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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.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

On the Road Again

Welcome! Sports are a passion of so many across this great land. As you can see by the map above, which shows all of the places I have seen a professional or high-level amateur sporting event, I take every opportunity to get out and experience as much as possible. This blog is a continuation of some of my observations from a previous blog, and I intend to update it just about every time I attend a notable event, plus some random observations, rants, and lists.

It is one of my goals to see a home game for every MLB team, and my current tally stands at 21 out of 30. You can see my upcoming games to the left of this post, including the next two teams I'll cross off my list, the Giants and A's. In addition to baseball, you can expect to see posts about football, hockey, basketball, and especially my most recent sports passion, women's roller derby. My first post here at the new site will be a recap of this Saturday's Cincinnati Rollergirls bouts (versus Milwaukee and Evansville, IN).

I am working on copying relevant previous posts to an archive here, but for now, you may visit George Newman's Never-Humble Opinion to see them. I hope you enjoy the ride on our virtual sports road trip!