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Sunday, May 22, 2011

These Dreams

I recently posted the question on our Facebook page: "If you could see any one sporting event in any one venue, anywhere in the world, what would it be?" Well, I couldn't stop at just one, so here are my top five:

5. FIVB Women's Beach Volleyball - Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

What's not to love? The best volleyball players in the world playing on a beautiful stretch of sand in Brazil? Sign me up. I have enjoyed both watching and playing beach volleyball since high school, and I used to attend the tournaments in Chicago, whether at Oak St. Beach or North Ave. Beach. I'd bring a ball and get in some pick-up games on the side courts, then wander over and watch the best (men and women) battle it out on the main courts. Oh, did I mention that this event is on a beach? In Brazil? I'd imagine it would be as much (or more) fun to watch the crowd!

"Bikini, miss?"
"Oh no, that covers far too much."

4. Billabong Pipe Masters surfing tournament - Banzai Pipeline, Oahu, Hawall

This one is more about the locale than anything. I could never in a million years learn to surf, but I think it would be a lot of fun to watch the best in the world do so. I'd love to be a part of the laid-back surfer scene, on a pristine Hawaiian beach, for just a few days. It's 180 degrees from my reality, as a great vacation escape should be.

3. The Midnight Sun Game - Growden Memorial Stadium, Fairbanks, Alaska

Every June 21, the Alaska Goldpanners welcome an invited opponent to Fairbanks for the most unique baseball game in the world. The opponents come from different states, and occasionally from abroad. The 2010 game featured a U.S. Military All-Star team. The game begins at 10:30pm local time, just as the sun is beginning to set in the north. At the half-inning break nearest midnight, the action pauses for the singing of the Alaskan Flag Song. The game often ends around 1:00am, as the sun begins to rise again in the north. The entire game proceeds with no artificial light. I think it would be amazing to see Alaska in the summer, and especially to watch a "day" baseball game at midnight.

2. The Championships, Wimbledon - All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, London, England

First, I would love to visit London, and really all of the U.K. But Wimbledon is so steeped in history and tradition. It would be wonderful to watch the best tennis players in the world compete on grass, to hear the ladies always called "Miss" or "Mrs.," to see the players dressed in reverent white. I'd want to eat the traditional Strawberries and Cream, and just to soak in the history of the 125-year-old tournament. I have been to the United States Tennis Center in New York (albeit not during play), at I think a true sports traveler should seek to attend all four Grand Slam tennis tournaments.

1. Game Seven, World Series - New Comiskey Park, Chicago Illinois

If my first two choices were all about the locale, this one is all about the event. No one will ever confuse the South Side of Chicago with a paradise. Baseball is my first, purest sporting love, and the White Sox are my team. When they made it to the World Series in 2005 (for the first time since 1959), I had four people hitting the Internet and phone lines for me, just hoping to be one of the lucky few to get through for tickets. The "cheap" seats were going for over $150 face value, and I would have paid it gladly. None of us were able to get through. I even considered buying scalped tickets, but the $1000-and-up price tag was something I could not justify. To see my team play in a deciding World Series Game Seven (especially if the Sox won) would be the ultimate sports experience.

It's your turn! Where would your dream sports vacation take you? What event would you see? Why is that at the top of your list? Please respond in the comments.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Hey Jealousy

I'm going to go off the beaten path a bit today. No roller derby recap, no jetting off to see another ballpark, just some personal stuff. I'm sure that just about everyone who might read this is either a current or former participant in at least one team sport. As some of you may know, I have a very extensive background as such.

My first experience as a member of a sports team came at the age of five, when I was finally old enough to join tee-ball. By the age of seven, I was a rare left-handed shortstop, who turned two unassisted triple plays in one season. A year later, I ascended to "minors" baseball, the first level at which kids can pitch. I played every position but catcher, right field, and left field. In my first ever pitching appearance, I struck out all three batters I faced, preserving an extra-innings win. As my body grew (and grew, and grew some more), my days of moving around the field waned, and I became strictly a first baseman and pitcher. In baseball orthodoxy, there's not much choice for a lefty who's 5'11" and 235 pounds at the age of 13.

By that time, I had spent six years playing in the "minors" and "majors" of little league, along with some travel all-star teams. I certainly wasn't a one-dimensional adolescent. I had taken (and aced) two community college classes and topped 1400 on the SAT (back when 1600 was perfect). I played chess as well as youth basketball and volleyball. I worked tirelessly to help Super Mario avoid fireballs. Still, I woke up and fell asleep every day thinking about baseball (and often Alyssa Milano, but that's beside the point). Baseball was my social network, my joy, extra time with my father (my parents divorced when I was ten), and truly my identity.

When I started high school, I joined the football team. I had never played organized football before, but I was big, and a lot of my friends were playing. I wasn't very good, but I was smart enough to learn the game quickly and make myself useful as a multi-position backup. Football was something to do while awaiting baseball season, a competitive outlet, and a chance for a socially-awkward kid to avoid the discard pile of unpopularity. I also played basketball that winter season, again occupying the role of the guy who's just good enough to play once in a while.

Finally, baseball season arrived. I went to tryouts...and was awful. My swing was off, my normally excellent defense at first base left me, and I was lucky to earn one of the last spots on the freshman team. A week later, I realized that I could not read much of anything on the blackboard. My first pair of glasses followed, and quickly thereafter my swing and my glove. I ascended to varsity partway through that year and eventually became a starter. The next couple of years were a constant stream of summer baseball, football workouts, football, basketball, and finally baseball again. Rarely did a week pass with no organized sports. I did well in school, and by the end of my junior year, everything was clicking. I was #1 in a class of over 400, nearly perfect on my ACT, and getting some attention from scouts after a very good junior season. I tried not to get too caught up in things, but I was already wondering if I'd play in college or be drafted by the pros.

In the second game of my senior football season, I was playing defensive line for a few plays. At the snap, I diagnosed a quick run play to the outside and tried to cut off the ballcarrier. Just as I stepped to the outside, the offensive tackle went for a cut block, and the crown of his helmet hit squarely on the inside of my knee. I severely dislocated my kneecap and suffered ligament and cartilage damage. After rehab, I made it back, only to suffer a slightly less severe injury to my other knee. By baseball season, I knew something was wrong. I was officially healthy, but I had no explosiveness in my legs. My power vanished, my batting average dropped, and I couldn't make plays in the field that used to be routine. The scouts weren't coming out to watch, and I knew that my baseball career was on the decline at the age of 17.

That summer was my first without organized sports in twelve years. Friends were slowly disappearing to different colleges, and I left the state with a full ride for academics. After getting a look at the horrible astroturf at my school's football stadium, I passed on an offer to play football as a walk-on. I held out the possibility of trying to walk on the baseball team, but found that I was out of my league. I "retired" from competitive sports at the age of 18. Even without the higher level of competition, I joined intramural teams in a few sports, later joining a fraternity for whose teams I was a mainstay. In law school, I played in law student softball and basketball leagues. Even after school ended, I found my way into softball leagues and pickup games. Team sports offer a connection few other experiences can match, and many of my friends today played on those teams with me.

So, why all the long and boring history of my athletic life? At the age of 29, I got a cut on my big toe. It didn't heal over the span of a week or two, and I went to a podiatrist. Two days later, I was officially a diabetic. Despite multiple rounds of powerful oral and IV antibiotics, nothing worked, and I eventually had surgery to remove the toe. All that summer, I sat by as my friends went off to play softball or volleyball. Eventually, my incision healed, and I joined my friends at the big season-ending softball tournament for our co-ed team. It was a sight to behold, as I pulled my car into the handicapped spot, hung my temporary placard on the mirror, and stepped out in my cleats and uniform, carrying my bat bag. I played in two games over the first day of the tournament, and I cannot describe the feeling of being on the field with my friends.

We played most of the second game in a steady rain. By the time I sat down and took off my cleats, my wet socks had created a blister on my previously-injured foot. My tournament was over, and I was heartbroken. When I got back to town, the long series of treatments began again. Eventually, my doctors came to the conclusion that I needed a more radical surgery to even the pressure on my foot, hopefully avoiding further problems and the possible loss of my foot. The surgery was a "success," in that it did exactly what it was meant to and healed without incident. Unfortunately, it left me with no hope of ever playing sports, as I cannot do any activity that requires pushing off with the ball of that foot. It's been roughly five years, and on good days, I can walk with no obvious limp. My foot, calf, and ankle hurt every day, although it's usually manageable.

Honestly, what hurts the most is not being able to step on the field with my friends and teammates. I have only attended a few of their games over the past few seasons, as I can't stand to sit there and watch them play without me. Even attending pro sports, my brain is always playing the game. As soon as the ball is hit, I want to sprint to position to field it. I get upset with the offensive lineman who misses a block, even if it's not for my team. Even watching roller derby, a sport I have never and could never have played (I'm terrible on skates of any kind), I tell myself: "I would have seen that hole," or "I would have blocked to the inside there."

I am envious. I am aggrieved by fate. I wonder how something so wonderful, so central to who I am, could be taken from me. But in the end, this post is not a sob story. I don't want you to feel sorry for me. What I want, more than anything, is for those of you who still get to play to treasure every moment. Cherish the conflict that defines winning and losing. Take advantage of the drive to be better every day. Most of all, be forever thankful for your friends and teammates. Nothing I have experienced compares with the feeling of working together with people you care about to accomplish victory. Having teammates is by far the best part of playing team sports.

A day will come when you no longer put on a uniform. Age, injury, or changing circumstances will find you. Your former teammates (what a painful phrase) may remain your friends, as mine have. I hope that they will be a blessing to you throughout your life, as mine are. Lifelong friendship is the truest benefit of playing sports. But no matter what, at some point, they will cease to be your teammates. Savor every moment: every petty squabble, every road trip, every crushing defeat, and every soaring victory. I have known that privilege, and my life is vastly richer for it. May you truly appreciate and make the most of your chance.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Spinning Wheel

Last Saturday, I made the familiar trip down to Cincinnati for a Rollergirls/Reds doubleheader. I picked up my friend Owen at our hotel, just a few miles north of the Cincinnati Gardens, and we proceeded to the roller derby bout, arriving a few minutes before the doors opened. I had my season ticket in hand, and Miss Print was kind enough to leave one at will-call for Owen. We made our way inside, Owen heading for the $1 beers while I selected floor seats in my usual spot (turn three, looking down the back straightaway). As he cracked open his first Hudy Delight (no truth in advertising to that name, he informed me), the skaters for the evening's first bout took to the track for warm ups. Miss Print stopped by for a warm hello before joining her team on the track, and then I wandered over to say hello to Rabid Derby Fan Earl at the textcast table. Owen and I chatted and watched warm ups for a while, he downing the cheap brews while I happily enjoyed a delicious brat from the concession stand. Eventually, we made it to the introductions for the first bout. From the floor seats, the intros sounded much like a drunken monkey deepthroating a microphone, punctuated by short bursts of applause. The Norwood High School Silhouettes gave an excellent rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, and it was derby time.

*** The first bout was a B-Team Battle between the Cincinnati Rollergirls (CRG) Silent Lambs and the visiting Naptown Rollergirls (NRG) Warning Belles, of Indianapolis. Naptown came out quickly, employing a strong three-wall at the front of the pack to take a 10-4 advantage on the first jam, which ticked away two minutes due to the lack of a lead jammer. Near the end of the jam, NRG's Slammy Faye took the star to the box, leaving CRG rookie Hot Slice alone at the jammer line when the action resumed. Hot Slice showed very good speed to the outside, and CRG's Bex Pistol and Cherry Choke did a nice job trapping a Naptown blocker to slow the pack. Joanie Gouge delivered a strong hit for NRG to limit the damage, but Hot Slice claimed a 7-0 jam score. After NRG's Racer Xtasy put up a quick 3-0 on Miss Print, the Lambs put together what would be their best jam of the night. CRG starting jammer Nastee went on the power jam as Piper Sonic took a trip to the sin bin. Nastee made it a jam to forget for Naptown's Ra-Jen Red, abusing her with a stellar juke, then dropping her to the floor on the very next pass. At the end of that jam, CRG led by a score of 26-17 with 11-plus minutes to play in the first half.

*** From there, however, Naptown took charge. Using a slow-start strategy that seemed to befuddle Cincy's pack, NRG took lead jammer time and again. Naptown's strong and disciplined three-walls (and occasionally four-walls) left virtually no holes for Nastee, Miss Print, and Hot Slice, and CRG's pack provided scant few offensive assists to free its jammers. When Nastee took the star to the penalty box with roughly six minutes to go in the half, Naptown blew the contest open. Racer Xtasy and Piper Sonic combined for 33 points on consecutive jams, as the NRG pack did everything right to control speed and open holes. At the four-minute mark, the ladies from Indy had scored 46 unanswered points to take a 63-26 lead.

*** CRG stopped the bleeding for a moment, as Cherry Choke provided a nice assist to give Hot Slice CRG's first lead jammer call in nearly ten minutes. Unfortunately, Cincy were not able to take advantage, and the jam ended 2-2. Immediately thereafter, Pistolwhippin Wendy took to the jammer line for CRG for the first time. Wendy was quickly sent off on a major, and Naptown posted a 20-0 score, behind Slammy Faye and some excellent pack play. A quick 1-0 jam for NRG ended the half, with Cincinnati trailing, 86-28.

*** The second half was more of the same, as Hot Slice yielded a power jam to Naptown with a track cut on the second jam. On the very next jam, Nastee missed badly on an attempted block of Slammy Faye at the front of the pack, sending the Naptown jammer out as lead on the way to a 9-0 jam. Were it not for some superb blocking by Pistolwhippin Wendy at the front of the pack, it would have been even worse. The first three jams of the half provided NRG with 33 points, while CRG scored as many as I did. A late jammer penalty on Naptown gave Miss Print a chance to toe the jammer line by herself. She got through the pack and got some help from Killian Destroy (in her first time with the Lambs that I can recall) and rookie Roxx Solid, who trapped a blocker and kept the pack speed to a minimum. Naptown's Deadie Page absolutely leveled Miss Print to put an end to the threat. CRG rookie Sulfury Assid took the star next, managing a 3-0 jam win as Cherry Choke and Poppy Chulo put up a nice front two-wall. This brought the deficit to 119-36 with just under 12 minutes remaining, but CRG finally had some momentum.

*** That momentum quickly fizzled, however, as the Lambs didn't put another point on the board for the remainder of the bout. Naptown didn't reel off any huge jams, but the margin steadily increased. Roxx Solid took to the jammer line for the first time, but came up on the short end of a 4-0. CRG's blockers tried to go into a defensive shell, sending all four blockers to the back of the pack. Racer Xtasy managed to go right around them, leaving Miss Print skating in place with no offensive help against a perfect Naptown three-wall. Cincy rookie Godzillary got a chance to jam. She showed off some very nice speed and moves, only to be sent off quickly on a major penalty. In her defense, it looked like the Naptown blocker ducked just as Godzillary made contact, drawing a high block major. (Thanks to Karma Krash for clarification on the high block signal, on which I drew a blank. It looks like "facemasking" in football, by the way.) At the final whistle, Naptown stood on the good side of a 149-36 thrashing. The Lambs managed only 10 points in the final 31 minutes of the contest. By my count, CRG acquired lead jammer on only six of 23 jams for the bout, winning the point differential a mere four times.

*** So many times in sports, we leave a game thinking, "If only for [blank], we would have won it." So often, one play, one moment is the difference between victory and defeat. This was not one of those occasions. Naptown's Belles outplayed the Lambs virtually from start to finish, and in every facet of the game. While NRG deserves a lot of credit, I can say without hesitation that I have never seen such a poor all-around game from the Lambs. CRG's pack play was atrocious, and it seemed ill-prepared for Naptown's slow starts from the pivot line. Worse still, the excellent in-game adjustments I have so often seen from CRG never materialized. The jammers, when they managed any daylight at all, committed penalty after penalty, making it impossible for their team to take momentum for more than a minute or two at a time. As such, I have no MVP to award to the Lambs for this bout.

*** For CRG's jammers, Nastee started strongly but lost the magic quickly. Unlike her previous game, in which her natural skills completely overwhelmed the opponent, this time she found an enemy up to the task. Forced to play more of a mental game, she looked a lot like a rookie. I still think great things are ahead for Nastee, but Naptown exposed her inexperience on this day. Hot Slice showed flashes of brilliance, but her knack for taking a penalty while wearing the star limited her effectiveness. Miss Print started slowly, tiptoeing behind walls of blockers. I was afraid that she'd be pulled from the rotation after her early struggles, as has happened in the past. The coaches stuck with her, and she rewarded them with more aggressive skating in the second half. Unfortunately, the style of play laid bare one of her greatest limitations, the inability to use power to create her own holes in the defense. Without savvy assist work from her blockers, Miss Print spent a lot of time staring at the (admittedly, nice) posteriors of Naptown blockers. Many others took a rogue jam or two for CRG, with mostly unremarkable results.

*** Cincy's blockers were out-of-sorts all night. Just about everything that could go wrong did. Gaping holes appeared in the middle of the CRG pack, and Naptown jammers often sped right by CRG's front blockers before they could react. The Lambs' pivots were outmaneuvered by those of NRG, and the ladies from Cincy paid the price in terms of poor speed control within the pack. Many inexperienced players got significant track time, and it was clear that CRG's contingent of blockers had not had ample time to practice together. Even many of the experienced CRG blockers fell victim to sloppy play and slow reactions. One of the few bright spots was the play of Lambs captain Cherry Choke. Her positional blocking at the front of the pack was steady, and she was the only CRG blocker who consistently played any offense when her jammers were stuck. Bex Pistol, Poppy Chulo, and Roxx Solid had their moments, but the Lambs were clearly missing standout blockers such as Nik Jagger and Geez Louise.

*** For the Warning Belles, there are plenty of kudos to go around. The jammer rotation of Slammy Faye, Racer Xtasy, Piper Sonic, and Trauma-lina was outstanding. Every time I looked up, there was more speed on the Naptown jammer line. Slammy Faye, while possessing excellent skills, impressed me most with her "grinder" style of play. She never coasted and was never content with an advantage, always pushing herself to be a little sharper, a little quicker into a cut. While many teams get a bit sloppy with a big lead, the Belles showed a killer instinct and clamped down ever more tightly. Leading the way in terms of the blockers was Joanie Gouge. She dished out some of the most punishing hits of the bout. Unlike many big hitters, however, she rarely left herself out of position to do so or put her teammates at a tactical disadvantage to go for a showboat hit. While I did notice many other fine displays of blocking by Naptown, the color scheme of their uniforms made picking out individual blockers in a pack extremely difficult.

*** After a short intermission (highlighted by a visit from the always-awesome Librarian and a nice, spicy chorizo), it was time for the main event. The visiting Naptown Tornado Sirens (WFTDA North Central #6, DNN Power Rankings #23) were introduced, to a smattering of boos and far too many cheers. Then, the CRG Black Sheep (WFTDA NC #5, DNN #16) took the track. Those in the stands seemed inspired by the intros, but we on the floor again heard something like "Humver FZBRGARF, Maaaaanummmmmmm ArchoooooGINFoooooooo." ("Number 85, Hannah Ouchocinco," to those who misplaced their Gardens PA-to-English Dictionaries.)

*** Speaking of Ms. Ouchocinco, she was on the track with the star to begin the game, as CRG's other star jammer, K Lethal, was unavailable for the game. Hannah and NRG's Blue Messiah skated to a 1-1 tie, then Wheezy took to the line against Maiden America. On the initial pass, Naptown's Dora the Destroyer pounded Wheezy, who showed off her toughness and agility by staying on her skates. It was enough, however, to spring Maiden America for a 4-0 jam and an early lead for the Sirens. After a couple of uneventful jams, some of Cincy's stars came out to play. Despite the fact that the refs missed an obvious major elbow by NRG's Ima Hurchu, Sk8r-Kinney and Trauma led a magnificent pack for CRG, which sprung Wheezy for nine points while shutting out Blue Messiah. After Black Sheep jammer Hop Devil (in her A-Team debut) came out behind on a quick 1-0 jam, CRG went right back on the attack. Hannah Ouchocinco absolutely abused Naptown blocker Eve Elle with a ferocious juke on the way to a 10-3 jam advantage, and CRG led 22-10 after the first twelve minutes.

*** Outstanding jammer Amooze Booche took to the line for Naptown, determined to stabilize her team. She combined a great move with a burst of speed to slip past Trauma and Kinney (who were the only two CRG blockers due to penalties), and if you watch CRG often, you know what a task that is. Amooze Booche converted a 4-0 jam, and the teams traded a few low-scoring trips after that. Just past the midway point of the first half, Hannah went down hard, reaching for her back in obvious pain. It was severe enough that the refs ended the jam, and her return looked uncertain. Wheezy stepped out into a mini-pack for the next jam, with both teams short a blocker or two, and put on a masterful show. She went around and through the NRG pack, while CRG's Karma Krash and Nuk'em picked off a Naptown blocker to maintain pack definition and slow speed. CRG capped off a 13-0 jam to lead by a score of 41-16.

*** Trauma came out to jam next for CRG against Naptown's Maiden America. Cincy's Sk8 Crime had Maiden lined up for a big collision, but NRG's Ana Slays Ya came out of nowhere to eliminate the CRG blocker and allow NRG a modest 2-1 jam win. The ensuing jam was one of the turning points of the game. CRG had the momentum and Wheezy was having a great game until she took the star to the penalty box with her. Naptown brought CRG's mini-pack to a crawl as jammer Willa Hoeflinch darted and dodged her way to four grand slams, reducing the formerly commanding Cincy lead to just four points with just over six minutes to go in the half.

*** The fans were relieved to see Hannah back on the track to jam, and she posted a tidy 4-0 among a trio of low-scoring jams. Wheezy came out to jam, and she went to the "burst through the seam in a wall" tactic she had used so well earlier. This time, however, she crashed squarely into the back of a Naptown blocker and was sent off on a back block. Willa Hoeflinch again reaped the rewards of the power jam, taking a 14-0 advantage. A 6-4 jam win by Hannah over Blue Messiah sent the teams to the locker rooms, Naptown leading 60-53.

*** The first eight minutes of the second half belonged to NRG. Amooze Booche started it off with a 9-0 jam, sliding back and forth like a slalom skier before finally putting a juke on a lonely Trauma at the front of the pack. Two clean 4-0 jams followed for Naptown, the latter saved from being much worse by Karma Krash's sharp blocking at the front. Wheezy finally opened CRG's ledger for the second half with a 2-0 jam, with Jungle Lacy dishing out some sweet blocks at the back of the pack. Penalties, however, remained the story of the night for the Black Sheep, as Hannah got sent off while wearing the star, yielding a 22-0 power jam for Naptown. The NRG lead stood at 99-55 with 22 minutes remaining.

*** With CRG's prospects dimming after a few uneventful jams, Trauma took to the jammer line. Suddenly, everything clicked for the Black Sheep. The Cincy pack locked up Willa Hoeflinch and slowed things down, and Trauma's long, powerful strides burned up the track. On one of her scoring passes, it looked like Trauma slid by the entire pack on one stride and on one skate! Of course, I (a huge, unapologetic Trauma fan) was going nuts, and when Nuk'em posted an 8-2 power jam, the lead was cut to 105-82, Naptown. Finally, the CRG crowd got worked up, after being far too quiet for most of the bout. Thirteen minutes remained, and we were ready to push our Black Sheep to the comeback victory.

*** That is, until the penalty monster struck again. A small CRG pack only got more lonely when Hannah took the jammer star to the box. With blockers trapped and forced to a near standstill by a smart NRG pack, Cincy were helpless to stop the onslaught. When the whistle finally blew, Naptown's tally crawled higher and higher. I thought it was a 20-point jam, but the scoreboard didn't stop until 30 had been added. NRG jammer Maiden America taunted the crestfallen CRG fans, as her own partisan cheering section erupted. Although over eleven minutes remained, the game was over at this point. The penalties racked up for both teams, and the scoring went back-and-forth, but the clock was CRG's enemy. Blue Messiah put up a 14-0 jam on Wheezy and CRG with a minute remaining, and the final tally was Naptown 167, Cincinnati 94.

*** Many factors led to the upset. The absence of K Lethal certainly hurt CRG, as skaters were shuffled into other roles. I can't say for sure that CRG overlooked a talented and fast-rising Naptown squad, but this had all the makings of a trap game. Naptown was the final remaining lower-ranked team on Cincinnati's home schedule (with Steel City, Windy City, and Detroit to come), and I know that I underestimated them. Penalties, however, made the biggest difference in this game. CRG's pack constantly struggled to have more than two blockers on the floor, and Cincy's jammers took some backbreaking penalties as well. Cincinnati scored 94 points in the bout. Naptown scored 86 on four power jams alone (Cincy only had two power jams, for a 15-2 tally, by my count). CRG's middle and back-of-the-pack blockers were not as sharp as usual, and they seemed to be flailing to make some blocks, rather than playing their usual sound positional game. Naptown's skaters also had something to do with the discrepancy. First of all, they seemed to play more under control. Also, they had a knack for, to put it diplomatically, drawing penalties. A hockey fan might call it "diving" or "selling a call." A soccer fan, after getting over the shame of being a soccer fan, might call it "what players do every time they get brushed." Still, it was there. Some might credit Naptown for seizing that advantage, and they didn't break any rules in doing so, making it tough to condemn them. I personally think the refs could have done better to sort out the (ample) real penalties from the theatrics.

*** As with the Lambs, no single skater stood out as an MVP for the Black Sheep. Many of the Sheep did good things on the track, but I felt that my choices were to give 6 or 7 MVP's or none. From the jammer line, Hannah and Wheezy got most of the work. At least once or twice every bout, Hannah will make a move that makes me wonder if it just happened. Sometimes, it's a lightning-quick stutter-step. Sometimes, it's a zig-zag cut. While she showed off both of those moves this game, the thing that impressed me most was her toughness. Shaking off an injury that threatened to put her out for the evening, she kept taking the star, fighting for every point in every jam. Wheezy brought a lot of energy to the track, and she scored 28 of CRG's 53 first half points. Unfortunately, each of them had two very costly jammer penalties as well. Trauma took three jams, the highlight being the previously mentioned 19-0 whirlwind. Nuk'em also went three times, all within the final 13 minutes, and with mixed success. Hop Devil started in the jammer rotation, but she never really caught her stride, and finished scoreless on three jams.

*** On the blocking side, it was tough to judge the quality of CRG's skaters, due primarily to the revolving door on the penalty box. Sk8r-Kinney was very solid, until an injury sidelined her late in the game. Trauma did well at the front, but often couldn't fight through a pack disadvantage to pick off a jammer. The same goes for Karma Krash and Buckhead Betty, both of whom were far better when they had more teammates on the track. Jungle Lacy did a nice job at the back of the pack, when there were enough blockers on the track to have a back of the pack.

*** Naptown again used a four-jammer rotation for its A-Team. As mentioned, Maiden America had the biggest jam of the night, but she was very good the rest of the evening as well. Amooze Booche had excellent speed and some deceptive moves, especially a couple of nice cuts followed by speed bursts to the outside at the front of the pack. Willa Hoeflinch did an excellent job converting power jams into huge point swings, using speed in the open track to get in as many scoring passes as possible. Blue Messiah had an up-and-down game. She showed a lot of talent, but often didn't convert her chances to points.

*** NRG's blockers were led by the very tough Ana Slays Ya. Shadi Layne and Asian Sinsation did a nice job of keeping things together when penalty trouble hit Naptown's pack. Dora the Destroyer and Eve Elle chipped in with some nasty shots.

*** Moving on to general impressions of the night, I almost felt like this was an away game for CRG. The crowd was even thinner than last time. I kept waiting for the big influx of fans that usually enters the arena midway through the first bout, but it never came. Exacerbating the problem was the fact that Naptown fans represented a decent minority and often a vocal majority. I have been to games (as a visiting fan) where the away team basically takes over the crowd (Bears at Detroit Lions comes to mind), and I recall postgame comments from home team players as to how disheartening tha situation can be. The CRG crowd had its moments, but the team was struggling, and the big boost from a vociferous crowd rarely came. Also, I know that I have discussed the PA system many times before. Last time I wrote, I even came to the conclusion that it was time to give up and accept the problems. After this bout, hoewever, I've changed my mind. It was horrendous, and the inability to make out most words was a major problem for me as a fan. The fans on the floor pay extra for their seats, so I hope that CRG will keep looking into ways to improve the sound for them. The crowd, sound system, and still-out-of-action jumbo scoreboard combined to rob the Cincinnati Gardens of its "big time" feel. I always used to think of the Gardens as a top-flight venue, a "real sports" experience just below the top venues such as the UIC Pavilion. This time, however, it felt miles away from that kind of experience, much closer to a convention hall or a roller rink that serves as home to a smaller league. I truly hope that CRG and its fans can re-capture that big-event feel going forward, as a true home-field advantage would be most welcome against some tough upcoming opponents.

We wandered the floor after the bouts, getting a chance to talk with Miss Print, Buckhead Betty, Hop Devil, Karma Krash, Wheezy, Trauma, and more. We didn't take up too much of their time, as I feel like a jerk keeping throngs of children from getting face time and autographs. Plus, I knew we'd be attending the after-party and would see people there as well. We made our way over to Molly Malone's and found a table, seeing some other fans but no skaters we knew. Owen's sister came over to meet us and hang out, so we chatted and had some excellent appetizers ( fried pepperjack cheese cubes!). I got up a few times to wander around and see if any of the skaters had made it over. A few made their way in and sat with people they knew in our part of the bar, but most of the rest were off in the back room for their semi-private gathering. I made my way back there to chat with Buckhead Betty and GlamourAzz, but eventually found myself without a conversation and went back out to my table. Miss Print came over to our side of the bar (near the DJ) and stopped over for a nice long chat. Otherwise, we basically relaxed, watched the end of the Reds game, and watched from very entertaining dancing once some of the skaters and other CRG crew hit the floor. Tired and sated, we retreated to the hotel.

On Sunday, we woke up and had a very mediocre free hotel breakfast. I was feeling a bit lightheaded, so I went back up to my room and lounged in bed to watch Sportscenter. We planned to stay at the hotel until the noon check-out, since the Reds game didn't start until 4pm. By the time we loaded the cars, I was really not feeling well. We drove to an outlet mall to drop off the womenfolk, and we decided to all eat there at the food court. A few bites into the meal, I could barely keep my head up. I eventually went to my car to lie back while they finished. By the time Owen checked on me, it was clear that I couldn't drive nor walk around at the ballgame. Owen drove me to a nearby hospital and waited until I was checked in, at which point I told him to take the baseball tickets and enjoy the game with his dad and his little sons. After being examined and given some medication for the dizziness, I sat around the waiting room until the Reds game was over, when Owen drove me back to Toledo in my car.

So, as in life, the weekend featured its ups and downs. The spinning wheels of quad skates on Saturday became the spinning room of Labrynthitis on Sunday. I was glad to see CRG, but disappointed to miss the Reds game. This is probably the first season since I was 5 years old that I reached the end of the first week of May without attending a Major League Baseball game, and it's possible that I won't make one until mid-June. Both CRG and I will need to shake off a tough weekend and prepare for bigger and better things. Unfortunately, I'll probably miss the next two home bouts, but I'll be cheering from afar. I'll have two more shots at the derby/baseball doubleheader this season: June 18-19 in Cincy and August 20-21 in Pittsburgh. Hope to see you there!