he focused on his power stroke. His funky, run-to-first-as-you-swing approach makes it even more astonishing that he hits so consistently.

2. Larry Walker, 3. Dave Winfield, 4. Reggie Jackson, 5. Andre Dawson

DESIGNATED HITTER: Frank Thomas. Although Pujols may have something to say about it before his career is over, the Big Hurt stands as the overall best hitter I have ever seen. He has prodigious power, otherworldly plate discipline, and a knack for putting line drives all over the field. Thomas won back-to-back MVP awards in 1993-1994 and was robbed of another in 2000 by a juiced Jason Giambi in a close vote. He even finished 4th in the MVP voting at the age of 38, with Oakland in 2006. In the strike-shortened 1994 campaign (113 games), he finished with a .353 average, 34 HR, 106 runs, 101 RBI. and a ridiculous 1.217 OPS. I was there for his second game in the majors, and I saw him play in person perhaps 90 or 100 times overall. I have not seen his equal.

2. Jim Thome, 3. Edgar Martinez, 4. Paul Molitor, 5. Greg Luzinski

LEFT-HANDED (STARTING) PITCHER: Steve Carlton. The man they called "Lefty" had been pitching in the majors for fifteen years and had won two Cy Young awards before I discovered him as part of the earlier-mentioned 1980 Phillies. He was dominant that season, winning his third Cy with a 24-9 record, 2.34 ERA, and league-leading 286 K's. I learned how to throw a slider by watching him on The Baseball Bunch, and followed his career closely, finally getting to see him pitch in person at Wrigley in 1983, the last of his truly outstanding years (at the age of 38). The wheels began to come off a couple years later, and he bounced around to many other teams. I was so excited when he had a brief stint with the White Sox in 1986, and even though his stuff was mostly gone, the excitement of seeing my all-time favorite pitcher take the mound for my favorite team was unreal. He was, until passed by Nolan Ryan, the all-time strikeout leader. He currently stands fourth on the all-time list.

2. Randy Johnson, 3. Tom Glavine, 4. Jim Abbott, 5. CC Sabathia

RIGHT-HANDED (STARTING) PITCHER: Greg Maddux. They didn't call him "The Professor" for nothing. He was simply a master of pitching. Maddux certainly didn't have the power arm of a Nolan Ryan, nor the amazing out pitch of a Steve Carlton. His weapons were precision location and his immense baseball acumen. Maddux won four consecutive NL Cy Young awards, and in the final two of them (1994 and 1995), he posted sub-1.70 ERA's. His 355 career wins stand as the 8th-best career total, and the most by any pitcher active after 1965. He has the best strikeout to walk ratio of any of the eleven pitchers with 3300 or more career K's. He won 18 Gold Glove awards, the most of any player in history. It was a privilege to see him pitch a handful of times at Wrigley, both for and against the Cubs.

2. Nolan Ryan, 3. Roger Clemens, 4. Ferguson Jenkins, 5. John Smoltz

RELIEF PITCHER: Mariano Rivera. He has one pitch. Hitters know it's coming. Yet, in his 14 years as a closer, no one has consistently solved him. At age 40, he is as good as, perhaps better than, he was at 29 or 30. Mo has 559 career saves, second all-time, and he should surpass Trevor Hoffman's 601 in either 2011 or 2012. He has been even more dominant in the postseason, posting an 8-1 record, 42 saves, a 0.71 ERA, and 109 K's to only 21 walks.

2. Rollie Fingers, 3. Lee Smith, 4. Bruce Sutter, 5. Goose Gossage

Best Athlete: Bo Jackson
Best Power: Jim Thome
Best Speed: Rickey Henderson
Best Infield Arm: Shawon Dunston
Best Outfield Arm: Ichiro Suzuki
Most Intimidating: Randy Johnson
Best Hitter: Frank Thomas
Best Pitcher: Greg Maddux

1. Albert Pujols
2. Pedro Martinez
3. Dale Murphy
4. Roy Halladay
5. Jim Rice

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Life, In A Nutshell

Since I once again find myself playing catch-up on writing about my travels and sports in general, it must be time for a wrap-up post. Here's a little bit about what I've been up to since August 1st. Note: the sections are in chronological order, so if any part doesn't appeal to you, feel free to skip it and read the parts you like.

August 13-17: San Francisco and Oakland

This was one of the two "big" baseball trips I had planned for 2010. Earlier in the year, I had crossed Atlanta and Tampa off my list on a driving tour through the Southeast. On this trip, I visited California for the first time since I was an infant, timing the trip to catch both the Giants and A's. I was also excited because my good friend and fraternity brother Brian (who happens to have one of the sharpest baseball minds I have encountered) was flying down from Seattle to join me. He used his hotel points to hook us up with a great hotel, the Sheraton at Fisherman's Wharf, which was only a few short blocks from Pier 39 and the waterfront.

When I drove to the Detroit airport that morning, it was so muggy that I had to run my air conditioning at 4am. When I stepped out of SFO, I was greeted with the most wonderful, cool, crisp air and 60-degree late morning temperatures. I was so very glad that I chose August for this trip! I had gone online to purchase tickets for the Alcatraz ferry and tour about a week earlier. If any of you are considering checking out "The Rock," make sure you buy those as early as possible. A week before my visit, virtually every possible tour slot was sold out. I managed to get one early that Friday afternoon, and once I walked down to the pier to check in, I saw a sign that all tours were sold out for a full week thereafter. I stopped in a small restaurant for a snack while I waited to hear from Brian. Unfortunately, Friday the 13th was unlucky for him, as his flight was delayed, and we were unsure if he'd make it to the pier in time for our ferry. By the time his plane hit the ground and he called, it was obvious that he wouldn't make it in time, so I made my way onto the top deck of the boat, hoping for some good photo opportunities.

The ride over to the island was fun, and I did manage to get some decent shots of the local scenery. Upon our arrival, a very helpful ranger gave us some tips on exploring the island and taking the tour. The prison itself is set at the top of a large hill, and I began the long walk to the top, trudging up steep paths with occasional switchbacks until my good leg felt an awful lot like my bad leg. I arrived at the building and stood in line to get the self-guided audio tour. The line itself winds through the intake and shower area of the prison, and the tour is available in so many languages. I think I was the only English-speaking person in a stretch of about ten individuals or families in line, and I was definitely able to pick up folks speaking Italian, Spanish, German, and a couple of Asian languages nearby.

I highly recommend the audio tour if you visit Alcatraz. It's narrated by former guards and inmates, and it does a very nice job of explaining life in the prison and some of the notable events in its history. I was able to see the cell blocks, recreation yard, control booths, and more. Plus, the views of the city from the island are magnificent! As the tour finished, I wandered into the gift shop, where the last guard to leave the prison when it closed in 1963 was signing copies of his book. He graciously signed a copy for my friend Andy and posed for a picture. Upon my return to the city, I made my way back to the hotel to catch up with Brian, and we had dinner and wandered the city a bit that evening.

Saturday was devoted primarily to sightseeing. We went for breakfast, then took a walk down to Presidio Park. My uncle was stationed at the Presidio (in its incarnation as a U.S. Army fort) when he returned from Korea, and I wanted to see it. Unfortunately, the fort itself was not convenient to reach from Crissy Field at the Marina, and we settled for some great pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge. Of course, I had to wander the famous Pier 39. The sea lions were very cool, but the rest of it was basically a bunch of overpriced shops and restaurants. The place reminded me of Chicago's Navy Pier, a tourist trap with a few cool things to see and beautiful waterfront views. We also rode the famous cable cars, which trivia buffs know are the only moving U.S. landmark. Dinner was an excellent all-you-can-eat dim sum at a little hole in the wall in Chinatown, called Dick Lee's. A trip to Ghirardelli Square capped the evening.

Sunday brought my first ever San Francisco Giants game. We made our way down to the beautiful AT&T Park, dressed for the cool, windy conditions for which Giants games are known. We walked past a statue of the great Willie Mays on our way to the gate and found the excellent box seats (lower deck, halfway up, just past third base) that Brian had arranged. We were lucky enough to catch two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum's turn in the rotation. It amazes me that someone so tiny (at least by professional athlete standards) can throw like that. I have a suspicion that his violent motion will limit his longevity, but it sure is fun to watch when he's on his game. Sadly, that was not the case for our visit, as Lincecum was a bit wild and very hittable. He didn't survive the fourth inning, and despite a HR from amazing rookie Buster Posey, the Giants dropped the game to division rival San Diego by a score of 8-2.

As for the ballpark itself, the place is beautiful. It has a classic baseball feel to it, and the view out over McCovey Cove in right field is awesome. The prices are pretty typical for a major league ballpark, and the fans seemed both passionate and pretty knowledgeable. I found the food decent, with the highlight being a very good Italian sausage sandwich and the weak point being some greasy, soggy garlic fries. The biggest surprise on that day was the weather. Although the forecast called for mid-50's and cloudy, the gametime conditions were in the low 70's and blazing sun. I quickly shrugged off my jacket and watched the game in my t-shirt, but Brian was wearing a warm, long-sleeve shirt and actually ended up buying a t-shirt for himself to wear. Unfortunately, neither of us brought any sunscreen, and we could not find any for sale there. So we suffered with very uncomfortable sunburns for the remainder of the trip.

Sunday evening featured an excellent sourdough bread bowl filled with clam chowder from the world-famous Boudin Bakery, as well as a trip to Walgreen's for some Solarcaine. The Oakland A's game was Monday night, but that left the day on Monday to wrap up the sightseeing wish list. We opted for two bus tours, the first of which was a very interesting loop around the city atop a double-deck bus. Of course, I had to see and cross the Golden Gate Bridge, so we then took an open-top, single-deck bus to do so. The sights were magnificent, especially on and around the bridge. I managed to get some great pictures, and I have posted some to our Facebook page (more details on that at the end of this post).

Monday afternoon meant time to catch the train to Oakland for the A's game. As much as I was looking forward to bringing my ballpark count to 23 out of 30, I was not expecting great things from the ballpark known derisively as the "Oakland Mausoleum." The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum lived up to my low expectations. There is absolutely nothing around the ballpark, which makes it pointless to arrive early or find something to do afterwards. Actually, I should not even call this a ballpark, as it's really a football stadium that hosts baseball games. I bought first row seats in the lower deck, just past first base. Yet, we were still farther from the action than I have been in the upper deck of some ballparks. The place is an absolutely ugly hunk of concrete, devoid of any charm at all. The staff was very friendly, and with the actual attendance not even surpassing that of an average Toledo Mud Hens game, there were few lines. The food was mediocre, with a nice barbecue pork sandwich offsetting yet another disappointing order of garlic fries.

The game itself didn't feature much action. The visiting Blue Jays took an early lead, and the only real drama was watching their starter, Shawn Marcum, take a no-hitter into the 7th inning. I have never seen a no-hitter in person, and I hope it happens before I die. It was not to be on this evening, as A's outfielder Conor Jackson hit a solo HR. Marcum finished his complete game victory, yielding only that hit. As the game ended, we took a long, cold walk across the pedestrian bridge and back to the train station, and I was thankful that I had no reason to ever visit Oakland again.

Tuesday morning was our departure from the Bay Area. Brian's flight was a bit earlier than mine, but eventually I made my way to the airport and returned to reality. The A's game notwithstanding, it was an outstanding trip, and I'll have many great memories of the sights and time spent in San Francisco. To the best of my knowledge, I did not leave any vital organs there.

August 29: Yankees at White Sox (#35 Retired)

Sunday, August 29 was a date I had anticipated for most of the baseball season. My good friend and fraternity brother Owen had joined me in making the drive from Toledo to Chicago for the White Sox game. Of course, I am always excited to see my hometown ChiSox play, but this day brought a very important bonus. The team was retiring the #35 jersey of my favorite Sox player ever, "The Big Hurt," Frank Thomas. Thomas will almost certainly be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he becomes eligible, and I hope to be in Cooperstown to see his induction. For now, I settled for the unveiling of his number and likeness alongside the team's other greats on the left field wall. As an extra treat, another friend and fraternity brother had already planned a trip to Chicago to visit his wife's family and decided to buy a ticket to the game and join us. Coincidentally, his name is Brian, and he is also one of the smartest baseball people I know, but he hails from outside of Washington, D.C.

From my vantage point in the upper deck, down the right field line, I saw many Sox legends, as well as Big Hurt's teammates take the field. It was then time for the man himself to address the crowd. He spoke eloquently and emotionally about his many years on the Southside and his attachment to the team and its fans. When he mentioned his only World Series title, as an injured member of the 2005 White Sox, the fans erupted. As he concluded his speech, he received a loud and extended standing ovation, and everyone watched as #35 was unveiled along the wall. For this fan, who had been present as a 14-year-old for Frank's second major league game in 1990, it was a magical moment.

Unfortunately, the Sox were unable to muster much offense against the not-so-legendary Yankees starter Ivan Nova. Gavin Floyd gave up only two runs in 6 2/3 innings against a B-team lineup (no A-Rod, no Teixeira), but that was enough for the Yankees to overcome the home team, 2-1. On the plus side, I did get to see quite possibly the best relief pitcher in baseball history, Mariano Rivera, come in to get the save. Despite the outcome, I was very pleased to spend time with good friends and see perhaps the greatest hitter of our era honored.

September 3: Mets at Cubs

Once per year, I take my aunt (a huge Cubs fan) to a game at Wrigley for her birthday. This is also the only time I ever cheer for the Cubs for any reason. We had excellent seats (lower deck box, right field line) and the most perfect weather imaginable. We even received bobbleheads of pitcher Carlos Zambrano playing soccer, which was somewhat odd, since most baseball fans are not really into soccer and Zambrano had been previously suspended by the team and sent to anger management treatment. A fan walking by bumped my bobblehead and knocked its box over, and the figurine proceeded to cry and writhe for almost two minutes before it realized a foul would not be called. The visiting Mets stormed to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first off ineffective starter Randy Wells, and it took the life out of the ballpark. I told my aunt not to worry, as today seemed like the kind of day that would feature a lot of offense. Alfonso Soriano and Blake DeWitt each backed me up with three-run HR for the Cubs, and the Northsiders led 7-4 after six innings. As the beer flowed freely, the Wrigley denizens got a lot more animated, and their team survived a few scares (and a pinch-hitting appearance by Mud Hens legend Mike Hessman!) to eventually win 7-6.

2010 World Series

Just a few thoughts on the World Series. I was rooting for the Rangers, since I like many of their players, the fans are a long-suffering bunch, and I am generally an American League fan. That said, I was not at all upset to see the Giants bring San Francisco its first baseball title ever, the Giants' first since their New York days in 1954. I also really enjoy seeing a team with so many cast-offs succeed. Half of the Giants regular position players were not with the team at the end of 2009, and quite a few of those were really unwanted by other teams. There is a definite schadenfreude in seeing teams with mega-payrolls and many "superstars" (Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Angels, et al) sitting home and watching the Rangers and Giants play for the title. Also, the Giants' victory made 2010 the fourth of the previous six years in which I have seen the eventual World Series champions play a home game (2005 White Sox, 2007 Red Sox, 2008 Phillies, 2010 Giants). I guess I'm doing something right with my baseball travels!

Nov. 5-7: WFTDA Championships

At the time the Cincinnati Rollergirls (CRG) were battling at North Central Regionals for a berth in the WFTDA Championship Tournament in Chicago, I decided that I would travel to cheer them on if they made it. Although they played very well, pushing some outstanding teams to the limit, a top-three finish barely eluded them. I thought it would still be fun to go and see some of the great teams from across the country, but I put the decision on the back burner for a while to see if my schedule would cooperate. As some of the CRG skaters announced that they would attend, I began to lean in favor of going, both to visit with them and to see teams like Oly, Gotham, and Rocky Mountain. I managed to find a substitute for the class I teach on Saturday mornings. Unfortunately, I could not find a way to clear my schedule enough to stay in Chicago and see all three days of action, so I settled on attending Saturday's six-bout schedule.

I arrived in Chicago midday on Friday and spent the remainder of that day visiting with family and relaxing a bit before what promised to be a long Saturday. When that morning arrived, I made a relatively easy 30-minute drive down to the UIC Pavilion and found a place to park just after the doors opened at 9am. By the time I had purchased my ticket ($30, and zero in Ticketbastard fees) and made my way inside, many of the best GA seats had already filled in. I camped out near the jammer line and managed to hold a block of seats for the CRG skaters, who had yet to arrive. I sat back and watched warm-ups and the first half of Gotham vs. Texas (my first ever live tourney action) before learning that the CRG ladies were sitting in a different section.

I settled into a seat in the row behind Miss Print and others and was quickly joined by Poppy Chulo and the Librarian, who both sat with me for most of the morning's action. As we enjoyed the Rocky Mountain vs. Charm City quarterfinal, I got to meet a few CRG skaters whom I didn't know previously, such as Buckhead Betty and Pistol Whippin Wendy. We chatted about a variety of topics as we cheered for Charm City to keep it close. I learned quite a few things over the span of the first two bouts, including the skaters' views on Men's Roller Derby (mixed, but somewhat more negative than positive) and that a male cheerleader dressed as a banana is easily one of the worst things about roller derby, and possibly about life in general. Most importantly, though, I learned so much about the sport. I must admit to feeling very stupid as The Librarian, Poppy Chulo, Miss Print, Susie Shinsplintski, and others pointed out so many strategy points that I missed. It was a great experience, and I was very grateful to learn from experts, especially those as delightful as my companions. I can only hope that my analysis of future bouts is more intelligent because of the insights I gained.

The afternoon's action began with Philly knocking out Kansas City. While there was a good deal of conversation about the action, in which the Liberty Belles hung on to win by 21, by far the most chatter focused on Philly's attire. The Belles wore low-cut, tank-top style shirts, and even the smaller girls were showing off some cleavage. Unfortunately for some of the larger skaters, the uniforms did not seem to come with reinforced undergarments. As they rounded the turn in front of our seats, many of them looked as though they had two pendula hung around their necks. It bordered on uncomfortable for many spectators, so I can only imagine the struggle for the skaters to manage such mammary oscillation. As a single man, I must admit to generally enjoying the show, but I would have gladly offered t-shirts to a few of Philly's skaters to cover up.

After that third quarterfinal, most of the CRG crew and I made plans to head to Giordano's for some awesome deep dish pizza. To minimize the amount of action we'd miss, we managed to make a reservation and order the pizzas ahead of time. After much debate, we decided to leave at halftime of the Oly vs. Windy City quarterfinal, in order to make it back to the arena in time for the Rocky Mountain vs. Gotham semifinal. While a huge majority of the crowd, including myself, was cheering for the home team, I didn't have much faith in its ability to knock off Oly. The fans' support certainly seemed to drive Windy City to skate even harder, but there was a clear talent disparity, and Oly steadily increased its lead as the bout neared halftime. Although we weren't there to see it, it appears that Windy City struggled significantly in the second half and saw its season end at that point.

Fifteen of us took the half-mile walk from the UIC Pavilion down to Giordano's for my favorite Chicago treat. We arrived and were seated immediately, chatting as our server struggled to get us situated. I am somewhat surprised that more than one person wasn't assigned to manage a group our size, and the service was generally subpar. Fortunately, once the pizza arrived, things got considerably better, as many Chicago-style pizza virgins experienced the splendor of deep dish. We enjoyed good conversation, and I was glad for the opportunity to get to know Candy Kickass and her husband, as well as Rabid Derby Fan Earl and Penal Eyes. Our dinner excursion was one of my favorite parts of the day, and by the time four large pies defeated the last of our appetites, I was ready to stroll back over and watch more roller derby. If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend engaging in a session of mutual mastication with your favorite derby girls.

Although we were all suffering from pizza coma, we settled in to watch the first semifinal matchup of the evening. I was very excited to see two of the sport's titans battle, especially having seen the immense talent and contrasting styles of Gotham and Rocky Mountain earlier that day. When we settled back into our seats, the arrangement shifted a bit, and I ended up with Pistol Whippin Wendy and The Librarian for most of the evening. Having never spoken with Wendy prior to that day, I was very impressed by her knowledge and personality, and truly enjoyed sitting with her. In terms of the bout, Rocky Mountain was very impressive. Even amazing jammers Bonnie Thunders and Suzy Hotrod were usually left frustrated in their attempts to manage a very strong and smart Rocky Mountain pack. Gotham seemed a bit more fatigued than its opponent, and I wondered if their lack of championship-caliber depth at jammer played a part in that. The crowd was very pro-Gotham, but the ladies from NYC were relegated to the third-place bout.

The final bout of the evening featured Oly and Philadelphia, and few expected Philly to keep up. True to form, Oly used its superior speed and pack play to efficently carve out an increasing lead. By this point, virtually no one in the building was cheering for Oly. In fact, a member of our group strongly suggested that the wheel of a skate be introduced into the feminine region of one of the Oly jammers. It's safe to say that in thirty-plus years of attending sports, I had never heard that particular outburst. After Philly's championship hopes were dashed, the CRG skaters and I wearily prepared to leave. They picked up their leftovers from my car, and we parted ways until March. I will certainly miss CRG and getting to spend time with some great women over the next five months, but I do hope to make it to a few Glass City Rollers bouts over the winter to feed my derby addiction.

I'll leave you with a few overall impressions of the Uproar By The Lakeshore. First, the Windy City Rollers deserve high praise for an outstanding job of hosting the tournament. Everything was orderly and well run, from the scoreboard and sound system to the bout scheduling and the helpful WCR skaters greeting fans inside the arena doors. Also, there was a strong pro-North Central and pro-East region sentiment among the fans (or perhaps more anti-West). While the top Western teams are absolutely magnificent squads, I believe that fans' distaste for "slow derby" and the West Coast style of play contributed to the imbalance of support at least as much as geography did. I'm interested to see if WFTDA will accede to the preferences of so many fans and ban or limit slow derby in its next rules revision.

I really enjoyed getting to see roller derby at its highest level. Aside from Philly and Windy City, I had never seen any of the teams that participated on Saturday. It was a treat to see so many of the best athletes on the track. Even more memorable for me was getting to spend so much time with the CRG skaters who attended. I honestly think I had more interaction with them in one day than I have over the years I have watched them in Cincy. For once, I didn't feel like so much of an outsider. Sure, some of those in attendance barely talked to me, but I really appreciated those who made me feel very welcome. Finally, I have a bittersweet announcement: Ruth Enasia of Windy City is no longer my secret roller derby girlfriend. It's really nothing to do with her, as she skated very well and remains quite attractive. I simply found someone new, someone who will similarly barely know that I exist, someone with whom my chances are about as good as my chances of being the Opening Day first baseman for the White Sox next season. Perhaps, unlike Ruth, this beautiful and charming skater will come to know she's my girlfriend before I have to break up with her. But I doubt it.

November 8: ESPN removes Joe Morgan from Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts

I'll miss play-by-play man Jon Miller, but Morgan was absolutely the worst baseball analyst I have ever heard. With both Morgan and John Madden no longer "gracing" our airwaves, the intelligence level of sports broadcasting will jump measurably.


With that, we're up-to-date. My next trip is a short one, a quick drive to Detroit with friends for the Bears vs. Lions game in December. As you may know, the titles of my posts are always songs, and I generally manage to tie the song into the final few sentences. There's not much to say here, except for the fact that Barenaked Ladies factored into one of the trips described above. I'll let you use your imagination as to which one and how!

Note on pictures: I am starting to post pictures from my trips on our Facebook page (Click Here). I will add more over the next week or two, so why not stop over and look? While you're there, be sure to "like" Have Sports, Will Travel and receive updates!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

My Kind of Town

This weekend's trip covered familiar roads, but the sports destination was a bit more out of the ordinary. I left the Glass City on Friday evening, headed west on I-80 to my sweet home, Chicago. The trip was a chance to visit my mom, who is recovering from knee replacement surgery. It also offered the chance to see only my second ever Cincinnati Rollergirls (CRG) road game. Unlike the first experience (Grand Rapids in February snow), this drive offered great weather and my canine co-pilot. The trip was uneventful, and we arrived safely at my mom's house, just outside Chicago proper. After a morning of errands and visiting, it was time for me to head to the UIC Pavilion for a roller derby doubleheader. It had been at least fifteen years since I had been to that arena, and my previous visit had been for a college basketball game. I do have a lot to say about the place as a roller derby venue, but I'll get to that after the bout recaps.

The first bout of the night was a battle of the B-Teams, with CRG's Silent Lambs taking on Windy City Rollers' (WCR's) Second Wind. The teams had played once before, with the Chicagoans posting a convincing victory at the Cincinnati Gardens. I expected an uphill battle for CRG, and things went according to form from the opening whistle. The Second Wind did everything well, sending its quick and agile jammers through the pack while holding up the Cincy jammers at the middle and back of the pack. Windy City's strategy was obvious: get lead jammer, make a scoring pass for four or five points, then call off the jam to avoid yielding any. In fact, this approach worked at least five times in a row at the beginning of the first half. More than six minutes elapsed before CRG gained lead jammer status, and that jam ended zero-zero as the Chicago jammer made up ground once she cleared the pack. Miss Print had a great initial pass for CRG soon thereafter, but she also could not turn lead jammer status into points. Windy City caught a power jam and supplemented that output with additional 3-0 and 4-0 jams. With seventeen minutes elapsed, the score stood at WCR 53, CRG 0.

At that point, Wheezy took the star and made a lightning-quick inside pass to get lead jammer, her long strides and excellent balance catching Chicago's blockers by surprise. She passed on the chance to call the jam at 4-0 and kept skating. Unfortunately, CRG's defense was not able to hold up the WCR jammer. Wheezy tallied 12 points, but her counterpart nearly equaled her. Still, I could sense the Lambs exhaling and settling down a bit, having finally broken through. Miss Print had a couple more effective jams and Pistol Whippin Wendy posted a nine-point power jam near the end of the first half, but the score favored Windy City 91-33 at halftime.

The Silent Lambs were facing quite a bit of firepower, but they skated tenaciously and acquitted themselves very well in the second half. The coaches, jammers, and blockers should all share credit for some effective halftime adjustments, as CRG exploited the inside line to get a more substantial share of lead jammer calls. Also, it was clear that the Lambs were sending more blockers to the back of the pack to play offense. Once the CRG jammer got free of the rear walls, Cincy's blockers slowed the pack to force Chicago's pivot and other front blockers into some 20-foot calls. The Second Wind did not relent, however, and CRG's traditional penalty issues allowed the Chicagoans to control many packs. In the end, Windy City captured a 184-96 victory.

The decision on MVP's for the Silent Lambs was a difficult one. Quite honestly, no one had the kind of magnificent game that would lead to an easy choice. Each CRG skater had some notable rough spots in her performance. Yet, a number of them had outings that were praiseworthy in general. In terms of the jammers, I kept re-opening my internal debate, but each time returned to the same answer. I was worried that my bias toward a favorite skater was clouding my decision, but I'm giving the nod to Miss Print. She skated aggressively, finding holes in the Windy City defense and seizing them. Her speed on the open track was superb, and she showed toughness, bouncing back from some questionable hits at (or beyond) the 20-foot mark to get out and score some points. The downside to her performance was that she took the star to the penalty box on at least three occasions, yielding good scoring opportunities for the opponent. Still, her determination and ferocity were a welcome sight. One memorable second-half jam featured Miss Print with some late jammer-on-jammer action, preventing a WCR skater from completing a grand slam.

Wheezy was the other potential choice for MVP. She got off to a pretty slow start, as she and her teammates were consistently stymied by WCR's power and precision. As the bout progressed, she began to find her comfort level, and my best estimate places her as CRG's eventual leading scorer for the bout. It speaks to her overall body of work this season that Wheezy had an "off" game by her standards, yet was still a top performer. She is an impressive talent, and I expect that she will continue to use her speed, power, and balance to lead CRG to greater heights in the near future. Wheezy also deserves credit for her mental acuity and conditioning, as she seems to get stronger and more effective late in the game.

Turning to CRG's other jammers, Pistol Whippin Wendy showed some nice moves in navigating some solid WCR packs. Polly Rocket's performance mirrored her team's, as she was boxed in for most of the first half but showcased some strong jams in the second. Bombtrack took a few turns with the star in front of her hometown crowd, to similarly mixed results.

I found it very difficult to evaluate the blockers in this game, for a handful of reasons. First, the shift in strategy to more offensive pack play at the back end was a pretty radical departure from the "set up a wall at the front and play defense" style that CRG usually employs. Also, the Silent Lambs spent so much time in the penalty box that there were often only two blockers on the track. In fact, I counted at least three occasions when a third CRG blocker had to be turned away from a full sin bin. Finally, and most importantly, The Second Wind skaters were so talented that it was often tough to tell whether a Lambs blocker did poorly or was defeated by an excellent play. Overall, the typically staunch front of the pack struggled, while the middle and back were mostly effective.

Individual blocking kudos go to a number of Lambs. Cherry Choke played a steady two-way game, both giving (assists) and taking away (some nice, fluid jammer take-outs near the front of the pack). Geez Louise continued her pattern of effective play, especially in terms of walling off Chicago blockers to give her jammers inside lanes. Ruff'n The Passer brought the pain, notably with a tremendous hit on WCR's excellent triple-threat Rose Feratu. Mirderher contributed some bruises to Windy City's Sunday morning, in addition to totally winning the "Black Betty" dance-off during an official time out.

As I mentioned, it was difficult to accurately rate performances for this bout, but I chose two CRG blockers to join Miss Print on the MVP Honor Roll. Nik Jagger, by virtue of the change in blocking strategy, the team's frequent penalty difficulties, and the absence of front-end running mate Celia Graves, had quite a tough task. There were occasions when Windy City elongated the pack, giving one of its quick jammers plenty of room and momentum to juke Nik. Overall, however, Nik did a commendable job holding a shorthanded pack together. When her teammates were able to provide some cover behind her, she was also able to put the brakes on many a WCR jammer. The final MVP nod goes to the Librarian. The Librarian's performance often goes overlooked because it tends to be, well, quiet. There are few punishing, open-track hits, and she often is positioned mid-pack, where it's tough to see her one-on-one blocks. Simply put, The Librarian excels at making positive plays. Whether it's sliding to the inside to put WCR jammer Ruth Enasia into the infield or positioning herself perfectly to keep a blocker away from the Lambs' jammer, she makes smart, sound plays. Also, while I had some trouble keeping track of who was in the penalty box, it seemed that The Librarian played a very clean game and rarely put her team at a disadvantage by taking a one-minute sabbatical.

Windy City's Second Wind features many talented skaters,and I'm certain that quite a few of them would be A-Team mainstays in other leagues. Ruth Enasia was actually on loan from the WCR All-Stars, and she was tough to contain while wearing the star. She is tall and lean, but she has the moves and agility of a smaller jammer. Once those long legs get churning away from the pack, there's very little time to prepare before she's back again. Also, if she's single, I might be able to introduce her to a native Chicagoan who enjoys watching and even writing about derby. Other standouts were Zoe Atrocious and Rose Feratu, both of whom were equally adept at blocking and jamming. AliSin Chains came to snuff the jammer and enjoyed much success. Bork Bork Bork was an outstanding blocker and a crowd favorite, while Mya Ssault delivered the hit of the bout, absolutely leveling Ruff'n The Passer along the straightaway.

The evening's main event was a battle between the visiting Boston Massacre (#3 in the WFTDA East Region, #10 in the DNN Power Rankings) and the Windy City Rollers All-Stars (WFTDA #1 North Central, DNN #11). WCR absolutely controlled the first half, riding star jammers Beth Amphetamine, Varla Vendetta, and Shocka Conduit and outstanding pack play to a big 76-29 halftime lead. On their way to putting away an emphatic victory, Windy City suddenly forgot how to stay out of the penalty box. When the packs were relatively equal and both jammers were on the floor, Chicago was clearly the better team. Boston did most of its second half scoring on a handful of power jams, with Claire D. Way and Sugar Hits keeping the scoreboard operator busy. Windy City did its best to slowly give the game away with penalty trouble, but give the Massacre credit for stamina and determination. By the time the clock read three minutes remaining, the bout was nearly tied. With the partisan Chicago crowd finally showing some signs of life, WCR held onto a mere six-point lead with one jam to go. Windy City's jammer took lead status and skated away from the pack as the final seconds ticked away. At zero, it was hands to the hips and drive home safely.

While Chicago and Boston are both excellent teams with great speed, this bout was all about aggression. Windy City built a big lead by being the physically dominant team, then gave it away by playing a bit too fast and loose with the hits. The most impressive WCR skater overall was Jackie Daniels, who coincidentally was the only skater for either team I had previously seen live (when she was with Grand Raggidy). It looked like the jump up in competition level brought out the best in Jackie, as she was often a one-woman wall at the front of the pack. She not only dished out some punishing hits, but also proved her mastery of positional blocking. If all of that wasn't enough, she took some very impressive turns with the star, especially early in the second half with her team in freefall.In addition to those of the skaters mentioned earlier, I also came away impressed with the skills of Athena DeCrime, Blossom Bruiso, and Hoosier Mama.

Boston got a gutsy and outstanding performance from Sugar Hits, who bounced back from one vicious hit after another and kept taking the star with maximum effort. Anna WrecksYa took the fight to the Chicagoans, while Killary Clinton managed to duck out of Chelsea's wedding long enough to play a sharp two-way game. Maura Buse was quick and smart, and her small stature belied the power of the collisions she caused. It would be difficult to imagine either of these two teams missing out on more bouts on this floor come early November, when the WFTDA National Tournament will be held there at the Pavilion.

Let's move on and discuss my overall impressions of the evening. In terms of the venue itself, Windy City's home arena had a "big-time" feel to it, with electronic signage all around and full-service concession stands. Also - and this is a big deal for someone who usually watches bouts at the Cincinnati Gardens - the bouts were contested in air-conditioned bliss and the sound system was superb. Unfortunately, those and the quality of play are among the few positives in the overall WCR experience. One of my biggest complaints is the expense of a night out at the derby there. A general admission ticket was $20, but quickly became $29 and change with the exorbitant ticket fees. For the price of one ticket in an uncomfortable plastic GA seat, I could sit first row trackside for two CRG bouts. The parking was similarly ridiculous at $13, considering that there were no other events taking place nearby and the UIC Pavilion is not really close to the Loop. The $5 jumbo hot dog was worth it, as it was almost as good as my all-time favorite ballpark food, the Comiskey Jumbo Kosher Dog. A bottle of pop, however, ran $4, which is pricier than at many Major League stadia. I realize that the overall cost of living is considerably higher in Chicago than in Cincy or Toledo, but the prices generally seemed excessive.

The cost may have been one reason that the crowd was unimpressive. By my estimate, there were no more than a few hundred fans present by halftime of the first bout, and not even a thousand by the time the All-Star bout took shape. The fans also didn't seem fully into the game. On only a few occasions did the crowd provide substantial noise and energy, and that is a shame, considering the quality of the teams themselves. I nicknamed my row the "ADD Seats," since I had to stand to let people in and out every minute or two during the first bout. The fans weren't even considerate enough to wait for a jam to end before walking around in front of those of us who actually cared about the action. I eventually moved to a seat near the top of one of the corners, in order to watch the game without interruption.

The other thing this bout lacked was the opportunity to mingle with the skaters on the floor at the end of the night. By the time I got down to the floor to talk with the few assembled CRG skaters (no more than 2-3 minutes after the second bout), nearly every single WCR skater had vacated the area, and the crew was pulling up tape from the floor. I had really hoped to meet some of the Chicago and Boston skaters, but I never got the chance. Even the CRG skaters were being hustled out so quickly that I barely had the chance to speak with any. I got a few quick hellos with Trauma, Wheezy, Hop Devil, and Sk8r Kinney. It was only thanks to The Librarian, who very kindly went out of her way to find me in the crowd, that I even got time for that, plus a few minutes with her and Miss Print. I have only been to a few bouts away from the Gardens, but I think that teams fumble a chance to build a stronger fan base by not being available for the meet-and-greet after the bout. While the derby action is great, I doubt that I would have bought 2011 Season Tickets for CRG if not for the fact that I've really enjoyed talking to so many of the skaters before making the long trek back to Toledo.

Those complaints aside, I really did enjoy my trip to Chicago and my first experience with the Windy City Rollers. I got to support my favorite team on the road, while also watching two teams with strong national profiles. I got to visit with my mom and eat some of my local favorites, Giordano's sausage deep dish and Connie's beef sandwich and tamales. So, it's no wonder that each time I roam, Chicago is calling me home, Chicago is. I'll be back in that same old place in just a month, for White Sox and Cubs games. Until then, I'll leave you with my prediction for Sunday, September 12 at Soldier Field: Da Bears 314, the Lions negative-2.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

88 Lines about 44 Sports Topics

Summer is flying by, and it's tough to find the time to write about all of the amazing and strange things going on in the world of sports. As my faithful readers (all four of them) know, I tend to write some rather long posts. Since Shakespeare wrote that "Brevity is the soul of wit," it must be that my writing is a long way from witty. So, I thought it would be fun to recap some of the happenings in sports and my travels in as brief a way as possible. Luckily, XM Radio's "First Wave" station provided the necessary inspiration for my approach. Marc Campbell wrote a hit song titled "88 Lines about 44 Women" for his band, The Nails, and the folks at First Wave were kind enough to play it recently. The premise of the song is that Campbell describes 44 different women he's been with, in a mere two lines each. So, allow me to present my own 88 lines, about 44 events or topics in sports over the past few months. I have attempted to remain as faithful to the feel and pacing of the song as possible.

(If you'd like to get a feel for the sound and rhythm of the original song, the video may be found here, and the lyrics here. Warning: Video and lyrics are not suitable for all viewers.)


Made a trip to see the Braves
Watching Chipper while he's here
Roller Derby in the 'Nati
Awesome action, dollar beers
Most annoying stadium trend
Is vuvuzelas in the crowd
Rays game, air-conditioned bliss
Fans ring cowbells, Walken's proud

Cubs fans, one more year of mis'ry
Century-plus and still no rings
Strasburg debuts, strikes out fourteen
Seems to be the next big thing
ChiSox, left for dead in May
Come charging back to take the lead
MMA scores lots of viewers
People love to watch 'em bleed

Floyd Mayweather's scared to fight
While Pacquiao is passing laws
Women's basketball's still going
All nine fans give much applause
LeBron's lame TV "decision"
Leaves Cavs fans feeling overdrawn
Mud Hens games, worth every penny
Even though Mike Hessman's gone

Blackhawks use their grit and speed
To bring Lord Stanley to Chi-town
Soccer players, faking injury
Moan and roll upon the ground
Yankees hang another banner
Twenty-eighth to soon unfurl?
Tiger comes back, hitting holes
Is tougher in golf than with girls

Memorial weekend down in Cincy
Derby, baseball, lots of sweat
Galarraga's near-perfecto
Jim Joyce and I won't soon forget
August trip means Giants, Oakland
I am happy to report
Federal judge just states the obvious
Cheerleading is not a sport

Chicago Bears add Julius Peppers
Trying to defeat the Pack
Southern Cal is caught a-cheatin'
Then ships Reggie's Heisman back
Games with coeds in bar restrooms
Lead to problems for Big Ben
Michael Vick is back in trouble
Canine karma strikes again?

Deserving slugger Andre Dawson
Gets elected to the Hall
Bert Blyleven and Ron Santo
Still sit home, await the call
Baseball All-Stars get low ratings
This one doesn't count for much
Spanish futbol scores just once
But that's enough to beat the Dutch

Kobe and the Lakers win it
Make Phil Jackson number one
Cox, Pinella, maybe Torre
After this year will be done
Boss Steinbrenner, Rest In Peace
Brought mega-money to the game
Bob Sheppard passed away but he's
Still calling out the angels' names

Dodgers' future in divorce court
Oh, but for a good pre-nup
Carl Crawford's boys are battered
Maybe next time wear a cup?
Albert Pujols keeps on hitting
Triple Crown race is old hat
Gamecocks baseball, first time champions
See the last of Rosenblatt
Two unknowns at Wimbledon
Play 'til far beyond exhaustion
Brady's contract situation
Sends the jitters all through Boston
Surprising Padres lead the West
As pitching helps them top the heap
No matter what you think of Guillen
Ozzie doesn't give a [bleep]
Lance tries one more time in France
This is the year his old legs fail
July winds down, we all await
The Indians', Astros' fire sales
Anger management is called for
As Zambrano blows a gasket
But in my favorite moment this year
Kane puts the biscuit in the basket

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Origins of a Derby Fan

Recent events have made me think about how I grew to be a derby fan. I attended my first bout by chance, 200 miles away from home, knowing no one in the building except for the person who joined me. The most likely outcome would have been to either have fun or leave totally perplexed, then go home (to a city that at the time had no roller derby bouts) and move on with life. It turns out that we had fun, didn't talk to anyone on the way out, went to a Reds game the next day, and went home. Still, this roller derby stuck in my mind. For three days, I searched the Internet, looking to learn more about the Cincinnati Rollergirls and the sport in general. Finally, I did something very much outside of my comfort zone: I wrote an email to a newspaper reporter about our experience at the bout. I was not then (nor really am I now) very good at initiating communication with those I don't know, but I felt compelled to let her know how much we enjoyed our evening. I figured that she would read my note, perhaps say "thanks for writing," and that would be the end of it.

Well, her response was very kind, and she genuinely seemed excited to hear from me. This small act led to my desire to learn more, and to begin planning my visits to Cincy around roller derby bouts. Since then, my companion for the first bout went from girlfriend to fiancee, to ex-fiancee, to mortal enemy. I remained significantly more enamored with roller derby. Over the past month or so, all three of the skaters I identified as favorites from that first bout have had some struggles. Their injuries and other issues both on and off the track have made those early days seem that much more distant. Still, I am so appreciative of what those (and all) skaters do, and I don't want to see the era in which I came to love the sport end. So, I want to honor my early favorites, and especially the reporter who has shared her knowledge and love of the sport with me, by posting the letter I emailed just five days after my first ever bout.



I just wanted to drop a note and say thanks to you and your teammates for putting on a fun evening this past Saturday. My girlfriend and I were visiting Cincy for the weekend from Toledo. A few weeks ago, we saw the ad for your event on the website and thought it would be an interesting night of entertainment, a novelty. I expected it to be like the scripted, pro-wrestling style roller derby I had seen on TV long ago.

I was surprised and impressed by the athleticism and passion of the rollergirls, as well as the fun atmosphere. As newcomers, we didn't really have a rooting interest, but we decided to cheer for the home team. Our favorite skaters were you, The Librarian, and Sadistic Sadie... as well as a few other others. We cheered even more for our favorites because you all really seemed to be having a great time out there. We had a couple of beers, cheered like crazy, bought a shirt (sorry, she looked better in the Dames shirt), and generally had a great time.

Cincy is a bit of a hike from Toledo, so I doubt we'll be able to attend too many more events there, but suffice it to say that your team has won two new fans. When your new season begins, I will hopefully be able to plan a trip to see another match, and even go to the after-party and mingle some (we were wiped out this time). I will also check in on the website from time to time to see if you're playing in Cleveland, Detroit, or someplace else close to us. Again, thanks for a fun new experience.


[George Newman]

Monday, June 21, 2010

Summer Nights

Summer lovin', had me a blast.
Summer lovin', they skated so fast.

The road trip for this past Saturday was a drive down I-75 to the Cincinnati Gardens for the Cincinnati Rollergirls' (CRG) last home bout of the season. My normal, 3-hour-plus trip seemed easy enough to handle for a weekend on which I was not scheduled to teach, and I was very excited to see one more bout. After all, once the home season ends, there is always a decent chance that I won't see them skate in person for nine more months or so. I had planned a couple of little surprises for the evening, and by Wednesday of last week, it looked like everything was falling into place.

On Friday afternoon, however, things went awry. I called a local establishment to make sure I could stop by and pick up my order, only to find out that my items were not there. I had been assured over a week before that I'd have them before I left for Cincy. When I called on Wednesday evening, I was told that they would be in on Friday. Needless to say, my blood pressure rose to "Bobby Jenks has walked the first two men in the ninth" levels. I called every place I could find, from Toledo to Dayton and all points in between, but no one could help. I got a lot of "we can order that and have it a week," but I needed it in 18 hours or so. I went to bed on Friday night, upset that my plans would not work out and that I would have to disappoint The Librarian, whom I had told of them.

Come Saturday morning, I got back online for a last round of searching. My best hope, a place in Dayton, was dashed. I even checked in places such as Ann Arbor. Finally, just after 10am, I happened to call a store in Dearborn, Michigan (just west of Detroit). The person told me that he could cover about half of what I needed. Along with the little bit that my original supplier had in stock, I could come close to keeping my word. My mind raced with computations. If I left right away, I could get to Dearborn and back, stop at the store in Toledo, and still be home with a bit of time to spare to get my dog to the sitter and make it to the Gardens. I decided to try it. I was apparently unaware that the entire state of Michigan (state symbol: Orange Barrel) was under construction. Still, I managed to exit the highway in Dearborn within an hour. That's when the nightmare began. A combination of construction, poorly marked roads, and the fact that the city apparently disdains the ability to make a left turn made the final 1.5 miles of my trip take 25 minutes.

I located the store and parked on the nearest side street, then went in to pick up what I needed. Of course, I then had to carry a couple of heavy boxes about a block to my car in some unfriendly heat. I made it, but as I began loading my car, a box slid down, and some of its contents shattered on the sidewalk. Since it wasn't the more important box, I decided against trying to replace my losses. Instead, I yelled many words that would make even a rollergirl flinch, slammed my car door, and got back on the road. By then, my small time cushion was long gone, and I was worried about being late to the bout. I decided to try a different way home, one which I had not mapped, but that offered the possibility of missing the construction I had seen on my way up. Of course, I missed the exit I should've taken. Instead of a shortcut to I-75 South to Toledo, I was now headed for downtown Detroit. I decided to take my chances and exit at the first recognizable street. After driving through a dilapidated part of Detroit (redundant, I know), I emerged near an on-ramp. At that point, I had fallen behind schedule even more, but at least I was no longer off course. I got back to Toledo and made my second stop without problems, then raced home, got things together for the trip, and raced away to drop off the dog.

I was finally headed back south on I-75 by about 2:45. Considering that I asked The Librarian to meet me at Will Call at 5:45, I was not optimistic about the trip. Somehow, the clouds parted (figuratively, as the sunshine had been blazing all day), and I made great time on my trip. I was even able to listen to Jake Peavy's masterful complete game shutout for the White Sox on my way down. The only strange part of the trip was driving past the scarred remains of Big Butter Jesus (a/k/a Touchdown Jesus or No Pack Jesus). The entire idea behind the statue is ludicrous to me, but it has become a shared point of reference for so many people, so it was somewhat sad to see it. I pulled into the lot at the Gardens around 5:40 and spent five minutes feverishly removing price tags, then went in and got my ticket at Will Call (thanks, Miss Print!). A couple of minutes later, The Librarian strolled over to meet me, the limp from her injured knee substantially and thankfully fading. Seeing her smile was the last bit of sunshine I needed to move past my earlier frustration, and my excitement for the evening began to build. We picked up Sadistic Sadie (who was bench coaching for the evening) and a guy from the building staff on our way out to my car, and we managed to get everything inside. With that (literal and figurative) load removed, I was able to get in and claim a seat. I chose a first row trackside seat near turn three, assuring myself a good view of both the action and the scoreboard.

I strolled out to the concession stand for a pretzel and a Diet Pepsi (no beeramid this time), mindful that the lines would be much worse once people began to fill the stands. I then settled in to read the game program and watch warm-ups, as I generally do. A very nice couple sat next to me. They were attending their first bout, and much like myself back in 2007, decided to show up and check it out. We chatted a bit, and I knew that I would have an opportunity for derby evangelism that evening. As we talked, the skaters began to leave the track to prepare for the Anthem and introductions. To my surprise, a periodic procession of skaters stopped by my seat to chat. Now, I am used to Miss Print, The Librarian, and a few others stopping by to say hello before the game, but some of these were skaters I had never met. It seems that they knew of my delivery and/or had read the blog in the past and wanted to meet me. Needless to say, that was a very pleasant surprise! The skaters left the track, and we stood for an operatic take on the Star-Spangled Banner. It was at least respectful, even if the volume and high notes were a bit much for the sound system.

Tell me more, tell me more, since you drove pretty far...
Tell me more, tell me more, like did she wear the star?

Oh yes, how rude of me. Perhaps I should get to the actual bout recaps.

*** The first bout of the evening featured CRG's Silent Lambs (B-Team) hosting the Dynamite Dolls, the All-Star Team of the Demolition City Roller Derby (DCRD) of Evansville, Indiana. I expected this bout to be pretty close, even though the Dynamite Dolls had defeated the Arch Rival B Team, which had defeated the Lambs earlier this season. Well, if you like defense, this was the bout for you. The teams traded low-scoring jams early in the 20-minute first half. The CRG jammers had trouble getting past the four DCRD blockers at the back of the pack, while the Dynamite Dolls' jammers could not break through the Lambs' walls of four at the front. The fans next to me asked if the second game would have any more "action." Although I understood the strategy of what was occurring, I have to admit that the early part of this bout wasn't much fun from a fan's perspective. Somewhere near the midway point of the first half, CRG's approach began to change. The Lambs kept two staunch blockers at the front and allowed the others to drift back, playing some offense by providing assists to the jammers. While the defenses continued to shine, this tactic opened up a few chances for CRG to light up the scoreboard. By halftime, the Lambs held a small lead of 34-28, but I thought they were definitively outplaying the ladies from Indiana.

*** Early in the second half, however, things began to slip away from the Lambs. The blockers went back to playing defense and seemed to abandon the two-way game. Then, my familiar refrain began: "Stay out of the box!" CRG skaters began a conga line to the penalty box. At times, there was only one white jersey on the track, as a skater tried to go to the box, only to find it already full. From conversations after the bout, I know that some of the CRG skaters were frustrated with the officiating. I certainly saw some questionable calls along the way. An equal culprit, I believe, was the team's loss of composure. The Lambs' game became sloppy, and skaters committed a lot of cheap fouls as they battled with the DCRD pack, which was often at full-strength. The Dynamite Dolls hit a 20-point jam, and things deteriorated from there. The Lambs continued to slog it out in the trenches, but their spirit seemed hollow. More CRG penalties and more solid skating by DCRD led to a losing outcome, by a score of 79-52.

*** Co-MVP for the Lambs goes to Wheezy. She was the only jammer who got on track against a tough Demolition City defense. While I don't have the official numbers, I estimate that she scored at least two-thirds of CRG's points for the bout. Many of the Lambs' jammers are speed-and-finesse types, but Wheezy has a different type of game. Her slender frame belies the power with which she slams into opposing walls. Wheezy has a knack for accelerating quickly, to regain the speed she loses after contact. This allowed her to gain a few precious points early on, when lanes were tough to come by. Once she clears the pack, her long strides allow her to quickly catch up and begin her scoring passes. As the travel and tournament season gets into gear, I wouldn't be surprised to see Wheezy get a chance or two with the Black Sheep (A-Team).

*** The other CRG jammers, to put it bluntly, struggled. Polly Rocket showed some good bursts and had a couple of successful jams, but she couldn't find that consistent groove. Bex Pistol and Miss Print, both of whom have been very effective this season, saw diminished opportunities with the team riding Wheezy as much as possible. Neither of them were able to produce much, nor were Hop Devil, Pistol Whippin Wendy, and Penni Pusha, who wore the star once each. If one or two jammers had a rough night, I'd chalk it up to a personal bad game. With this many difficulties, however, systemic causes seem more likely. First, Demolition City deserves a lot of credit for very strong defensive pack play and some jarring hits. Also, CRG's indifference (for most of the bout) to offensive pack play left its smaller jammers hopelessly lost behind walls of much larger DCRD blockers at the back of the pack. Hopefully, the Lambs will adjust pack schemes to better suit the styles of their jammers in time to have a great game against Atlanta.

*** While the pack seldom offered much in terms of offense, a handful of blockers kept CRG in the game with outstanding defense. This bout's other co-MVP for the Lambs goes to Celia Graves. Celia played a masterful pivot, controlling pack speeds and defensive formations while providing a formidable physical presence at the front of the pack. Demolition City jammers who were "lucky" enough to find their way to the front of the pack tended to take devastating hits. While Celia has good size and power, she pairs them with unexpected speed and agility, making her a frightening foe indeed. Although her MVP status was already likely by that point, she sealed the award by intentionally smashing into a very impressive beeramid, built by the fans a bit to my left.

*** Two other CRG blockers who received consideration for MVP honors played similar roles. Nik Jagger and GlamourAzz helped to control the front of the pack, limiting scoring chances until the game devolved into CRG's penalty parade. Many times, I have praised Nik for her hitting and smart play alike, and both were on display here. GlamourAzz is certainly a crowd favorite. Even though her last-jam cameo with the star was cut short, she still delighted the crowd with excellent hitting, while playing a smart positional game. These two skaters, along with Celia and others, helped to make the front of the pack a very bad place to be for DCRD jammers.

*** Unfortunately, the strong presence at the front was often a necessary, last-ditch response to make up for play at the middle and back, which generally ranged from porous to non-existent. When CRG actually did choose to send blockers into the Demolition City stronghold at the back, a few Cincinnati skaters enjoyed some success. MaimE cleared out blockers mid-pack to assist her jammers, often walling her counterparts to the outside and presenting an inside lane to Wheezy or Polly Rocket. Pistol Whippin Wendy, Hop Devil, and Bombtrack also applied some offensive pressure as the Lambs built their lead.

*** Demolition City, though outplayed at times, managed to keep its composure and gained a win against a very tough Silent Lambs squad. The Evansville team featured two outstanding jammers in Godjilla (love, love, love the name!) and Lilith of the Valley. Both of them had the speed/power combo going for this bout. I give them credit for absorbing the pounding they did and still having enough in the tank to put the game out of reach in the final 10-12 minutes. I'm sure that I could highlight many DCRD blockers for their performances, but their uniforms made it quite difficult to read numbers and pick out individuals in the pack. Two whom I observed delivering strong jammer take-outs were Steel Stitches and Jetsy Rockette.

Tell me more, tell me more, 'bout the rest of the night.

Tell me more, tell me more, did the Sheep get it right?

*** The main event featured CRG's Black Sheep (A-Team) hosting the Brewcity Bruisers of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I came in expecting a close bout, since CRG (4th in WFTDA North Central Region, #19 DNN Power Rankings) is ranked only slightly higher than Brewcity (WFTDA 5th NC, DNN #25). Brewcity has seen its stature in the derby world steadily increase, and it was no secret that the league was looking for a signature upset of a higher-ranked opponent. Once again, the teams had a bit of a "feeling out" period at the outset, with each squad gaining a few points at a time. By the end of the first ten minutes or so, the Black Sheep had begun to take command. The CRG pack was phenomenal, allowing its jammer to achieve scores usually seen only in power jam situations. So many times, a CRG skater did laps while her Brewcity counterpart was battered, knocked out of bounds, and frustrated. To make things even worse for the Wisconsinites, Brewcity's jammers had a tough time staying out of the penalty box. K Lethal, Hannah Ouchocinco, and the rest of Cincy's jammer contingent were effective, allowing the Black Sheep to push the score to a comfortable halftime lead of 72-26.

*** The second half was mainly more of the same, except that just about every jam was followed by a few minutes of discussion on the infield. Were things really that disorganized? I come to Cincy for roller derby. If I wanted to see a debate team, I'd go to Harvard. The CRG pack continued to batter Brewcity's stars, while playing some nice offense as well, and the lead grew. Brewcity finally showed some signs of life, making a run with 10-15 minutes left to close the gap to under 50. The Black Sheep recovered and eventually pushed the lead to a very comfortable margin, winning 139-71. As the clock wound down, both Brewcity and its reputation as an up-and-coming squad were bruised. Don't let the score fool you, as it wasn't even that close. It was great to see CRG close its home season with such a great performance, and I'm hopeful that the Sheep can put together a great travel season. Then, the task will be to get over the hump and knock off one of the top three teams in the region for a shot at Nationals.

*** I suppose that awarding a nine-way tie for MVP honors would be a bit of a copout. Still, when i checked my notes, nine of the 14 Black Sheep skaters graded out to at least a "plus," which represents a "very good" performance. (Four others got a check-plus, meaning above average.) I compromised with myself, opting to go with co-MVPs in this bout as well. Starting on the jammer side, the nod goes to K Lethal. She was far and away the best jammer on the floor for this bout, racing out with lead jammer status again and again. K used her strength to batter the walls set up to stop her, while her speed and wicked moves allowed her to easily pass her bewildered opponents. On one memorable pass, as she was attempting to pass a Brewcity blocker on the outside. she faked as though she was going to absorb a shoulder check, then skated by so low to the ground that she could have won a limbo contest. I have no idea how many points K Lethal ended up scoring, but I would not be surprised if her total were twice that of any other jammer for either team.

*** As usual, Hannah Ouchocinco took regular turns on the jammer line for the Black Sheep. While she did not have the dominant performance of her most recent bout, she was quietly effective. I was actually impressed with Brewcity's blocking at times, as no other team this season has contained Hannah even to that extent. Trauma took a few spins with the star and continued to look solid in her transition to triple-threat status. She used her long legs to full advantage, at times passing the entire pack with just a stride or two. Trauma was in the midst of an amazing first jam when she was sent to the box on an absolutely terrible call, and I felt cheated. Jungle Lacy had a few chances as a jammer as well, to mixed results. She was hemmed in early, but managed some very good passes in a later jam. Nuk'em and Dr. McDerby joined in with a rogue jam each.

*** While the jammers were good, the CRG pack was outstanding. I had six different CRG blockers graded to a "double-plus" (excellent) or better. The best of the best, and the bout MVP, was Sk8r Kinney. She was trandscendent with the pivot stripe, controlling the game from the front of the pack. It seemed like Kinney didn't make a single bad decision the entire bout, and when others missed blocks, she was a staunch final line of defense. I have grown accustomed to seeing her play a strong positional game, but I was additionally taken with her hitting this time around. Kinney is not the biggest blocker, but she gets her money's worth when it's time to bring the pain.

*** The rest of CRG's front-of-the-pack skaters were also more than capable. Karma Krash had her second consecutive outstanding bout. Buckhead Betty absolutely leveled a few opponents, while holding her position very well. I didn't get a chance to talk with Buckhead Betty after the bout, but I wanted to ask her what she would do with the Brewcity jammers she owned. Trauma's blocking at the front also continued to impress. I really don't think there's anything she can't do on the track, and if I had to select a "best overall player" for CRG going forward, it would be Trauma. What can I say? I've always been a sucker for a girl with a great set of skills. Of course, it helps that she makes a fine PBJ.

*** Not all of the great CRG blocking took place at the front. I gave serious MVP consideration to Sk8 Crime for her incendiary performance at the back of the pack. She was everywhere, whether blasting a Brewcity jammer or wedging a blocker out of the way for an assist. Sk8 Crime displayed some of the best agility and quickness I've seen from a blocker, often coming from a position I believed was out of the play to accelerate through her target. Nuk'em continued her strong performances in the middle and back of the pack, playing offense and defense well. Ruff'n the Passer was solid in her first bout back with the Sheep as well.

*** Even though Brewcity was denied its signature win, some of its skaters can take solace in good individual performances. Rejected Seoul was the only Brewcity jammer who was not completely shut down. She provided a couple of high-energy jams as her crew cut into the lead in the second half. The way CRG's pack played, any success whatsoever as an opposing jammer is commendable as a sign of great talent. Within the pack, I consistently noticed Servin Justice and Madd Mallett playing a sharp game. Once again, I cannot single out too many Brewcity skaters, as their numbers were difficult to read. I suppose not every team can go black and white like CRG, but some of these color combinations make it tough for the fans to tell who's who on the track.

After the bouts, I went out to the track to mingle with the skaters. I did have a job to do, as I had printed certificates for the MVPs of the two previous bouts I had seen, so I had to make deliveries. Passing out the awards served two purposes. First, it was a way to recognize great performances by people who don't get paid for he work they put in. I have no talent for design whatsoever, and I know they were a bit cheesy, but I think everyone likes to be recognized for a job well done. Also, there is a selfish reason. I am not very good about going up and talking to people I don't know. I usually talk to the same small group of skaters after every bout. While I love chatting with them, the MVP certificates gave me a reason to approach people I didn't know. I eventually found all six of those (Wheezy, Hop Devil, Karma Krash, Trauma, Hannah, and Nuk'em), and they all seemed happy. If any of them mocked me later, they were kind enough to wait until I was back on the road.

Of course, I had to get a bit more time with The Librarian before I left. Hey, I'm a sucker for getting hugs from awesome girls (see also: Trauma, Bex, Hop, etc.). I'm really hoping to make the Lambs bout in Chicago, as I haven't seen her skate since March, and I've been a fan of hers for as long as I've known derby existed. As always, it was great to chat with Miss Print, Trauma, Bex, Nik, Wheezy and Hop Devil. It was also wonderful to meet Hannah, Glamour, Karma, and Nuk'em (sorry, I know I'm forgetting one or two who talked to me before the bouts), plus Tank the announcer and fellow traveling derby fan Savi. As I've said before, I know that a long-distance fan can't be around enough to develop true friendships, but it still makes me feel great when skaters take the time to chat with me.

Overall, it was a great night, and well-worth the comedy of errors I endured earlier in the day. I even bought my trackside season ticket for 2011. It's unrealistic to think that I'll be able to go to Cincy six times next spring and summer, but my hope is to make four bouts and consider the rest just a way to support the league. I know that most people reading this are either skaters or derby fans already, but if you're thinking about becoming a derby fan, go for it. I'll tell you more, tell you more, not much dough will you spend. Tell you more, tell you more, go next year and bring friends!

In the end, CRG split the doubleheader, Brewcity's summer dreams were ripped at the seams, and a sweaty good time was had by all. Oh, the summer nights.