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Sunday, August 5, 2012

One Week

On Saturday, July 21, I made my way to the Windy City Fieldhouse to see the Cincinnati Rollergirls (CRG) take on the Chicago Outfit. I had traveled out to Chicago a week earlier to spend some time with family. It was a lovely and restful week, full of good times and excellent food. I mean, really excellent food. Giordano’s deep dish pizza, Connie’s beef sandwiches and tamales, Eli’s cheesecake, excellent Chinese takeout… uh, where was I? Oh yes, an excellent week in my Sweet Home Chicago, but the timing of the trip was all about the roller derby doubleheader on Saturday evening. So, let’s get on to the night of derby.

I arrived at the Fieldhouse roughly ten minutes before the doors opened, with plans to get a first row seat along the backstretch. I had been to an Outfit home bout before, and I knew that my usual turn three seats were not ideal at this venue. Also, since the seats are not tiered in any way, it’s extremely important to get there early and secure a front row seat. As usual, I settled in to read the bout program. I usually pay only fleeting attention to the warm-ups, making sure I see the skaters I know. This time, however, I was drawn in. As a former athlete, I know that there are so many different approaches to the pregame routine. It’s interesting to see athletes’ personalities peek through in the way they warm-up. I personally had different routines for different sports. In baseball, I was a loner, stretching and doing some minimal throwing, then disappearing to listen to music. For you youngsters, we had this thing called a “Cassette Walkman,” which was excellent for playing “mix tapes.” Side B of every tape I made started with the same song, Vince DiCola’s “War” (from the “Rocky IV” soundtrack). It was always the last song I played, timed to end as close to taking the field as possible. For home games, I’d sprint from the third base dugout to the first base bag, head down. As soon as I stepped on the bag, I would spin and fire the first grounder to my third baseman. If my routine was disturbed, it became really tough for me to focus for the first inning or two. In football and basketball, my approach was different. I was social, joking, enjoying my teammates. I think the primary difference is that I generally didn’t start the game in either of those sports, so I didn’t need that immediate focus. But, each person has his or her own approach.

"I'm ready now."

So, I watched carefully as CRG took its turns around the flat track. The DJ started with some great 80’s music. Many of the skaters sang along, happily dancing on skates. I really noticed Pistolwhippin Wendy having an absolute blast, while other CRG skaters were much more businesslike. I don’t have any grand conclusions to make from watching the warm-ups. I don’t think that either approach necessarily paints an athlete as fun-loving or focused, but I do intend to watch warm-ups more carefully in the future to see if any trends emerge. After introductions and a nice rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner by one of the Windy City Rollers (sorry, didn't get down in my notes who it was), it was time for the action.

DISCLAIMER: I am just a fan and have no official connection to any team or player. While I strive to report accurately, I may cite inaccurate details. This blog chronicles my own experiences, and should not be used as a substitute for actual derby coverage, highbrow literature, sugar, salt, or sleeping pills.

The first game of the evening pitted the visiting CRG Violent Lambs (B-Team) against the homestanding Chicago Outfit Shade Brigade (B-Team). The Shade Brigade eked out a hard-fought victory over Toledo’s Glass City Rollers in my earlier visit to Chicago, and I would consider the Outfit squad an even match for the Lambs in normal circumstances. These, however, were not normal circumstances. The Lambs came to town with a rookie-laden roster, the result of many skaters on both CRG rosters being unavailable for the road game. CRG faced an uphill battle against an opponent that was skilled and far more experienced.

That challenge was apparent from the opening whistle, as Chicago’s Jennergizer Bunny and her pack posted a sparkling 7-0 jam. CRG got an immediate chance to strike back, as Imma Tattooher had a power jam opportunity. While she was able to tie the score at seven, the Lambs pack squandered a chance to make it much better. The CRG blockers failed to trap an Outfit blocker and slow the pack, and also showed a lack of offensive awareness in terms of providing assists. The next momentum shift occurred as the Shade Brigade’s Uma Bomber completely shut down Imma at the back of the pack, issuing multiple take-outs on the Cincy jammer. This cleared the way for another big jam by Jennergizer, and the Outfit led 22-13 after seven minutes.

On the very next jam, the CRG pack avoided calamity, allowing a mere 4-0 to Chicago on a jam that could have been much worse. Pistolwhippin Wendy and Garden of Beatin put up a beautiful 2-wall at the front, while Susie Shinsplintski and Flannery O’Slaughter provided a textbook double-bridge to keep the front blockers in play. CRG were able to cut the deficit to three, as Ruthless Chris did a nice job on a power jam, making some sharp, quick cuts. The Lambs then avoided yet another crushing blow. Imma wore the star, but took an absolutely atrocious track cut, simply walking right back in bounds in front of the foremost blocker, who had knocked her out. The Outfit jammer went to the box soon thereafter, and the jam ended 9-8, in favor of Chicago. Thanks to some excellent 2-walls, first by The Librarian and Godzillary, then by The Librarian and Flannery, CRG kept it close, at one point bringing the game back to within three points.

The game would never be that close again. The CRG pack broke down repeatedly, completely losing track of the Outfit jammer on consecutive jams and allowing untouched scoring passes straight down the middle of the track. The score stood at 66-41 Chicago with nine minutes remaining in the half. The Lambs finally put together a few solid jams. Some nice blocking gave Ruthless Chris a 9-0 result, but when she got a power jam soon thereafter, CRG could only muster a single grand slam, bringing the score to 66-55. In the remaining four minutes of the half, things fell apart completely for Cincinnati. Its packs were shredded, its jammers shut down completely. The Outfit went into halftime on a 15-0 run, leading 81-55, but CRG was lucky that it wasn’t worse.

At the beginning of the second half, it was a different team that struggled, Team Zebra. On the very first jam, Chicago’s Jennergizer blatantly cut CRG’s front blocker. Everyone I have asked since then has confirmed that this infraction results in a major penalty. The official signaled a track cut minor and allowed her to continue skating, but did not make a signal as to her status as lead jammer or not lead jammer. Half a lap later, Jennergizer suddenly became lead jammer. Not only should she have been sitting in the sin bin on a major, the minor penalty that was actually called should have kept her from lead jammer status. The Outfit ended up taking the jam, 4-0. On the ensuing jam, the CRG pack completely fell asleep, allowing an untouched grand slam on the inside, part of a 9-0 jam that left the score 94-55, three minutes into the half.

The Lambs jammers also played a role in the team’s poor performance. I Caramba showed flashes of talent, but her inexperience showed when she waited too long to call a jam on which she was lead jammer, giving the Outfit a 4-3 result. On her next turn with the star, Caramba squandered a beautiful back 3-wall by Wendy, Roxx Solid, and Garden of Beatin, drawing a major and yielding a power jam to Chicago. Just seven minutes into the second half, Chicago led 103-62, tallying a 37-7 run over 11 minutes of play. Pistolwhippin Wendy temporarily stopped the bleeding with a ferocious jammer take-out near the jammer line on an Outfit scoring pass. While it was by no means Wendy’s only big hit of the night, it was certainly the most jaw-dropping. She was sent to the box, but it certainly looked like a phantom call from where I sat.

The Lambs drew on the emotion from Wendy’s crushing block. Roxx Solid, Sista Shovechild, and Poppy Chulo combined to form a sharp pack, and Hot Slice did excellent work jamming, pushing the Chicago front wall out of play and garnering an 8-0 result. Unfortunately, a late call by lead jammer Ruthless Chris (with a 2-3 pack disadvantage) killed the brief burst of momentum, and the Outfit won the jam 3-2. Soon thereafter, Imma continued her rough night, being sent off on a jammer penalty. Chicago’s Ivanna Schoop took the jammer line all alone to begin the next jam and began to accrue points. After serving her time, Imma came back in and was sent back to the box within ten seconds. The Librarian provided a great jammer take-out, but the back-to-back-to-back power jams left the Outfit with a 153-82 edge.

The final 11 minutes of the bout were more of the same. The Lambs looked physically exhausted, mentally beaten, or both. Hot Slice continued to look solid with the star, but CRG’s other jammers had nothing much to offer. By the time the final whistle sounded, the Outfit had a 188-96 margin of victory.

Lambs co-MVP Hot Slice was, by far, CRG’s best jammer. While it wasn’t her best game ever, Slice was solid throughout, playing a good mental game. She showed good speed, and she was the only CRG jammer who worked to push the opposing front walls out of play. This allowed her to take advantage of her opportunities, despite the uneven play of her blockers. Rookie Ruthless Chris showed some excellent talent, with nice bursts of speed and sharp lateral cuts. Unfortunately, she looked lost when she reached the opponent’s front wall, not continuing to skate and push them out of play. She also seemed flummoxed by the tactic of Chicago’s blockers skating backwards after knocking her out of bounds, taking far too long to work back and re-enter. I attribute these errors to inexperience, and I think that Chris has a bright future as her mental game catches up with her physical skills.

The other two primary jammers for CRG struggled mightily. Rookie I Caramba showed some positive flashes but could not put it together. Imma Tattooher couldn’t get anything going, taking too many trips to the box and spending as much time on the floor as she did on her skates. I was shocked that CRG’s coaching staff left her in the jamming rotation well into the second half. Making cameo jamming experiences for the Lambs were Pistolwhippin Wendy, Roxx Solid, Flannery O’Slaughter, Sista Shovechild, Godzillary, the pizza vendor, a couple of NSO’s, and the guy holding a “will work for food” sign at the on-ramp to the Kennedy Expressway.

Turning to the blockers for the Lambs, my other co-MVP is Pistolwhippin Wendy. While The Librarian also had many of the good blocking moments, I gave this one to Wendy on the basis of the energy she brought to the team. Her big hits had an impact on the game, and her positive, aggressive attitude was in short supply among her teammates. Simply put, Wendy looked like she was playing a sport she loved, while much of CRG looked like they had been sentenced to forced manual labor. The Librarian, while not as consistent as she’d like, did a nice job on many occasions with positional blocking and keeping walls together. Susie Shinsplintski had the best performance of her comeback campaign, and Garden of Beatin showed promise in her debut. The remainder of the CRG blockers ranged from inconsistent to subpar.

On the Chicago side, all four of the Outfit’s main jammers were solid, but Jennergizer Bunny set the pace. She’s speedy and smart, often disappearing into the pack, only to emerge virtually untouched. Ivanna Schoop and Big Lebekski weren’t far behind. Graves rounded out the rotation with some effective work. On the blocking side, Uma Bomber was the clear standout.

The back half of the twinbill featured the A-Teams, CRG’s Black Sheep and Chicago Outfit’s Syndicate. The Sheep defeated the Syndicate just weeks earlier at the Brewhaha tournament, and Chicago was looking for payback at home. Much like the Lambs, the Sheep entered this matchup missing some key cogs, most notably Hannah Barbaric and Nuk’em. While Nuk’em had been out with an injury for quite some time, the loss of Hannah was recent, and I wondered how CRG would proceed with its jammer rotation beyond K Lethal and Wheezy. My guess was that Candy Kickass, enjoying her most effective season to date, would step in.

The first minute of the bout was a CRG fan’s dream. Buckhead Betty, Penn Tupanga, and Candy Kickass formed an imposing and cohesive pack, as K Lethal racked up 12 points to nothing for Queefer Sutherland. (Side note: “Queefer” was #5 on the list of top 10 things I never thought I would type on a publicly-viewable blog.) Unfortunately for the Sheep, K was sent off to the box at the tail end of the jam. Sk8r-Kinney, Karma Krash, and Kitten Kicker did a nice job on the penalty kill on the ensuing jam, but the Syndicate’s blockers were up to the task, finding ways to get their jammer through for a 14-0 jam. Wheezy then took her turn with the star, showing magnificent balance as she snuck through the inside for lead jammer. Silkk Assassin went out on a jammer penalty for Chicago, but her pack bailed her out with an exquisite penalty kill, holding Cincy to a mere four points. By the time 13 minutes had passed, CRG were in complete control of the bout, yet led only 30-23.

"It wasn't me, I swear."

A series of uneventful jams followed, with the only action to note a nice forced minor track cut by Candy to deny a Chicago jammer lead status. Then, showing that you don’t have to be a rookie to call a jam too late, lead jammer K Lethal waited long enough to turn a 2-0 jam victory into a 3-2 loss. On her next chance, K got to skate solo, but her blockers didn’t give her much help, and CRG turned in another low-scoring power jam, bringing the Cincinnati lead to 43-31. The events that led to that power jam fall into the category of “things I’ve never seen in roller derby.” Silkk Assassin was handed a major on a really blatant track cut along the backstretch, then proceeded to skate directly through the middle of the infield toward the penalty box. The refs eventually managed to get her turned around, and she skated back across the infield, then around the outside to the box. Strange plays, indeed.

From there, the teams traded shots for a while. The Outfit’s Lola Blow put together a magnificent scoring pass, juking past June With A Cleaver and at least one other CRG blocker for a 4-0 win. Then Cincy’s Ruff’n The Passer, Betty, and Candy did a beautiful job sealing the Outfit blockers to the outside for an easy pass and a 4-0 jam by K. Betty and Candy then combined again with Penn Tupanga to slam the door on Silkk Assassin with an impenetrable 3-wall at the back of the pack, turning a Syndicate advantage into a harmless 0-0 jam. Thanks to some fine blocking by Railroad, K Lethal posted a nice grand slam, and it looked like CRG might finally be able to stretch the lead, up 52-35 with five minutes to play in the half.

The next five minutes, however, completely changed the bout. First, Wheezy took the star to the penalty box on a high block major. Kinney did some excellent work on Queefer, but Chicago managed to do nine points worth of damage. A minute or so later, Lola Blow posted another eye-popping jam, managing to slip by on an outside scoring pass, thanks to her amazing balance. On the final jam of the half, K Lethal took another trip to the sin bin. While Karma, June, and Mirderher did some fine work on the penalty kill, the Outfit finished the half on a 25-0 run to take a 60-52 lead.

The Black Sheep needed to come back from the break and re-establish their rhythm. Unfortunately for the visitors, it was Chicago who found another gear. CRG’s blockers formed a conga line to the penalty box, rarely keeping more than two blockers on the track for the next 12 minutes, and the Chicago lead grew steadily. By the time K went to the box yet again on a track cut, the solid penalty killing by June and Candy was not enough to keep the lead from growing to 30 points, 89-59 with 22 minutes remaining. Things continued to get worse for CRG on the next jam, with Chicago’s Smashley Destructo leading a fine pack in the absolute pummeling of Wheezy. I don’t believe Wheezy ever completed her initial pass, and Queefer rolled to an 18-0 jam. Shortly thereafter, an interminable officials’ time out led to K receiving an ex post facto jammer penalty for no reason I could discern. Chicago took advantage with another solid power jam. Over 19 minutes, the Outfit put together an 84-10 scoring run, and this one was more or less over with 16 minutes to play, Chicago leading 119-62.

Not much of note happened from there. K turned 3-0 into 4-4 with another late jam call, but by that stage, it was hard to blame her for taking the risk. Kinney took a turn jamming, eventually joined by Karma, but both decided to join the parade of CRG jammer penalties. The sole Black Sheep highlight of the game’s waning minutes was a 14-point jam by Candy Kickass in her only appearance with the star. On that jam, Chicago’s Smashley Destructo was called for a major while blocking. She just stayed in the pack as though nothing had happened, and the ref basically said “ah, never mind,” not persisting in sending her off. It was the final sign of a very up-and-down night for the zebras.

While I can’t accuse the Black Sheep of quitting on the bout, they just had no spark for the game’s final 35 minutes. Frankly, it was a terrible game to watch, not just for a CRG fan, but for any roller derby fan. The Outfit prevailed in a laugher, 150-93. The Sheep completely dominated the gameplay over the first 25 minutes, yet squandered countless chances to take a stronger lead. When Chicago turned the tables, Cincinnati had no answer, no energy, no fire, and no chance.

There was plenty of blame to go around. The team’s jamming performance was easily its worst since… well, maybe 2008 vs. Philly? K Lethal was her team’s best option with the star, and when your best option is in the box as often as she was, that’s not a good sign. I really need to come up with some type of autotext to use in every recap. It would be something like “K Lethal was the fastest, strongest, and most talented jammer on the track. Yet, she hurt her team with penalties and poor decision making. If her mental game ever catches up with her physical prowess, you could be looking at an all-time great.” I feel like I’ve been writing the same thing every bout for the past 2-3 years. For the first 10-15 minutes of this bout, I honestly thought things would be different. K was playing a smart game, calling jams at just the right time, and not taking excessive penalties. I could have seen her playing for precision offenses such as Gotham, Denver, or Rose City in that span. Unfortunately, it didn’t last, and it was back to the usual.

Wheezy just did not have it in this game. I would rate it her worst performance since joining the Sheep. She did have a few flashes of Wheezy-esque brilliance, but she was battered consistently, and her speed and explosiveness seemed a couple of ticks below the norm. You may notice that I never mentioned the third jammer for CRG, and that is telling. Penn Tupanga, in a move surprising even to many CRG insiders, was called upon to jam. While her blocking performance in this one was above average, she does not seem to be the answer from the jammer line. Candy Kickass looked great in her single jam, and the CRG coaching staff would be well advised to use her in the third jammer slot until Hannah Barbaric’s return.

Cincinnati’s blocking, at least when the team could muster a pack of more than two, was pretty good. The effort was led by co-MVP’s Buckhead Betty and Candy Kickass. While I would have previously considered this statement sacrilegious, I put forth that Betty has at least tied Kinney as the best blocker in CRG. While Betty has always delivered the big hits and a booty made for jammer frustration, her overall game has taken a giant step forward this year. Her speed is up a notch, her lateral quickness likewise, and her track awareness is superlative. Candy has also reached new heights during this campaign. She seems equally comfortable in jamming and blocking roles, and her blocking has a ferociousness that belies her slender frame. She always seems to be in the right position, a credit to her focus and mental acuity for the game.

June With a Cleaver joined Sk8r-Kinney and Karma Krash among other standouts on the blocking side. June played a very consistent game, doing some of her best work as a positional blocker and as half of some excellent 2-walls. Her penalty killing kept things from getting even more out of hand as the bout went on. Mirderher, Penn Tupanga, and Ruff’n The Passer also stood out for solid blocking performances.

For the Syndicate, Queefer Sutherland and Lola Blow formed an excellent jammer tandem. Sutherland , while not the very fastest nor very strongest jammer I’ve seen, is above average across the board, and her track awareness allows her to use the full measure of her talent in every bout. Lola is a bit more of a blunt instrument, powering her way through tough packs in lieu of the finesse game. Chicago’s other jammer, the previously mentioned Silkk Assassin, is “K Lethal-lite.” She may have the most physical talent of any of the Outfit jammers, but her inconsistency and mental lapses limit her overall effectiveness. On the blocking side, it was all about Smashley Destructo and Lady K. Smashley is a punishing hitter, quick, ferocious, and smart. She has a way of controlling the back of the pack by herself, making her especially valuable when packs get spread out or shrunken by penalties. Lady K is all-around awesome. She’s speedy, smooth, and equally adept at holding walls and measuring up opponents for a dose of pain.

Moving on to my overall impressions of the night, I found the full bout experience below average, albeit with some definite high points. I know that not every league can have a major arena as its venue, but the Windy City Fieldhouse does not provide the feel of a top-level sporting event. The seats are not tiered in any way, meaning that only the foremost of the 4-5 rows that ring three sides of the playing surface provides a decent view. The seats in the turns are set a bit too far back from the track, and seem to be at an odd angle for viewing. The biggest drawback of the venue is certainly the food. There is one stand, with a paltry selection of nasty-looking pizza, nachos, and tasteless soft pretzels. The only plus is the bank of vending machines, which serve up bottled drinks at $1.50 each, less than half the cost of a beverage at most arenas. Unlike at the first bout I attended there this season, the sound system was subpar. I had a difficult time understanding the announcers, although not as bad as the Charlie Brown’s Teacher mumble of the Cincy Gardens.

"Chuck, he said Hot Slice is Lead Jammer."

The best aspect of the bout production was easily the halftime show during the first bout. The Chicago Boyz Acrobatic Team put on a phenomenal show, doing acrobatic tricks involving jump ropes, as well as a wonderful routine with a springboard. The performers, who looked to range from 7 or 8 years of age to late teens, had the crowd spellbound. One did “the worm” over a jump rope, while another bounced on his back to clear it. It was, by far, the best halftime performance I have ever seen at a sporting event of any kind. It was the only time all night that the crowd was really into what was happening on the track, which was unfortunate for the hardworking skaters of the home team. The other item of praise for the Outfit goes to the DJ. He played an excellent mix of mostly 80’s and 90’s favorites, which both the fans and skaters seemed to enjoy. He didn’t get into the obscure hipster crap that many bout DJ’s overuse, and the folks spinning tunes for other leagues should take notes.

A Taste of the awesome Chicago Boyz Acrobatic Team

After the first bout, Betty encouraged me to move over to the turn one seats and join the CRG partisans. I had the pleasure of sitting with CRG rookie Eerie Sistable, set to make her bout debut in the C-Team “hangover game” the following day. We compared notes as we watched, and I really enjoyed the conversation. Unfortunately, due to family commitments, I could not attend that bout. I also got the chance to spend some time with Pistolwhippin Wendy and The Librarian, two of the coolest people you will ever meet in all of derby, during the Sheep bout.

After the skating was finished, I got to catch up with the wonderful Betty outside the venue. She did something that very few skaters do, introducing me to some of her teammates I had not met. This means the world to me, as it is so difficult to approach people I don’t know and chat, especially when they are with all of their friends and teammates. If I could ask one thing of roller derby players everywhere, it would be to make the effort to approach and engage your fans (especially the ones who have traveled to support your team for years).

After leaving the venue, I decided to attend the after-party, held at a bar in the Bucktown neighborhood. The first CRG skater I encountered was Wendy, and I made my way to a table to join her and Mark. Ruff’n also came up, introduced herself, and joined us. We chatted while waiting for the private area to be ready, and that may have been the most enjoyable part of my evening. The bar finally opened a private area for the after-party, and we made our way to a sweltering, dark basement. The music was bad and loud, but worse yet, there was no food available. The bar had closed its kitchen at 11pm, and no provisions were made by the bar or the league to even provide food for the skaters. While I did also get the chance to talk with The Librarian for a while, the party was a total flop in my book.

It’s been four months since I posted here.
For that, I deserve your scorn and derision.
Two weeks since I saw a bout.
To be quite honest, it’s one I could have done without.
Nine days, I’ve been typing this.
I hope it doesn’t take you too long just to read it.
In six days, it’s another trip.
So I’ll finish this up before it gets longer.
You’ll be falling asleep if it gets much longer.
St. Louis Blues defenseman Chris Pronger.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Turn Up the Radio

A little diversion from the usual today. It's Friday the 13th, and I'm off to Chicago tonight for the (non-sports related) weekend. Way back in the days before I had a combination satellite radio receiver / MP3 player, it used to be tough to find good music on my frequent road trips. Anyone who has driven across Indiana frequently enough knows that there was never much beyond a couple of country stations and some religious programming. Beginning in 2001, when I bought my current car, I finally had a CD player to keep my ears happy. So, I thought I'd share with you some of my favorite CD's for the road. Being a child of the 1980's, I'm sticking strictly to music from that wonderful decade.

I chose these particular discs on two basic criteria: the top end (great tracks) and the bottom end (were the lesser tracks worth a listen?). Here is a baker's dozen for you.

13. Please (Pet Shop Boys - 1986): At the top end, we've got my two favorite Pet Shop Boys songs, "West End Girls" and "Opportunities." Solid tunes such as "Love Comes Quickly" and "Suburbia" follow. While things do drag a bit from there, the disc ends with a bang. Neil and Chris finish with the criminally underrated "Later Tonight" and "Why Don't We Live Together." This disc is a great choice if you want a classic 1980's Brit-pop selection.

12. Footloose (Soundtrack - 1984): This album was #1 in the U.S. for more than two months consecutively, spawning six top-40 singles. Very few soundtracks have such a perfect connection to their accompanying films. Of course, the title track (by "King of Soundtracks" Kenny Loggins) is the high-water mark. A nice mix of very different songs ("Almost Paradise," "Dancing in the Sheets," "Holding Out for a Hero") provides this disc with some staying power. The other #1 hit, "Let's Hear it for the Boy," tends to wear on me after a while, but that's the worst I have to say here. Even the weakest songs here ("The Girl Gets Around" and "Never") aren't bad, although I do confess to switching discs after Track 7 sometimes.

11. The Joshua Tree (U2 - 1987): I confess to being one of the 14 people on Earth who are not overly impressed by U2. Still, this album is outstanding. It begins with 7 excellent tracks, from the three monster hits to "Red Hill Mining Town" and "In God's Country." Even the two-minutes-too-long "One Tree Hill" isn't bad, and "Mothers of the Disappeared" brings the disc to a nice finale.

10. Night and Day (Joe Jackson - 1982): This one would have placed higher, but Jackson's best songs are relatively spread out over his prolific releases in the late 1970's and early 1980's. This one's a quick nine songs, featuring perhaps his best two ("Steppin' Out" and "Breaking Us in Two") consecutively in the middle. While this one does grind a bit toward the end, some nice, little-known tracks make the first 30 minutes an excellent listen.

9. Polka Party ("Weird Al" Yankovic - 1986) Hi, my name is Mike, and I'm an Al-oholic. I know that some people don't get into Weird Al, but I think he is one of the most talented artists of the past 25 years. This disc has a great mix of direct parodies and style parodies, with one of the best polka medleys on any of his albums. The disc starts with a spot-on James Brown on "Living With a Hernia" and also includes another take-off on a big movie song, "Here's Johnny." The latter is an ode to Ed McMahon, but the sound is a great match for the original hit from the Short Circuit Soundtrack. Yankovic original "Dog Eat Dog" will make you think you're listening to classic Talking Heads. The polka medley features many hit songs of the mid-80's, and the disc finishes with perhaps the best Yankovic original ever, "Christmas at Ground Zero."

8. Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars (Edie Brickell and New Bohemians - 1988): I don't usually get too folksy with my musical tastes, but this is an exception. Aside from the ubiquitous "What I Am," this is not an upbeat collection. Songs such as "Little Miss S," "Air of December," and "Circle" are desolate, haunting, and exceedingly beautiful. As the disc wears on, the melancholy (think Morrissey meets Arlo Guthrie) gets to be a bit much, but there's truly not a bad song throughout.

7. Top Gun (Soundtrack - 1986): The film has such a musical current running through it that it's not surprising to note that listening to the soundtrack instantly takes me to certain scenes. Of course, Kenny Loggins makes an appearance with "Danger Zone." The album's biggest hit ("Take My Breath Away" is actually one of my least favorite selections, but virtually everything else is sing-along quality. The final track, "Top Gun Anthem" (by Harold Faltermeyer of "Axel F" fame), is amazing and inspiring. This disc puts me back in the cockpit, the volleyball court, and Kelly McGillis's bedroom, and those are some fine places to be.

6. She's So Unusual (Cyndi Lauper - 1983): Lauper's debut album is a mix of styles, from the plaintive "Time After Time" to the playful and titillating "She Bop." This disc also features the major hits "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and (my personal favorite) "All Through the Night." While the final two tracks (comprising only 4 minutes of the disc) are less than stellar, the rest is filled with big hits and pleasant surprises. For a hidden gem, go with the first track, "Money Changes Everything."

5. Raising Hell (Run-DMC - 1986): The four power tracks on this one are right at the beginning ("Peter Piper," "It's Tricky," "My Adidas," and "Walk This Way"), but this one stays strong throughout. Tracks 5-6 ("Is It Live" and "Perfection") are so-so at best, but the remainder of the disc is well worth a listen. Check out Track 10, "Dumb Girl" for a lesser-known winner.

4. Beauty and the Beat (The Go-Go's - 1981): The vocals of Belinda Carlisle couple with the excellent songwriting and instrumentation of Charlotte Caffey and Jane Weidlin to make this one a pleasure from start to finish. Of course, most will remember the hits "Our Lips are Sealed" and "We Got the Beat." No song, however, captures the early Go-Go's edge and image like "This Town" does. Truly, there's not a loser in the bunch. Watch out for "Automatic," a song that deserves to be much better known.

3. Disintegration (The Cure - 1989): The two biggest hits ("Pictures of You" and "Lovesong") come early on the disc, along with excellent lead track "Plainsong." While Robert Smith thought the album too much of a departure from his vision for the band, I think it's the one with the fewest dead spots and flaws. My only complaint is that a few of the songs at the end (including the very good title track) run on a few minutes too long. Still, when I'm in the mood for The Cure, no disc id better.

2. Rocky IV (Soundtrack - 1985): Each of the first four soundtracks in the Rocky franchise was excellent, but this one is the most uniformly outstanding. It's a great mix of rock songs by the famous (James Brown) and the forgotten (Robert Tepper), plus some of Vince DiCola's usual instrumental mastery. DiCola's two tracks, "War" and "Training Montage," are some of the most inspiring instrumentals I have ever heard, and they catch the feel of their respective parts of the movie perfectly. "Eye of the Tiger" (originally from Rocky III) makes a return appearance, and Survivor adds the excellent "Burning Heart." It's tough to find much better on those late-night drives, when I need a push to keep me going.

1. Licensed to Ill (Beastie Boys - 1986): Aside from the middling "Time to Get Ill," every track here is a borderline or certifiable classic (See track list below). If you want fun party music, you absolutely can't go wrong here. This one has withstood numerous start-to-finish playings, and I still love it every time.

"Rhymin & Stealin"
"The New Style"
"She's Crafty"
"Posse in Effect"
"Slow Ride"
"(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)"
"No Sleep Till Brooklyn"
"Paul Revere"
"Hold It, Now Hit It"
"Brass Monkey"
"Slow and Low"
"Time to Get Ill"

Writing this post has made me reconsider my usual satellite-based road trip music for this trip. I think I'll be taking some of these along for the ride. Eleven years and 183,000 miles after my first car CD experience, these still hold up beautifully.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Seasons Change

I left the Glass City on Saturday afternoon, headed for the Cincinnati Gardens and the first Cincinnati Rollergirls (CRG) home bout of the 2012 season. Owen was riding shotgun, and we had decided to stay until Sunday, so we planned accordingly. In addition to watching some roller derby and hanging out with some of the skaters, I had a further goal. I was determined to overcome my recent recap writing malaise and to make enjoying myself the first priority during the bouts. If you read my previous post, you know that my recent attempts to raise the detail level of my recaps were a resounding failure. I enjoyed my time at the bouts less, because I was too worried about getting every detail as I watched the action. I noticed that I was missing out on the "big picture" of the bout action, and the data overload left me unable to write a coherent recap.

So, my plan for the evening was to take notes only when I had something major to observe: a big momentum swing, a strategy that succeeded or failed, or a particularly noteworthy act by a skater or team. I knew that my recap would be shorter and less detailed, but I felt it was best to get back to my successful approach of earlier seasons. I had to remind myself that writing this blog is not a job. It should reflect the joy of watching great roller derby, not the drudgery of accounting on wheels.

We arrived at the Gardens a bit after 5pm, ready to partake in some tailgating. We had stopped at a gas station to pick up a couple of tall cans of Bud Select for Owen. I was sticking to the hard stuff, Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi. Unfortunately, there wasn't much of anything going on in the parking lot, despite the beautiful weather. We stood outside, stretched, and chatted a bit, before I decided to go inside and get his ticket from Will Call. (Thanks, Miss Print!) On my way to Will Call, I encountered The Librarian at the Girl Scout Cookies table. (Every sportswriter should have that sentence saved as autotext.) We had a great chat and got to catch up a little, as we hadn't seen each other in nine months or so. When I stopped and glanced around, I saw that the lines to get into the seating area stretched the entire length of the concourse, so I hurried to get the ticket. It was almost 6pm, so I ducked outside to find Owen finishing his beer, and we made our way inside.

Upon clearing the turnstile, I made a beeline for my favorite spot, the front row of floor seats at turn three. Owen started in on the terrible, cheap beers while I relaxed and took in the sights. A quick hello with Miss Print and perusal of the bout program helped the time fly by, and the intros for the first bout were upon us. The abject crappiness of the sound system ensured that we had no idea what was happening, but we managed to get the gist and stood for a solid rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner.

DISCLAIMER: I am just a fan. I make no guarantee as to the accuracy of any facts contained in the recaps. I do watch the action closely, but the primary objective of this blog is to give my overall impressions of my experiences. Now, on to the recaps!

FIRST BOUT: CRG Violent Lambs (B-Team) vs. Arch Rival Roller Girls (ARRG) St. Lunachix (B-Team)

The first bout of the evening started with an impressive display by CRG, For the first three or four jams, the Lambs did everything right. Their pack won the initial battles to spring jammers for lead status. With the CRG jammer in the lead, the pack played offense, giving some beautiful assists and keeping Arch Rival from establishing walls. The Lambs' jammers were heady, picking up points and calling jams at just the right time, and CRG opened up a 14-1 advantage in the first few minutes. ARRG then decided to switch tactics, and the rugby derby scrums took center stage. For almost as long as slow pack starts have existed, CRG have struggled with them, especially early in bouts. This night was no different, as ARRG began to take control, winning lead on almost every jam. Once the jammers were out of the pack on the initial pass, the defensive pack play tightened, and St. Louis rarely racked up big points. The steady stream of jam wins for ARRG continued, however, and the Lambs' packs looked a bit shaken. They seemed to go into a shell and played to not get blown out, trying to clamp down on defense and forgetting for minutes at a time to assist their own jammers. By the 8 1/2 minute mark in the half, ARRG had scored 28 unanswered points to take a 29-14 lead.

CRG finally got a power jam, but jammer Imma Tattooher had been battered for well over a minute prior to the ARRG penalty, and she couldn't take advantage. (I later found out she was injured.) Hot Slice got a chance to go solo, but she picked up only a single grand slam. This was mainly due to some nifty work by the Arch Rival pack, which sped away and killed the penalty beautifully. Near the end of the half, Polly Rocket took the star for CRG, hoping to cut the deficit a bit going into the break. ARRG's Oregon Betrayal, however, laid a pulverizing hit on her, moving quickly and decisively from the inside to the outside line to flatten the CRG jammer. Showing great toughness, Polly got back up and fought her way to four hard-earned CRG points. Just before halftime, Arch Rival's jammer Beaster Bunny took the momentum back on a dazzling jam, showing off a hellacious juke that left CRG's Railroad missing an attempted takeout by at least four feet. ARRG went into the locker room with a 47-25 advantage.

The first 12 minutes of the second half were more of the same. The teams traded points, both packs doing a solid job on defense. The going was tough for jammers on both sides, with hard hits raining down and limited offensive pack play. One CRG highlight was a jam in which Bombtrack used some nice moves to take lead jammer status. It looked like the ARRG jammer was going to trail her by only a few feet coming out of the pack, with only Cherry Choke to beat at the front. That's when Cherry entered full-on Kinney mode, weaving and sliding effortlessly, seeming to anticipate her quarry's every move. Cherry must have held that one-on-one block for 10-15 seconds until other CRG blockers came to help, and Bombtrack made a nice scoring pass for the grand slam. CRG had closed the gap to 69-48 with 6 1/2 minutes to go.

The Lambs could not hold the momentum, however. Sista Shovechild was sent off on a jammer penalty, and the ensuing ARRG power jam both extended the lead (to 81-48) and bled precious time from the game clock. With roughly three minutes remaining, Cherry Choke wore the star for CRG. This time, Bombtrack returned the favor. Even though Cherry did not get lead, pivot Bombtrack led a sharp CRG pack, which shut down the ARRG jammer. Cherry proceeded to put up a 15-0 jam, leaving 20 seconds on the clock for one last push. Amazingly, the Lunachix jammer was sent off on a major, leaving Hot Slice all by herself and able to let the jam run the full two minutes. As the partisan crowd grew exponentially louder, Hot Slice started to add points. The ARRG pack, however, hung tough, knocking her around just enough to keep her from making up the entire deficit. When the final whistle blew, Slice's 15-0 jam left ARRG with a slim 84-78 victory. Over the last five minutes or so, it was obvious that ARRG were struggling and the Lambs were gaining the edge. Had this been a 60-minute game, I'm almost certain the outcome would have swung the other way.

Hot Slice and Sista Shovechild were the most-utilized jammers for CRG. They both had their moments, but I found it pretty difficult to judge the jammers in this bout. I couldn't tell whether the main jammers were having an off game or the packs' lack of offensive awareness was more of an external constraint. Nonetheless, I was impressed by the way Slice and Shovechild battled through some very tough packs. The lack of space to maneuver meant that the nice jukes and cuts I had seen from both of them the week before were few and far between. With the slow, dense packs, jammers were forced to be patient and employ more of the "wrecking-ball" approach to get through. I thought Shovechild made the transition to this style a bit more quickly. Unfortunately, this type of jamming also makes a skater more penalty-prone, and it led to a momentum-killing trip to the box for her in the second half.

Cherry Choke and Bombtrack also took multiple turns with the star for Cincinnati. Both of them were used as double-threats, also spending quite a few jams wearing the pivot stripe. From where I sat, they were the two most effective CRG players on the track. Other than that, however, my two co-MVP's for the bout had little in common in their performances. Cherry Choke is all about consistency. She's not as explosive as many of her teammates, but she rarely makes mistakes. Cherry moves very fluidly and efficiently, and she always seems to be thinking one step ahead of the opponent, no matter her role on the track. Playing the role of Maverick to Cherry's Iceman was Bombtrack. Bombtrack has exceptional speed and explosiveness, especially coming out of cuts. She's more willing to take a chance and occasionally pays for it by ending up out of position. As a blocker, Bombtrack is not as adept at one-on-one blocking as is Cherry, but she does a very nice job controlling pack speed and setting up her pack as a pivot. Imma Tattooher had a few mostly uneventful jams before leaving with an injury, and Polly Rocket and Pistolwhippin Wendy made cameo appearances at the jammer line.

Unfortunately, it was not a good night for many of CRG's blockers. The Violent Lambs packs were very good for the first few minutes and last few minutes of the bout. In between, however they were consistently outplayed. I was disappointed to see it, because the pack play regressed severely from the outstanding effort I saw in Grand Rapids last month. I had expected that another month for the skaters to come together would lead to great things. Certainly, ARRG presents a tougher challenge than Grand Raggidy did, but a number of CRG's skaters looked unprepared for the strategies used and a step slow in getting to blocks. In fact, I saw more blockers whiff on attempted hits in this bout than I can recall seeing in any previous tilt. As mentioned above, Cherry and Bombtrack were solid in the blocking game. Newcomer Sauci, while inconsistent, landed many of the biggest hits of the evening for the Lambs. Sista Shovechild, Pistolwhippin Wendy, and Roxx Solid had decent showings as blockers, but they could not fill enough of the holes to truly solidify the CRG packs.

On the Arch Rival side, I was impressed by the jamming tandem of Beaster Bunny and Rhino-Might. Beaster Bunny was the single best skater on the track for this bout. While she doesn't have blazing speed, she is very quick and nimble. Combined with solid power and good balance, these traits make her a very complete player. Rhino-Might is very big for a jammer, but she definitely has the speed and instincts to handle the role. Both of these jammers had tough going in a very defensive game, but they did enough in the middle portion to build a lead big enough to withstand CRG's late onslaught. On the blocking side, I saw Oregon Betrayal and Boom Boom Pow doing some good work.

SECOND BOUT: CRG Black Sheep (#8 in the NC Region) vs. ARRG All-Stars (#6 NC)

The A-Team bout promised to be a competitive one, as these two teams have played often over the past few years, with each squad tasting some success. Right from the first whistle, however, ARRG took control. For the first nine minutes of the bout, it was "Groundhog Day" for CRG and their fans. ARRG's pack lined up on a knee directly in front of the jammer line. A horrible, boring rugby scrum ensued. A wall of CRG blockers held the Arch Rival jammer at the front, while a wall of ARRG blockers held the CRG jammer at the back. As soon as no pack was called, the ARRG jammer got lead status by virtue of being farther ahead. ARRG sprinted forward immediately to re-establish the pack, leaving CRG's jammer stuck on her initial pass. Lather, rinse, repeat, and it was Arch Rival scoring the first 46 points of the bout over the opening nine minutes. By virtue of their bench being immediately next to the jammer line, ARRG were able to establish position immediately, before the Cincy pack could get there. Those nine minutes absolutely deflated the large opening-night crowd at the Gardens.

By the time Wheezy broke through, took lead status, and posted a 3-0 jam for CRG's first points, 14 minutes had passed. At that point, I'm not sure whether ARRG stopped going for the back line or CRG found a way to counter the strategy. The teams basically switched positions for most of the scrum starts midway through the half. The Black Sheep began chipping away at the lead, bringing the score to 51-17. Then, Candy KICKass did an excellent job frustrating the ARRG jammer into a major back block. Wheezy took advantage of the power jam to the tune of 10 more points. Arch Rival stabilized, then took advantage of a jammer penalty on K Lethal to grab a 13-0 power jam and re-take command. With the game in danger of slipping away, an outstanding CRG pack (Karma Krash, Buckhead Betty, Sk8r-Kinney, and Jungle Lacy) continually recycled the St. Louis jammer, allowing Wheezy to pick up a nice 12-2 jam. The halftime score was 85-52 Arch Rival, but CRG had weathered the rough start and kept the game within striking distance.

Early in the second half, the stalwart front of the CRG pack again forced an ARRG jammer into a trip to the box, this time on a track cut. K Lethal followed that 10-0 power jam with a great, lightning-fast 8-0 a few minutes later, and the deficit was cut to 20 (96-76), with 20 minutes remaining. This was the smallest margin since the early minutes of the game, but unfortunately, it would also prove to be the smallest margin for the rest of the bout. The teams traded blows over the next 10 minutes, with Arch Rival adding slightly to the lead. With the score at 117-88 and the bout once again in danger of becoming a rout, K Lethal was sent to the penalty box with the star again. The 15-0 ARRG power jam put the ladies from the Gateway to the West on the verge of securing the victory. Just minutes later, K took the jammer panty back to the sin bin on a track cut. Despite a phenomenal jammer takeout by Nuk'em, Arch Rival was able to push the score to 150-93. While CRG put together a few good jams in the waning minutes, the game was out of reach. Arch Rival polished off a 158-118 victory.

Looking at the CRG jammers, the best was clearly K Lethal. She showed off some dazzling speed, at times playing on a whole different level from the rest of the skaters. While I did not keep scoring stats, I'd imagine she was CRG's leading scorer. The worst CRG jammer was most certainly...K Lethal. Time after time, she broke her team's momentum by yielding power jams to ARRG. K is so immensely talented. I always wonder if her excessive jammer penalties (consistently more than any other CRG jammer) are a natural and unavoidable consequence of her aggressiveness and explosiveness. If there were some way she could play more under control without losing that fire, K Lethal could be a superstar in the truest sense of the word.

Wheezy rebounded from an uneven performance in Grand Rapids to have a quietly effective day. She seemed to have that higher gear back, but more importantly, she skated with purpose and decisiveness. Hannah Barbaric (nee Ouchocinco, nee Barbaric) had a tough time getting it going with the jammer star. Her opportunities seemed to decrease as the bout went on, but she did make good contributions as a blocker. Candy KICKass and Nuk'em took a few jams each, with decent results, but both made a far bigger impact as blockers.

I don't think I'm allowed to name every single front-of-the-pack CRG blocker my MVP, but I'd like to. Without some outstanding efforts, both one-on-one and as front walls, this bout would have been over by halftime. Sk8r-Kinney was amazing as always, and Karma Krash had her best performance in quite a while. Buckhead Betty continued her run of strong play and big hits. Candy KICKass did a nice job controlling the pack and managed to harass some ARRG jammers into penalties. The great individual efforts were not limited to the front of the pack. Nuk'em used to have my "talented but out of control" label, but she has done some excellent work over the last year or so. Now, she still delivers crushing hits, but you don't see her whiffing on a block and ending up out of the play. She has added smarts to her physical skill, and for that, I'm naming her the MVP of this bout. Jungle Lacy did a wonderful job, proving that she doesn't need a big body to have a big impact on the bout. While it's clear that the Black Sheep miss outstanding blockers Trauma and Sk8 Crime, the strong nucleus that remains bodes well for the future.

On the Arch Rival side, it's tough to miss the dynamic jamming duo of Mighty Mighty Boston and Downtown Dallis. While they both had to slog through some tough CRG packs, all it took was a small opening to make a big-time play. Mighty Mighty Boston is less flashy, but no less effective. I would watch her take the line and think CRG had the advantage, only to look up and see her making every right move. Downtown Dallis looks like a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader, but she skates with great speed and otherworldly quickness in and out of her cuts. After watching her at 2011 Regionals, I was sold on her as a top-level talent, and nothing here convinced me otherwise. In terms of blockers, I didn't isolate many specific skaters, but the team did an excellent job executing their scrum strategy. Oregon Betrayal and Mayor Francis Slayer were two I noticed when it came to hard hitting.


CRG had a large crowd (reported as 3,500), which always makes the experience at the Gardens quite a bit better. The floor seats were 80-90% full, as were the middle sections of the lower part of the stands. I even saw a few people moving up to the upper seats. The fans had their moments, especially near the end of each game, as CRG mounted comeback attempts. Overall, however, it was a pretty tame bunch. I miss the lusty booing when the opponents are introduced or a call goes against the home team. Also, for a crowd that size on a nice day, tailgating was very minimal. The largest and most excited group I saw in the parking lot was a cluster of fans from St. Louis. I hope the Cincy folks can do better than that as the season heats up.

The following entry is from :

   [skawr-bawrd, skohr-bohrd]
a large, usually rectangular board in a ballpark, sports arena, or the like, that shows the score of a contest and often other relevant facts and figures, as the count of balls and strikes on a baseball batter.

The Cincinnati Gardens features a beautiful new scoreboard, situated high over the center of the track, with faces in four directions. Faithful readers know that I have complained about the scoreboard situation at CRG bouts before, so I was very excited about this development. Once again, I would be able to sit in my favorite seats and be able to see the score and game clock. Except that I wasn't. The scoreboard was used for ads and announcements, as well as an occasional "lead jammer" graphic. Looking at the above definition, does anyone else see something missing here? I have not seen any other sports team with access to a decent scoreboard that doesn't, you know, POST THE SCORE ON IT. This was maddening. Once again, the fans sitting in turns 3 and 4 had no good way to keep track of the state of the game. It's not like we could hear the PA clearly to fill in the gaps, either. Since it's generally frowned upon for fans to interact with skaters via touch, smell, or taste during the action, the whole thing was literally senseless. I'm not saying CRG shouldn't use the board for announcements and ads. Every team does that. During the action, however, the scoreboard has one overwhelming purpose: providing accurate information about the game.

Between bouts, CRG put on a scrimmage by its new Junior Derby team. I really enjoyed this and was impressed by the skill level of some of the girls. I hope that this becomes an ongoing feature of CRG home bouts. The main drawback was time. I'm not sure who sets up the timetable for the evening's events, but it wasn't horribly realistic. The schedule listed in the bout program showed ten minutes for the 15-minute Junior Derby scrimmage, for example. Barring some immense gravitational pull centered in Cincinnati, I was not betting on it. Of course, I will mention my standing complaint about the 40-minute Lambs bouts. As much as I like the Juniors, I'd rather see the hard-working B-Teamers get the time on the track, if only one can happen. I think it's a disgrace that CRG is the only league I've watched in years that doesn't believe its B-Team is worthy of 60 minutes.

The other thing I'd love to see to free up some time is a limit on the length of official's time-outs. Seriously, if a huddle of zebras can't resolve a question in a minute or two, something is definitely wrong. The interminable gabfests in the center of the track kill the excitement for the fans.

Dramatized Reenactment of Official's Time-Out at CRG Bout (NSFW)

In terms of bout production, my only other complaint was the "YMCA" dance by the guys in facepaint at halftime of the Sheep bout. I know that there has to be a halftime break, for the sake of the game itself, but there has to be a better option than this. I'd say that approximately 10% of the thinning crowd were even remotely into what was happening on the track at that point. How about something involving the fans? Even though I don't really care much for mascot hijinks, the fans last season really got into Wooly Bully's T-Shirt launches. Or even better, CRG could have something down on the track that actually involves a few fans. I'd suggest a race that's a staple of baseball and football games: the shuttle run while getting dressed in sport-appropriate gear. Run here, put on knee pads. Run there, put on elbow pads. Run there, put on helmet, and sprint to the finish. Winner gets a prize.

And finally, a gripe about WFTDA Rules / Derby gameplay. Rugby derby must stop. Not only is it horribly boring and confusing for fans, the set-up of the pack is completely unregulated. So whoever sprints to the track first gets a major advantage in positioning? That is bad enough, but add to it the fact that one team's bench is right next to the jammer line, while the other's is 30 feet away. My preference would be to force packs to start at the pivot line and skate forward. But even if this doesn't happen, there absolutely must be a rule governing how the teams get priority in lining up their packs. CRG's Black Sheep fell behind 46-0 as Arch Rival traversed the 4 feet from bench to jammer line to get the rear position for the scrum, nine jams in a row. Arch Rival had that geographical advantage throughout the bout and won by fewer than those 46 points. Worst case, allow each team the chance to set up first on alternating jams.

A fan's view of "rugby derby" starts and strategy

I truly believe that these things took something away from a night that featured a lot of great action. The 3,500 fans at the peak of the night dwindled to maybe 500 by early in the second half of the main event. I'm sure at least some of those people left because of the boredom that filled the spaces among the great action. Even if 100 out of the 3,000 people left for this reason, that's 100 missed opportunities to create new roller derby fanatics.

Even with these negatives, however, I had a great time. Once the packs got rolling, the skill and athleticism were top-notch. The teams were evenly matched, which makes a huge difference in my enjoyment of the game. The food and staff at the Gardens were, as always, excellent. CRG's postgame autograph / meet-and-greet sessions are the gold standard for any league I've encountered. So, there's a lot of good here.


After chatting with a few of the skaters, we made our way to Molly Malone's for the after-party. There was one open table upon our arrival, so we claimed it. After 15 minutes of sitting there and watching servers deliver food and drinks to the other nearby tables, we gave up and walked over near the bar. We finally flagged someone down and found out that the kitchen was then closed, although why none of the 3-4 servers who were in and out of our section could have stopped by to check on us is a mystery. We wandered over by the semi-private skaters' area and didn't see many people we hadn't already seen at the bout, so we decided to just get some dinner on our way back to the hotel. We stayed at a La Quinta Inn at exit 15 of I-75, a spot I'd definitely recommend due to a combination of nice rooms and very reasonable rates.

I awoke on Sunday very excited, even though I wasn't thrilled about the federally-mandated lost hour of sleep. For the first time ever, I had been invited to attend a bout that was closed to the public. We made our way to the lobby for breakfast and discovered that many of the ARRG skaters were staying at the same hotel. Unfortunately, I really have no idea which skaters we saw, aside from the one or two who wore apparel with their derby names emblazoned thereon. After breakfast, we got our things together and made the short drive back to the Gardens. It was a bit surreal, pulling up to a lot with only a couple dozen cars and walking into an empty corridor. We found seats in the first row at turn 1 and settled in as the C-Teams and men's skaters warmed up.

I had no idea what to expect, as far as the "bout production" and the skill level of the skaters. Even though we had been invited, it had the feel of sneaking into a section where I didn't belong and waiting for an usher to come and kick me out. I thought it was pretty cool that the "hangover bout" skaters still got PA announcers, the same scoreboard set-up as the main bouts, and other little touches to make it seem as much like a real game as possible. They even got a full 60 minutes of derby, unlike another CRG squad I could mention. Some of the CRG skaters from the night before acted as coaches and even NSO's, while others camped out in the seats near us. One even brought her cute little dog. We got to talk with some of the skaters we missed the night before, including Buckhead Betty, Pistolwhippin Wendy, Hot Slice, and Sista Shovechild.

When it came to the game action itself, the level of talent widely outstripped the level of play, as one might expect from teams primarily comprised of rookies. There were moments that could have been confused for a high-level B-Team game, interspersed with some that somewhat resembled roller derby. On the good side, many of the jams began with packs standing just behind the pivot line and skating counterclockwise at the first whistle. I facetiously asked Miss Print and Buckhead Betty if that tactic is legal, as I hadn't seen it in roller derby of late.

Of the rookies for CRG, I was impressed by the talents of Number Cruncher, who showed very good speed and some deft moves as a jammer. NailHer and Sissy Bug (apologies if I mess up any of the names, as they are not in any program) were the two strongest blockers. Each of them laid some very powerful blocks on the ARRG rookies. Aside from one or two good jams, the CRG packs had pretty limited offensive awareness, but I do see some talent there. I would think that at least a few of the players I saw on Sunday will make rosters in the near future. Isolating the stars for ARRG was a bit tougher, as they did not all wear standardized uniforms. I noticed Calamity Cat doing good work, and #81 (no name on jersey) was a talented blocker.

The men's game was next, but we had to leave to get back on the road toward home. As many of you may know, I am not a fan of men's roller derby. I don't have anything against it, and I'm glad the men have the opportunity to play, but I don't really enjoy watching it. Nonetheless, I am trying to keep an open mind, and I would have watched the bout had I not had other commitments and a 3-hour ride home. The trip back to Toledo was uneventful, and I had a bit of time to bask in the glow of a wonderful weekend before it was time to get ready for my return to the number factory.

I have a feeling that this season is going to be quite an adjustment for me as a CRG fan. I think the team has an uphill battle to regain its position of prominence within the region and the sport, but also the capability to do so. It may not be tomorrow, but I am confident that it will be. As in any sport, seasons change, players change, but being a fan is forever.

And yes, I accept any and all of your mockery for using an Expose song this time around.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Once in a Lifetime

As many of you know, I have been a roller derby fan since 2007, not long after the sport's revival. I feel blessed in that I've been able to see the sport develop and get to know some of the era's pioneers. I saw very little out there in terms of coverage, and even less devoted to covering roller derby like a real sport. So, a few years ago, I began writing the precursor of this blog. I would attend bouts and write about them from a sports fan's perspective. Along the way, readers could see the evolution of my understanding of the sport. Skaters could have their skills respected and appreciated. And hopefully, sports fans who hadn't given roller derby a chance would have a lens through which to view the sport.

Over the years, I have been more successful on some fronts than on others, but I have always felt that the time and effort taken to write my posts were very worthwhile. Some of you may have noticed the lack of production on this blog recently. Since the last time I wrote a substantive recap, I have attended a Cincinnati Rollergirls (CRG) home doubleheader, a CRG road doubleheader, the North Central Region Playoffs, and CRG's first road doubleheader of 2012. I have many, many pages of notes from each of these events, and no recaps here. And I may ask myself: Well, how did I get here?

I could call them goals, or reasons for writing, but here are the main few:

1. I want the skaters to feel appreciated as athletes and sportswomen, not as novelties.

2. I want to improve my own knowledge of the sport, to become an "expert."

3. I want to have an outlet for my writing, as I believe I do have some talent for it.

4. I want to pull new fans into roller derby, especially those who share my background as "mainstream" sports fanatics.

5. I want to feel like I have contributed some small thing to the leagues, since geography and other considerations prevent me from truly being an essential part of any of them.

I have found that I have been at my happiest and most productive when I've felt that I was achieving most of these aims. The travel time, money, and onerous writing time were definitely worth it. Skaters appreciated my work, especially since few of them had ever had someone write about them in that way. My derby acumen improved dramatically as I saw more bouts and talked to more skaters. Forcing myself to put my experiences into words led to a more analytical approach to the sport. While I was rarely reaching any roller derby neophytes, I was giving the leagues (OK, mostly CRG) something they did not get elsewhere.

So, what happened? Due to various factors, I have either plateaued or regressed on most of my objectives. First, what I have to offer isn't so new or unique anymore. Major derby leagues see their bouts covered on DNN and myriad other websites, and most have their own in-house recappers. Skaters don't need to read my description of the events, because they can easily watch the tape, and their superior knowledge of the sport will give them far greater insights than one fan scribbling notes in real time ever could. Not only am I failing to reach new potential fans, but I am also failing to reach even the rabid fans and participants. HSWT's Facebook page has a total of 41 followers, and the site's handy metrics show that roughly a quarter of them even see a typical post from me.

Secondly, My derby knowledge has definitely hit a plateau. Until the past six months or so, I have been keenly aware of my increasing derby smarts. I felt satisfaction upon noticing something that would have previously slipped me, or upon a kind word from a skater about my perceptiveness. I certainly still believe that I know more than most "Just A Fans" out there, but I'm not progressing. I know that there are steps I could take (memorizing the rulebook and such), but I just don't see the potential to be an expert. I think there's a limit to the level of understanding one can reach, never having played a sport, nor even been associated with it on a day-to-day, competitive level. For instance, I was a competitive baseball player. I can explain just about any intricate detail of anything in baseball to anyone. However, a person who goes to eight or ten ballgames a year and watches a few more on TV will never reach that point, even if he or she works diligently to learn the game. So, do I keep pushing to make very marginal improvements, or do I accept that I'm at or near my limit?

Finally, as my "teachers" move on, am I losing the drive to connect with new derby folks? Writing my recaps has always been most rewarding when I could envision certain people reading them and know that I'd talk to those people again soon enough to gauge their reactions. But people move on. Roller derby careers are often pretty short, for many reasons. Teams replenish themselves and retain continuity through recruitment, camaraderie and frequent contact. What analog can I find to recharge myself when things start to drag?

Truly, this is not meant as a "woe is me" post. It's an attempt to figure out what's going wrong, solicit help from all of you, and find a way to make my writing relevant and enjoyable for all of us. While I have listed the "philosophical" struggles, I believe there is a huge technical issue as well. When I watch a bout and take notes, I am trying to do more than I am capable of doing, thus making the task of compiling my notes into a worthwhile post an extremely difficult chore.

Early on, I focused my notes and writing on big moments or momentum swings. I paid detailed attention to the skills and attributes of individual skaters, and to the complex gyrations within the packs. I could tell you that K Lethal looked really good making lateral cuts, and that Trauma manipulated the speed of the pack impeccably. But my posts were short on facts. I couldn't tell you whether Hannah Barbaric won more jams than she lost or how often CRG gained lead jammer status in slow pack starts. I felt that some of the things that were lacking could make my recaps better, so I changed my note-taking.

Over the past year or so, I have worked hard to keep jam-by-jam information in my notes. I list the points for each team, who was lead, any jammer penalties, notes on the jam, and cumulative score and time remaining at the end of the jam. Suddenly, I had tons of great information to include in the recaps. However, the time and focus it took to get all of this information meant that I no longer got as good a feel for the ebb and flow of the game, nor for the skills on display from individual skaters. Whereas before, I could tell you my bout MVP ten minutes after the final whistle, I now pore over my stats and details for days with no answer. Eventually, either the business of my life or frustration at not being able to write the recap I want overcomes me. An opportunity is lost, and I question the sanity of trying to write recaps in the first place.

Simply put, I am trying to do too much for one person. I cannot, within the real-time, fast-paced, and often confusing action of a roller derby bout, record both extensive detail and perceptive analysis. It's why sports announcing virtually always has at least two people involved. The play-by-play announcer can focus on the details, while the analyst or color commentator puts the game into perspective and offers opinions. A professional cannot do both well at the same time, so I certainly can't expect it of myself.

So, here is what I ask of you: Please give me feedback on what you want from a recap. Is it more important to have play-by-play with minimal analysis? Would you rather have more about the performances of the skaters and teams without the level of detail about the action? Has the derby world progressed to the point at which efforts like mine are redundant? Should I just show up and enjoy myself and leave the notebook at home? Is there any way I can improve my knowledge substantially, given my current constraints? I'm not asking you to tell me what will make me happy. Refer to my first stated goal. The work I put in is for you. How can I give you something of value without subjecting myself to a paralyzing overload that leads to dead air?

I hope that attending and writing about roller derby will forever be a joy to me. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.