Tuesday, April 28, 2009

JR on SJ

Good quote from David Pollak's excellent Working the Corners blog at the Merc. One of hockey's straightest talkers discusses hockey in the San Jose community...

“This whole town is so hockey oriented. You wouldn’t think it, but it’s one of the best hockey towns that I’ve ever seen,” Roenick said. “It’s frustrating to me as a player to know that fans put all of their heart and their hope into us. And when we fall short, they hurt so bad. It’s almost like they bleed with us. It’s hard not to feel their passion. That’s why it’s so frustrating, knowing that we’re not bringing more for them. When you go to the arena at 4 in the afternoon, there’s already people waiting there. You just don’t see that in other places.”

Just in case anyone out there still buys the completely false no-one-in-California-cares-about-hockey cliche. And it's nice to know that at least one player on the team knows how we feel...

All the King's Horses and All the King's Men

Humpty Dumpty has indeed had a great fall.

The San Jose Sharks, after finishing the 2008-09 season with the NHL's best record, crashed out of the playoffs in the first round at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks won the series four games to two, and it wasn't that close.

The series was dominated by Anaheim. The Sharks were shut out in two of their four losses, and struggled to create good scoring chances throughout. They got off to a slow start, losing the first game 2-0, going 0 for 12 on the power play in their first two games at home, comprehensively failing to match Anaheim's intensity at any time, and generally turning in flat performances, depressingly familiar to San Jose fans (see here and here, for just a sample).

Most frustrating is that every move that the organization has made since the defeat by Dallas last year--the firing of Ron Wilson, the hiring of Todd McLellan, the acquisitions of Dan Boyle and Rob Blake, both of whom have their names on the Stanley Cup from previous campaigns--each and every move has been made with the intention of avoiding precisely this. Yet it happened anyway, and worse than before.

I guess I'm a little angry, but mostly I'm sad. One is obliged to be wary of overreaction, but it is hard to imagine that this team will not be completely dismantled in the offseason. The fanbase can't be asked to endure this again, can we? It breaks my heart to say it, but the guys who have been the core of the team through these last few years--Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Evgeni Nabokov--have demonstrated time and again, too many times now, that they cannot elevate their game to the required level in the playoffs. Right now, honestly, I'd like to see all three of them go. We need a fresh start.

I've defended Thornton in the past, but I can do so no longer. His reputation as a playoff no-show is completely justified. Those of us who observe hockey and cackled about how badly the Sharks robbed the Boston Bruins in the Thornton trade (and it was most of us) have increasing amounts of mud on our faces. If the Bruins traded Thornton because they concluded that his remarkable talents were of little practical value because they cannot be translated to the postseason, they were dead on. And where are the franchises now? The Sharks are staring at Humpty Dumpty's shattered remains at the base of the wall. The Bruins are fresh off a sweep of the rival Montreal Canadiens and cruising into the second round.

As I described it to friends via email, it's like building a beautiful house and realizing that the foundation is fundamentally flawed and collapse is inevitable. You hate to tear the thing down--look at it, it's so beautiful!--but you have no other choice.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

There's More to Sports than the NFL

Anyone who pays the slightest attention to the sporting media in the United States will have noted that in recent weeks, a tremendous amount of attention has been given to a sport that is not even being actively contested right now. That sport is the monster of all sports, American scrimmage Football, and the reason for the attention is the annual National Football League draft.

Personally, I find the energy spent analyzing and debating the NFL draft to be excessive, but I'm not necessarily interested in slamming it or those who follow it. Hey, if you're an interested fan, knock yourself out. Still, one must wonder at the narrowness of field of view exhibited by a sporting culture when it focuses so much attention on a game that has not been played for months and will not be played for months to come.

Must our sporting palate be so limited? Even when we finish discussing the just-underway Major League Baseball season, and the NBA and Stanley Cup playoffs, or the early races of the NASCAR season, is there truly so little else going on in the world of sports that we feel obliged to pass hour after hour arguing about who the Minnesota Vikings will take with their first-round draft pick?

I submit that there is much else going on, if only we would take the time to see it.

* * * * *

On Friday night, I saw one of the best baseball games I have ever personally attended...along with 401 other paying fans.

The game pitted the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers against the visiting Purdue Boilermakers in the Metrodome. Seating was general admission ($8) with all the sections roped off except the ten or so behind home plate. Even so, this tiny sliver of the Dome represents thousands of seats, and with the four hundred of us scattered hither and yon the stadium seemed very empty indeed.

But as the evening progressed, it seemed less and less empty...not because more spectators arrived, but because the game itself turned out to be close, interesting, and exciting.

Both starting pitchers turned in exceptional outings. Few balls were hit hard--most of the scattered base hits were ground balls that skidded through the infielders on the slick Metrodome turf. No runs were scored until the bottom of the fifth, when the Gophers pushed across a run with the old Runners-at-the-corners-Guy-on-first-gets-picked-off-Guy-on-third-steals-home play. It was thrilling ball and it energized the Gopher fans in attendance. The Sabermetricians can say whatever they want about the futility of small ball, but to me a game decided on the basepaths is more exciting than watching home runs any day.

The Boilermakers manufactured the tying run in the top of the seventh, scoring on a sacrifice fly. To the benefit of the overall atmosphere, there were a handful of Purdue fans at the game, some of which exploited the peculiar acoustic properties of a nearly-empty Metrodome to direct individual taunts at the Minnesota players, addressing them by their uniform numbers. Close game? Check. Rival fan blocs? Check. Now all we needed for a true classic was a little controversy and a fantastic finish.

In the top of the eighth, the Boilermakers scored their second run, again on a sacrifice fly. Then, with two runners on, the next Purdue batter drove a double into the gap. The first runner scored easily, but the second runner was thrown out at the plate on a close call. The Gopher fans roared. The Purdue bench and their tiny group of supporters erupted in dissent. The home-plate umpire could be heard warning the Purdue players to remain in the dugout.

Controversy? Check.

The Purdue starter pitched extremely well, but in the end the game was an inning too long. The first two Gophers reached in the bottom of the ninth, and the next batter hit a ball very hard to the left-center gap. I found myself hoping it would make it out for a game-winning dinger, then, when it became clear it would fall short, hoping that it wouldn't bounce over the low fence for a ground-rule double. Happily, the ball stayed in the park, and both runners scored easily.

That marked the end of the night for Purdue's starting pitcher, who received applause even from some of the Gopher fans (myself included) for his excellent performance. The reliever loaded the bases with nobody out, and even though he got the next guy to bounce a grounder right to the drawn-in infield (resulting in a force at home), the next batter hit a rope of a liner to right. Although the ball was caught for the second out, the runner on third tagged and sprinted home, perhaps calculating that his odds of making it were better than those of getting a two-out base hit. The throw from right field was errant, obliging the pitcher to grab it and quickly shovel it to the catcher. Too late--the runner from third slid in under the tag, and the Gophers won, 4-3.

Fantastic finish? Check.

You wouldn't think that a crowd of 400 could cause a building that seats 50,000+ to explode, but I've seen it happen. M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A! Minnesota! Minnesota! He-e-e-e-e-y, Gophers!

* * * * *

Last night, accompanied by my girlfriend, I attended my first professional rodeo. (Six bucks for each of us, so $12 total.) The event was held in conjunction with the 2009 Minnesota Horse Expo, and was contested in the Warner Coliseum, a pleasant if old-fashioned venue on the state fairgrounds that seats a little over 5000 people in an oval around a pitch of soft, brown dirt that is about the size of a hockey rink.

A rodeo is a collection of horse- and/or livestock-centered events, all of which are ultimately derived from the requisite skill set of the Western cowboy. For instance, team roping is a timed event in which a pair of competitors, each mounted on horseback, attempt to capture a running steer by using what I would call a lariat (I'm not positive that's the correct term, but you know what I mean). The first rider must rope the steer's horns, then pull the rope taut and alter the steer's run enough for his partner to rope the steer's back feet. If you're thinking that this must involve timing the throw of the loop precisely so that it surrounds the steer's feet while they are off the ground, and that this must be really hard, you're right on both counts. (When my girlfriend first described this event to me, it sounded so improbably difficult that I concluded I must have misheard, and asked her to repeat herself.) In fact, the first several teams failed to rope the steer (you only get one chance) and received no score at all. But then we witnessed several successes in a row. You couldn't help but feel thrilled for the successful riders. I'm certain it's harder than it looks, and it looks hard.

Barrel riding is a pure speed event that is contested by female riders. The objective is to ride around three barrels in a prescribed order, then charge back to your starting point. A time penalty is incurred for knocking the barrels over. The layout of the coliseum added to the drama; the riders actually commenced their attempts outside the arena, away from the gaze of the spectators, building up a head of steam, then exploded out of the entrance tunnel and into view as if shot from a cannon. If you imagine the course as a baseball diamond, the horse and rider start roughly at home plate, then circle first base, then third base, then second base, then gallop across the pitcher's mound and back to home plate. The top times were just above sixteen seconds.

The most awe-inspiring events, however, are those that involve attempts to ride animals referred to as roughstock--broncos, both saddled and bareback, and, in the finale of the rodeo, bulls.

The procedure for these events is as follows. An enormous, angry animal that is determined not to be ridden is led into a small pen, with a door that opens onto the earthen pitch. A rider then climbs onto the animal's back, at which point the pen door is opened and the animal explodes into the arena, bending all of its energy to throwing the rider. If the rider can hang on for eight seconds, he receives a judged score that is a function of both the quality of his ride and the determination shown by the animal in attempting to unseat him. (It is not to the advantage of the rider to have the animal turn in only a halfhearted performance, as this results in a lower score for him...in fact, if the animal's bucking is disappointing, the judges can grant the rider an option for a re-ride on a different animal).

The danger is immediate and obvious, not just for the riders but for the various rodeo officials who are also on the pitch, such as the guys who open the door to the pen and the mounted pickup men who are charged, amongst other duties, with helping the riders dismount safely. Should the rider be thrown, the probability of landing adjacent to or amongst the hooves of the roughstock is quite high--the riders, quite sensibly, wear protective equipment, such as a stiff torso protector and, in some instances, a helmet with a football-like facemask.

But even with the safety equipment there can be scary moments. In fact, one of the bullriders last night was thrown and landed in the dirt, stone still. Although he eventually left the pitch on his own feet (albeit with assistance) there was a frightening interval of several minutes when he was being attended by several paramedics, and it transpired that he had in fact been knocked clean unconscious.

Bullriding is the marquee event of the rodeo (if you watch a rodeo on Versus, this is the only part you will see). The bulls themselves are majestic animals, and their power is evident even from hundreds of feet away. I can only wonder what they must be like close-up. One was introduced with the announcement that it had only been ridden twice in its career. It promptly threw its rider, then trotted around the arena, lowering its horns threateningly to the pickup riders and rodeo clowns, then trotted off, muscles rippling beneath its skin, satisfied with its conquest.

* * * * *

Neither of these events, it goes without saying, were mentioned during last night's SportsCenter, or even on the local news here in the Twin Cities. Yet they were each dramatic and exciting sporting events that captured what Wide World of Sports called the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and the human (and animal!) drama of athletic competition.

So if you're a sports fan, I encourage you to make the following resolution: I will, this year, attend a sporting event of a type I have never attended before. Check out the non-revenue sports of your local college or university...look up the schedule for the gymnastics meets, or the women's softball team. If you are fortunate enough to live in a community that is visited by a rodeo, or an NHRA drag race, or the World Bandy Championships, make time to check it out. It is helpful if you can find a guide (I was fortunate to be accompanied to the rodeo by my girlfriend, who is knowledgeable about the sport and in fact has competed in barrel riding) but if you can't, don't let that stop you.

Who knows...it might just be better than watching the NFL draft.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Scattered Slippery Spots

Formula 1 racing may be the only major sport in which the quality of the product is actually enhanced by inclement weather. Certainly other sports (notably scrimmage football) can become more interesting, from a standpoint of narrative drama, when conditions are poor. But a wet track--such as that which obtained during today's Grand Prix of China, run in persistent falling rain--not only puts a higher premium on driver skill but also complicates technical decision making. How does starting under a safety car affect the critical calculations of fuel consumption? When is the "dry line" that eventually appears on the track dry enough to attempt to run on something besides the full-wet tires? (The answer today was "never", as Nico Rosberg found out).

Twenty-one-year-old Sebastian Vettel won today's race from pole position, under conditions that were no doubt hell on the drivers but produced an intriguing and thrilling race. It was the first GP win for Vettel's Red Bull team (and his teammate, Mark Webber, finished second) and it was well-deserved. At one point during the race the engineering crew for Jensen Button (who had won the previous two races this season, and finished third today for the Brawn GP team) radioed their driver and assured him that Vettel's quick pace was due solely to his light fuel load. Vettel's performance put the lie to this assertion--through fifty-plus laps of treacherous driving that saw previous world champions like Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso careening right and left, he didn't make a single wrong move. The Red Bull team could not be blamed if they were to pray for rain at each event remaining in the F1 season.

Such conditions are of course deeply unlikely for next week's Bahrain Grand Prix. Need the rest of the field--particularly the Brawn team, unbeatable until this week behind the strength of their controversial aerodynamic design--fear Vettel in the Middle-Eastern dust as well as the Chinese rain? We'll find out next weekend.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Happy Easter. Go Sharks!

In honor of the President's Trophy Winners for 2008-2009...

Never EVER Turn Off the Game

This morning I flipped on Fox Soccer Channel's broadcast of live English Premier League soccer, as I often do on Saturday mornings. I would describe myself as a casual soccer fan--I once had the good fortune of being able to attend some World Cup matches, back when we hosted the tournament in 1994--and anyway a little live, meaningful sports is a pleasant accompaniment to weekend breakfast.

The match was between top-tier side Chelsea and middle-of-the-table Bolton Wanderers. After a couple early chances by Bolton failed to find the mark, Chelsea took control. They had broken through for a goal by halftime, added another early in the second and seemed to insure the result at the hour mark with a third, this time from the penalty spot after a questionable handball call.

At this point, I noted that Lidia's Italy was about to begin on PBS, and with the outcome of the soccer match no longer in doubt I changed the channel. Had I stuck with the match for a few more minutes, I would've seen Chelsea score yet another goal for a 4-0 margin in the 63rd minute.

As anyone who watches soccer knows, rallying from even a one-goal deficit with less than a half-hour to play is difficult, particularly when a middling squad such as Bolton is chasing an elite side such as Chelsea. Rallying from a two-goal deficit under such circumstances is deeply unlikely. Overcoming a three-goal deficit is virtually unheard of. But coming back from 4-0?

When Lidia's show ended, I flipped back to the game, idly curious to see how things had ended up. I was stunned to see that the scoreline sat at Chelsea 4, Bolton 3, in the fifth minute of stoppage time, with Bolton lining up for a corner kick. I watched as the attempt went for naught, the referee blew the final whistle, and Chelsea left the field with three points. The gentleman calling the broadcast described it as one of the most extraordinary matches one could ever hope to see, this season or ever, or words to that effect, and I experienced a sinking feeling knowing that I had willfully forfeited the chance to witness something special.

The lesson? Never, ever leave early. Never, ever turn off the game.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Would You Ever Root Against Your Team?

It's an interesting question that's been posed twice now in the Twin Cities sports market within the last year, once with respect to the Minnesota Vikings and now with respect to the Minnesota Wild, who are (as of this writing) watching that eighth and last playoff spot in the NHL's Western Conference slip slowly away.

The thesis of those who would answer "Yes" is roughly the same in each case. A playoff appearance, it is argued, is doomed to ultimate failure (that is, a championship is impossible) and more importantly will only prolong the mediocrity being exhibited on the sidelines (Vikings) or front office (Wild) of the franchises. In contrast, failure to make the playoffs ought to hasten the departure of individuals and/or management policies that are not getting the job done and never will. So failure now increases the promise of success tomorrow, while the fleeting "success" of an early-round playoff exit will in fact ultimately extend the wandering in the desert for years to come.

Personally, I cannot imagine any circumstances under which I would cheer against my beloved San Jose Sharks--the very notion is indescribably alien. Rooting for them is practically ingrained in my DNA at this point. I have two good friends who are Vikings fans, though, and they were absolutely rooting against the Vikings towards the end of last season. (For the record, the Vikings made the playoffs and immediately lost to the Eagles).

I'm not a huge football fan, so I wouldn't necessarily know, but my friends made a strong argument that a Super Bowl championship was absolutely out of reach for the Vikings last year, playoffs or no playoffs. Accepting that this is the case, the argument might make sense. Even if failure to make the playoffs hadn't guaranteed the firing of Brad Childress (the world will never know), it's not exactly something that glows on the old resume.

I think it's different in the NHL, though. Any team that makes the NHL playoffs can beat any other team, regardless of whether they're the one seed or the eight seed or anywhere in between. No eighth seed has ever won the Stanley Cup, but one came awfully close a few years ago, and first-round one-over-eight upsets are almost routine. The margin between victory and defeat in ice hockey, and in the NHL in particular, is just that narrow.

If I were a Wild fan (and I hasten to emphasize that I am not) I would be pulling with all my might for my team to somehow squeak into that last spot in the West. Particular with a goalie like Niklas Backstrom--nothing can fuel a Cinderella playoff run like a hot goalie. If they can get in, they have a chance.

So, how about you, sports fans of the world? Would you ever root against your team? Check out the poll at right!

Monday, April 6, 2009

I Am the Worst Consumer Ever

I finally broke down, entered the 21st century, and bought myself an MP3 player today.

The MP3 player I selected was an iPod Nano. A pretty blue one.

I'd like to tell you that this choice was made after days--or at least minutes--of careful market research, and that I made my purchase as a rational, well-informed consumer, but in fact I bought it because it looks neat and it's what all the cool kids have.

All of this in spite of the fact that I have a sketchy history with Apple products--I bought an iMac several years ago and it wasn't precisely everything I had hoped it would be--and furthermore the iPod Nano lacks a feature I have long insisted is key for any MP3 player (a dedicated volume knob).

But it's pretty. And blue.

I even bought my Nano at Costco, which is probably the least Apple-like way to acquire an Apple product yet devised by human civilization. (But hey, I saved ten bucks).

So why did I do it? Because I looked at the other MP3 players on the shelf at Best Buy the other day and they all looked BO-RING. Because the Nano is shiny and slick looking and makes me feel like Buck Rogers. Because Apple's propaganda is so awesomely powerful (iPod is to MP3 player as Kleenex is to tissue) that no one as weak-willed as I could resist.

This is why the free market doesn't work as advertised, people!

Okay, I gotta go play with my iPod now...

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Warning: Heresy Ahead

I went to see Zack Snyder's film adaptation of Alan Moore's legendary graphic novel Watchmen last night with my girlfriend. I've read the book; she hasn't. We both really enjoyed the movie, which I have been looking forward to since the first trailers hit the internet. It's rare any more that I anticipate movies with the same fresh-and-eager verve as I did fifteen years ago, and rarer still that those few that I do look forward to deliver, so last night was something of a pleasant surprise.

The film hews quite closely to Moore's original work, with one very prominent exception that I will attempt to sketch here sans spoilers. Basically, the villain of the piece has an Evil Plan that he endeavors to execute. The Evil Plan in Snyder's adaptation is notably different from the Evil Plan in Moore's graphic novel (although its ultimate aim is identical, as it must be).

Here's the promised heresy: I like Snyder's revised ending better than Moore's original ending. The Evil Plan concocted by the villain in the movie is both more feasible (in terms of its ability to actually be executed in the setting) and more dramatically satisfying than Moore's original.

I've enjoyed the vast majority of what I've seen from Snyder as a filmmaker. Speaking with respect to Watchmen and his 2004 remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, he seems to have a talent for making shrewd decisions when it comes to changes from the source material. (In the fast-zombies-versus-slow-zombies holy war, I fall strongly in the fast zombies camp. Fast zombies can chase you down and kill you unless you can barricade yourself in a strong shelter. Slow zombies can be easily avoided by backing carefully away. 'Nuff ced.) At the same time, crucial details are preserved. Dawn of the Dead isn't Dawn of the Dead if the survivors aren't hiding in a shopping mall.

Similarly, Watchmen isn't Watchmen if it doesn't take place in Moore's brilliant alternate-universe '80's. The movie wisely preserves the original setting--it is set in 1985, Nixon is still President, and the U.S. and Soviet Union teeter on the brink of nuclear war. I guess I would hope that this was a no-brainer, but I would be unsurprised to learn that at least one studio executive pushed to have the setting switched to the present day. ("We can fill the soundtrack with contemporary music! Think of the iTunes tie-ins!") The looming shadow of nuclear holocaust fuels the narrative of Watchmen...without it, the story goes nowhere.

I was also very pleased to see that the ending--by which I mean the very ending, the very last frames of the graphic novel--also makes it to the screen almost entirely intact. A lot of people, even fans of the book, seem to regard the very ending as just sort of a clever last twist, but I've always felt that it is an indispensible part of the story, summing up the story's fatalism and contradictions in one act that is simultaneously perfectly logical and completely insane.

More heresy:

I love Alan Moore's comics (I actually feel that The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is his best work, and furthermore that Volume II of that story is superior to Volume I), but in light of this successful adaptation of Watchmen, it is difficult to see Moore's assertion that the comic is "inherently unfilmable" as anything other than self-aggrandizement. I have a mental picture of him, drawn in a comic frame in pen and ink, rising up with a mad look in his eye, with a dialogue bubble above his head declaring "I have created a comic that is inherently unfilmable!", in the way that a comic-book villain might announce the creation of the ultimate doomsday machine. The only works of fiction that are inherently filmable are, I suppose, screenplays. Anything else must be adapted, and Watchmen weathered adaptation just fine. It transpires that it was not any more inherently unfilmable than, say High Fidelity. In fact, I suspect the writers of the latter may have had more work to do to bring that particular story (successfully) to the screen.

Of course, in the end it is his story and he has the right to disapprove of the movie and remove his name from the credits (which simply say "Adapted from the graphic novel") if he chooses to do so. Cool. But if he can't enjoy a film adapation of one of his books, and the expansion of one of his best and most relevant stories from the relatively narrow base of comic-book readers to a broader audience, then his life as an artist must be somewhat gloomy.

And even if he doesn't like how the movie turned out, I have a feeling Rorschach would.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Blogs Last About a Year

This is my second blog.

My first blog, Team Teal in the Twin Towns, was devoted to discussion of the sport of ice hockey, specifically the National Hockey League, and even more specifically my favorite team, the San Jose Sharks.

I noticed recently that I hadn't posted on it since January 2nd, and that my posting prior to that had been sparse for some time.

I hesitate to say that I "lost interest". That particular phrase is common enough to have a particular connotation associated with it, and that connotation is more or less negative. Writing that January 2nd post was no less fun an endeavor than writing any previous post. Maybe it's better to say that Team Teal in the Twin Towns "ran its course"...? Or, maybe even better, we can say that it lived a long and rich life and has now shuffled off to the great internet in the sky. (SkyNet? Hmmm, maybe not...)

I was talking about this with a friend of mine in Milwaukee last weekend and we both agreed that your average blog--unless it is super big-time and/or designed to be profitable--lasts about a year. Furthermore, we agreed that this seems just fine. A year seems like a very proper amount of time to write about a particular topic in any kind of detail. Any more than that--unless you are either getting paid or are astonishingly devoted to the topic at hand--and you can't help but wonder if maybe taking a different angle on this whole blogging thing might be more enjoyable than pushing on with the site that's getting a bit long in the tooth.

So, out with the old, in with the new. Close Personal Friends With the Duke! is going to be a general-topics blog (or at least I think it is). You'll probably find a decent amount of sports talk here, still. You're unlikely to find any discussion of the Can-you-believe-those-clowns-in-Congress-type unless I'm making a Simpsons reference ("Don't. Praise. The machine."), because although I vote and like to believe I'm reasonably well-informed I've grown to despise conversation about politics. Other topics may include music, TV, movies, the abstraction of naval and air combat in Totaler Krieg!, and Jane Austen.

To begin with, though, I'm going to go back to that old favorite subject of mine...San Jose Sharks hockey. This wonderful piece was written by Laura McCoy, a high-school senior writing a regular column for the Monterey County Herald. Laura attended her first hockey game recently. Clearly, she loved it, and she captures the excitement and spirit of the sport in her article. Well worth reading.

'Till next time, then, when I'll discuss...geez, who knows what.